Olive Oil Production Revived in The Former Papal States

In Latina and Frisone, just south of Rome, producers are working to increase yields and quality while promoting oleotourism and their historic connection to the Vatican.

Domenico Sperlonga, Carlo Gallozzi and Pope Francis. Image courtesy of Vatican Media
Jun. 27, 2022
By Paolo DeAndreis
Domenico Sperlonga, Carlo Gallozzi and Pope Francis. Image courtesy of Vatican Media

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Olive oil pro­duc­ers, farm­houses and touris­tic enti­ties in the provinces of Latina and Frosinone, just south of Rome, are team­ing up to pro­mote the region’s olive oil cul­ture and his­tory, which are closely tied to the for­mer Papal States.

At a pub­lic event in Saint Peter’s Square in Rome, Pope Francis was pre­sented Olio dei Papi (Popes’ olive oil, in Italian), an extra vir­gin olive oil that comes from trees grown on land super­vised and financed by the Vatican.

Producers here have been mak­ing world-class extra vir­gin olive oil for gen­er­a­tions, but they never found a good way to con­nect their prod­uct to their story and to nar­rate their tra­di­tions.- Domenico Sperlonga, co-direc­tor, Olio dei Papi

Several par­tic­i­pants in the meet­ing told Olive Oil Times that Pope Francis thanked his guests for the gift and the his­tor­i­cal work behind the Olio dei Papi ini­tia­tive.

It is allow­ing us to re-dis­cover the his­tory of the Church,” he said. The Vatican has for­mally rec­og­nized Olio dei Papi as the offi­cial sup­plier to the Vatican State.

See Also:Olive Oil Production Continues at Historic Home of Emperor Hadrian

Ongoing research sent to the Vatican and seen by Olive Oil Times con­firmed the impor­tant role that olive oil played in Roman cul­ture. Romans used olive oil as food, lubri­cant, fuel for lamps and cos­met­ics.

However, the trees and fruits were neglected after the col­lapse of the Roman Empire and dur­ing the Middle Ages. During this period, groves were only grown near abbeys, monas­ter­ies, and other eccle­si­as­ti­cal lands.

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This changed dur­ing the 18th Century due to a series of reforms that cre­ated incen­tives for olive farm­ers in cen­tral Italy, which the church gov­erned. The goal was to sub­stan­tially increase local olive oil pro­duc­tion, as Rome was often forced to import it from abroad.

In the year 1778, Pope Pio VI intro­duced a sub­stan­tial agri­cul­tural reform which focused on the devel­op­ment of olive grow­ing,” Martina Bocconi, a city coun­cil­woman in Boville Ernica and co-author of the draft study, told Olive Oil Times.

A high vol­ume of notes from the Apostolic Chamber of that region shows how the cham­ber strictly mon­i­tored the olive tree expan­sion, pro­vid­ing a Paolo [the cur­rency of the time] as a reward to all olive farm­ers who planted new trees,” she added. It also pro­vided even more funds if the new olive groves were planted through land recla­ma­tion of unpro­duc­tive areas.”

As a result of the orga­ni­za­tion and Papal State fund­ing, hun­dreds of thou­sands of trees were planted over time in the region his­tor­i­cally known as Latium.

According to the draft paper, at least 27,000 hectares of Latium were devoted to olive grow­ing in 1813, yield­ing close to three mil­lion kilo­grams of olives. More than 100 olive oil mills were active in the region.

It is believed that 200,000 new olive trees were planted in the State of the Church by 1830. By 1877, the olive farm­ing sur­face in the Latium region had been expanded to 41,600 hectares.

Given the strong rela­tion­ship between the his­tory of the Papal States and the devel­op­ment of olive grow­ing in the area, the Boville Ernica munic­i­pal­ity launched the Olio dei Papi devel­op­ment project which will expand to other cities.

Our idea is to cre­ate a cam­mino (“path,” in Italian) that starts with the his­tory of olive farm­ing in the Papal States and stretches to mod­ern olive oil mak­ing,” Bocconi said. It is an idea that is attract­ing many, so we are actively work­ing for an agree­ment among all munic­i­pal­i­ties involved in this cam­mino.”

