Puglia (or Apulia as it is also known) is often called “the heel of Italy’s boot.” It is the land of conical trulli houses, baroque towns, castles, fortified medieval farms (masserie) and thousand-year-old olive trees. Sadly, these trees are under attack either from the changing climate or from bacteria from South America that leaves them shriveled and diseased. Saving as many of these ancient giants as possible is the passion and commitment of Armando Balestrazzi and his wife, Rosalba, owners of Masseria Il Frantoio, a quaint inn and one of the most unique masserie you will find in the province.
Driving in Puglia takes you through arid, dusty terrain where row upon row of olive trees march endlessly across the landscape, as far as the eye can see. There are over 60 million registered trees here, almost 15 million of which are over 1,000 years old.
They rise into the deep blue sky between the ancient dry stone walls, their thick gnarly trunks twisting and turning clockwise like so many helixes. Some are so ancient that their branches must be supported by pillars of stone, holding up the weight of centuries of growth. Their fruit produces 40 percent of Italy’s production of olive oil, a cornerstone of the Mediterranean diet for over 6,000 years.
Armando proudly relates the story of how 25 years ago, burnt out by bureaucracy and urban life, he and Rosalba moved to the ancient masseria that previously had belonged to the same family for over 500 years. Together, they turned it into an enchanting place where guests are accommodated amidst centuries of history. Guests are wined and dined in the family dining room with olive oil produced from the 4,200 trees on the estate.
Saving the Olive Trees
However, taking care of such a large number of trees is expensive. While escorting guests on tours of the property, Armando noticed that there seemed to be an immediate and inexplicable connection between the visitors and the ancient trees. People would hug, pat and talk to the trees. One visitor asked to “adopt” a damaged old tree that had been partially destroyed in a fire. From there the idea developed to offer visitors a chance to adopt a 1,000-year-old olive tree. In exchange for the “adoption” fee, the visitors receive extra virgin olive oil from the estate, shipped to their home.
Like wine, olive oil comes in a large variety of flavors and qualities. As with wine, you need to know what you are buying. Unfortunately, it is a market where fraud and subterfuge make the expression “Buyer Beware” most apt. You have to read the labels carefully. In the United States much of the olive oil sold is
labeled Packed in Italy”. This means that it can be made from any type of olive from anywhere in the world and merely “packed” in Italy. Such oil does not meet the internationally accepted standards set by the International Olive Council for extra virgin olive oil. These stipulate, in part, that the oil must be produced from a first press of the olives using only a cold, mechanical press without the addition of chemicals or solvents. The olives must be processed and bottled within 24 hours of picking.
The prospect of purchasing extra virgin olive oil from the source while helping maintain one of these giant olive trees appeals to us. Armando encourages us to walk around the property, “pick” our tree and give it a name, which will be put on a plaque next to its registration number. We walk through many acres of trees, including on the highest part of the estate where new olive trees sprout from shoots taken from the “old ones”. Armando calls these “the children of the olives”. Finally, we settle on one that appeals to us most, a gnarled old giant near the masseria. We name it Allegria, meaning “joy” or “high spirits” in Italian.
The next morning, we watch as the olives are harvested at the peak of ripeness. A tractor with a giant arm grasps the tree trunk, shaking vigorously while the olives tumble down into waiting green and orange nets. A picker with a long pole follows behind, knocking off the remaining olives, which are hand-collected from the nets and placed in large wooden crates. When these are full they are whisked off to the masseria’s olive press (part of which dates to the 16th century) and processed.
Within a few hours of watching the harvest, Armando invites us to taste the fresh first press of oil, sopping it up with thick slices of bread. As the oil flows into the bowl, there is a fragrance of freshly cut grass and another aroma that is hard to define; it is the scent of the olive trees themselves
after it has rained. The oil which is pale green, tastes slightly peppery and produces a catch in the back of the throat. This is a sign of a very high quality oil.
Six weeks after our return to the US, our 30 liters (almost 8 gallons) of olive oil arrive via FedEx. Each of the six tins is numbered and certified as authentic DOP Colline di Brindisi, Masseria il Frantoio. Purchasing olive oil like this costs less than half of what we would pay for a comparable product in the US.
Masseria Il Frantoio is just one of the many olive farms that have put their trees up for symbolic “adoption” as a means of raising capital to preserve these ancient giants for future generations. It is a small price to pay to save the olive groves of Puglia, one tree at a time.
If you go:
We drove from Rome to Puglia as part of an Italian road trip. If you want to explore the region outside the cities (which are mostly accessible by rail or by bus), a car is essential.
You can also fly to Brindisi or Bari, and rent a car locally at the airport. Alitalia has several daily flights from major Italian cities to either location. Another option is to fly from the US to Dublin, Ireland, and catch either Easy Jet or Ryan Air direct. Contrary to their prior reputations, these two airports are now considered some of the most efficient in Italy.
Masseria Il Frantoio is near Ostuni in the Salento region of Puglia. For information on accommodation, dining and directions, visit www.masseriailfrantoio.it; Tel. +39 983 1330276.
Information on adopting a millennial olive tree is at www.adottaunulivosecolare.it. If you are interested in adopting an ancient olive tree, contact Masseria Il Frantoio, email email@example.com.
Photographs by Bill Gent.