We’re coming up to our fourth anniversary of living the good life in Puglia, so I’m in a vaguely reflective mood today. You never know if a move to the countryside will suit you until you try it, let alone a move to another country, with a different culture and language. But four year’s on, I’m certain we made the right decision.
Our “cosmopolitan” life in London seems a million miles away. In fact, I really feel like a tourist on my annual visit back to the Big Smoke, and feel ever so slightly overwhelmed by it all.
With the help of our neighbouring contadini we’ve learnt how to look after and harvest our olive trees, tend grapes and make wine, and grapple with the demands and delights of gardening in a Mediterranean climate.
There’s always something new to learn, not least because no two Italians rarely agree on anything, but it’s fun muddling through until we find a way, which suits us. We’ve even felt emboldened enough to ignore some local wisdom and go our own way, especially when it comes to a more organic approach.
Which leads me rather neatly on to what we’ve been doing with our olive trees. Around 40-years ago, your average contadini would have kept some livestock to help feed the family for the year. The beauty of keeping livestock is that, aside from the food they provide they can also help keep grasses short, converting it into lovely rich manure to return to the soil to help grow other crops.
Since the introduction of “cheap” chemicals, however, very few contadini keep livestock: relying instead on pesticides to kill weeds and fertilisers to feed their plants. When it comes to olives the majority of our neighbours continually spray nasty weed-killing pesticides under their olive trees. To harvest their olives they wait for them to fall off the trees and spend most of the winter sweeping them up to sell to the various mills in town.
To do this, the area under their trees is kept hard and bare. The constant spraying of chemicals has ensured that hardly anything grows under them and made them really compacted. The contadini see this as ideal as it allows them to sweep olives as they fall. To begin with we thought it necessary to try and attain a similar hard, bare surface. As we garden organically this meant strimming under the trees loads and rolling them with some repurposed gas bottles. Filled with sand or water and attached to the rotivator, they’d bring a tear of joy to the eye of any good cricket groundsman.
We’ve always collected olives for oil by hand straight onto nets and off to the mill within 48-hours to ensure optimum oil, but it made sense to simply sweep the rest up and sell them in sacks. I shudder to think what the oil would be like; I certainly wouldn’t use it, but I suspect in ends up bottled in supermarkets around the globe.
Without chemicals, the earth under our trees never got as compacted as our neighbours however, and sweeping was always a nightmare. So, last year we only collected olives with nets. Between us we made two cold-pressings, which resulted in around 80 litres of wonderfully green oil. We didn’t bother sweeping and selling excess olives as prices peaked at €20 per quintale (100 kilos). It was taking one of our younger, fitter neighbours all day to sweep up 2 quintales and €40 is not a lot to show for a hard day’s graft. We would have managed to sweep a fraction of that amount and many of our older neighbours are deciding they will only collect olives to make oil for themselves in the future.
Without the need to sweep under trees it’s actually easier to collect olives on nets, which sit on grass (it gives them something to sit on and ladders are less likely to tear the nets as the grass protects them from soft soil underneath).
Jeremy has just strimmed under all the olive trees and scattered organic fertiliser underneath them just in time for some much needed rain. Now the trees have been fed, wild grasses will grow back with a vengeance, and whilst we will ensure the olive grove is not a fire hazard over the summer we are not going to follow the contadini obsession with ensuring all life is removed from beneath the trees.