It con­nects extra vir­gin olive oil pro­duc­tion and farm­ing devel­op­ment with touris­tic oppor­tu­ni­ties,” she added. The Latium regional author­i­ties have taken notice and we hope the whole thing will reach a grow­ing num­ber of olive oil pro­duc­ers and other stake­hold­ers over time.”

The cam­mino will include impor­tant his­tor­i­cal loca­tions, such as the abbeys of Fossanova, Trisulti, Montecassino and Casamari, and will involve food pro­duc­ers, farm­houses, restau­rants and arti­sans.

The first Olio dei Papi-branded extra vir­gin olive oil is now being pro­duced and mar­keted by the joint ven­ture among a local coop­er­a­tive with more than 5,000 small olive oil pro­duc­ers and a local mill.

Olio dei Papi pro­duc­tion pro­to­col defines the ter­ri­tory con­sid­ered part of the ini­tia­tive and the olive vari­eties that con­tribute to its pro­duc­tion.

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Domenico Sperlonga, Carlo Gallozzi and Pope Francis (Image courtesy of Vatican Media)

While some of the involved vari­eties are widely dis­trib­uted in Italy such as Frantoio, Moraiolo, Leccino and Itrana, oth­ers are con­sid­ered native, such as Carboncella, cel­e­brated for its high con­tent of polyphe­nols. The native vari­eties con­sti­tute at least 30 per­cent of the Olio dei Papi.

Our ini­tia­tive is based on three main pil­lars,” Domenico Sperlonga, a miller and co-direc­tor of the Olio dei Papi project, told Olive Oil Times. The first one is the prod­uct chain agree­ment with the coop­er­a­tive, which ensures the ori­gin of the olives and the approach to har­vest the olives that we have to trans­form.”

The sec­ond is a very strict high-qual­ity-ori­ented pro­duc­tion pro­to­col, and the third is the eth­i­cal pil­lar,” he added. Within the prod­uct chain, the pro­duc­ers have estab­lished a min­i­mum price reserved for their olives. The goal is to reward more those who aim at sus­tain­abil­ity and bet­ter qual­ity, which already hap­pened under the State of the Church rule.”

According to its pro­mot­ers, the Olio dei Papi ini­tia­tive is des­tined to ben­e­fit the region and restart olive pro­duc­tion, even in those areas where such activ­ity has slowed over time.

That is also why in the project we have added the goal of recov­er­ing aban­doned olive groves,” Sperlonga said. We hope Olio dei Papi will boost olive oil pro­duc­tion in our area and the whole Latium region.”

In the pro­jec­t’s first phase, the regions being con­sid­ered are in south­ern Lazio and north­ern Campania.

However, the Papal States stretched well beyond these areas, and Sperlonga hopes the project will ben­e­fit more pro­duc­ers in other regions. That is also why we are orga­niz­ing sem­i­nars and work­shops, to let peo­ple know more about this project and its impli­ca­tions,” he said.

One of the key por­tions of the project is the devel­op­ment of a blockchain process to guar­an­tee the ori­gin of the prod­uct on the national and inter­na­tional mar­ket.

We are work­ing on that. In the mean­time, we already have a form of total trace­abil­ity,” Sperlonga said. Customers can use the num­ber found on our labels to check directly from our web­site where their bot­tle comes from.”

The sys­tem is so pre­cise that they can not only know the com­plete data about the pro­duc­ers of that spe­cific olives but, thanks to Google Earth, they can even spot the exact grove,” he added.

According to Sperlonga the his­tor­i­cal research and the increase in activ­i­ties that come from the ini­tia­tive might finally bring due recog­ni­tion to the qual­ity of local extra vir­gin olive oil.

Producers here have been mak­ing world-class extra vir­gin olive oil for gen­er­a­tions, but they never found a good way to con­nect their prod­uct to their story and to nar­rate their tra­di­tions,” he con­cluded. Thanks to such unique his­toric back­ground, all of this is des­tined to change.”



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