Contadina's Blog

Living the contadini life among the olive groves

Just bring me some Figgy pudding November 25, 2011

Filed under: olives,Recipes — contadina @ 12:20 pm

Unbelievably, we managed to get the olive harvest out of the way before the rains, which have caused so much trouble in the north of Italy eventually made their way to the heel. We picked over six quintales (620 kilos to be precise) in just four days, which made 105 litres of lovely oil. That’s a 17% oil return, which we’re really happy about, as the word in the town is that most people are only getting a 13% return this year. There are still plenty of olives left on the trees, so we may do one more pressing when the rains disappear.

Guarding the nets

Monsoon-like rain seems a good enough excuse to get in the kitchen as any, so I’ve been preparing a few Christmas goodies. Christmas for us is a mixture of English and Italian, and as we have abundant supplies of both figs and almonds, I always make a figgy pudding. The recipe I use doesn’t need any suet, so it makes for a much lighter pudding, which I prefer. I’ve never been a fan of suet puddings (veggie or not) as I find them too cloying. Using butter makes for a lighter dish and no greasy film left in your mouth. If you don’t have any figs, you could use whatever combination of dried fruit you fancy.


Figgy pudding

8 oz butter
6oz brown sugar
2-3 eggs
4oz plain flour
generous pinch of salt
half-teaspoon nutmeg
half-teaspoon ground ginger
1 and half teaspoon mixed spice
2oz ground almonds
3oz finely grated carrot (or small apple chunks work well)
16 oz dried fruit I used about 8oz figs and a mix of currants sultanas, mixed peel and cherries for the rest
2oz chopped almonds
4oz breadcrumbs
grated rind and juice of one lemon
1tbsp treacle
4 tbsp of water mixed with either rum or brandy
butter for greasing bowl

Grease a two-pint pudding basin. Cream together butter and sugar, then whisk in beaten egg a little at a time. Sift flour, salt and spices on top of the butter mix. Add the remaining ingredients with enough boozy liquid to make a soft mixture, which will fall heavily from a spoon. Mix well. Spoon the mixture into the basin and cover with pleated greaseproof paper and then foil. Tie securely and place in large saucepan. Pour water until half way up sides of the basin. Bring to the boil and cover the pan and simmer gently for 4 hours (or two and half if you are using a pressure cooker). Check water level and top up with boiling water when necessary. Remove the pudding from the pan and store in a cool, dry place. Come Christmas, steam for three hours, or less, if using a pressure cooker, before flaming with brandy.

Luckily I had a generous spoonful leftover, so I made a mini pudding, which we greedily sampled.

I also experimented with some savoury biscuits to have with cheese over Christmas. They are a bit too rich for that but I reckon they’d be perfect for passing around with drinks.

Pesto biscuits

Pesto biscuits


shortcrust pastry
2 or 3 tbsp pesto (I made regular basil pesto with added sun-dried tomatoes, but I reckon mint pesto would work just as well)
good handful of Parmesan or Pecorino cheese
some extra basil leaves
1 egg

While the pastry is resting in the fridge make your pesto. Roll your pastry into a rectangle as thin as you can. Spread pesto all over, but leave about 1cm from the edge. Add some torn basil leaves and most of the cheese. Season and fold in half. Roll as thin as you can (some pesto will escape 🙄 ) and then cut into shapes. Brush milk on top and then scatter the rest of the cheese on top and leave for around 10-mins before popping in a fairly hot oven for around 5-10-mins until they begin to brown and the cheese is bubbling.

Cool on a rack before scoffing with a festive tipple or two. Although these are only made with shortcrust pastry I reckon the oil in the pesto makes them a bit more melt-in-the-mouth.

While on the subject of drinks: no Christmas would be right without a good supply of limoncello, so I’ve got my freshly picked lemons peeled and the rind is currently steeping in a couple of bottles of alcool. They will remain infusing for a week before I strain the lemon peel and mix the lemony-boozy remains with some sugared water. For quantities I find a third of each is about right, providing the perfect kick and sweetness balance.

If you need inspiration to make your own booze and cordials for Christmas I’d thoroughly recommend Booze for Free by Andy Hamilton of self-sufficientish fame. If you pick up a copy now, you can still get some drinks ready before Christmas, alternatively it would make a great Christmas gift for anyone interested in home brewing.

Saluti !!


A cure for bitterness October 28, 2011

Filed under: olives,Recipes — contadina @ 1:57 pm

Last year I tried three different olive curing methods – lye, brine and brine and bruise, and ever keen to experiment, I’m trying four different methods this year to discover the table olive taste that I like best.

First, a few notes on last year’s olives. I’ve decided, after trying it quite a few years in a row, that I’m not a big fan of lye-curing. This seems to be the most popular method in Puglia as it’s both quick and effective. It works so effectively though that I can’t really taste the olives, although it does smell wonderfully Christmassy.

To be honest, I didn’t really see a great difference in the two brine-curing methods. They both tasted good and kept us in olives for the year, but they were, perhaps a little too salty for my taste (even after several water changes). It’s quite a balancing act between getting rid of the bitter oleuripenals, to reveal the taste of the fruit and not making them taste too salty.

Now, onto this year’s quest to find the perfect table olive, choosing several methods from the multitude, which have developed in olive-growing nations around the world.

Starting clockwise from the small jar...dry cure, water method 3, 1 and 2

Dry cure method
This is one of the more basic curing methods and just involves covering the olives in rock salt. Traditionally this would have been done in a hessian sack, basket or wooden box in which you cover the olives in salt and wait for the bitter juices to leak out. By shaking daily and adding a little more salt every few days the olives should be cured in around three or four weeks.

I’ve tried the same method in a glass jar. Alternate layers of olives with course rock salt and shake every day for three weeks, adding more salt to absorb juices. Once cured sufficiently, rinse, add warm water and 4 tablespoons of red wine vinegar to cover and top with a layer of olive oil. They will be ready to eat after 4-5 days. You can also store these in olive oil after you have rinsed the salt off after leaving them to drain until they are dry, so maybe I’ll try both methods when they are ready.

Water method 1
Cleaned olives are placed in a non-reactive bowl (terracotta, ceramic or glass) and covered in water. The water is changed daily for 10 days before the olives are jarred and covered in a brine solution (1 part salt to 10 parts water) until they are cured of their bitterness. As I glaze over at the mere mention of numbers, I used the floating egg method again (place your olives in jars and cover with sufficient water to allow you to pop something over them to ensure they remain submerged, strain the olives but keep adding salt to the water until an egg will float in it). I’ll change the brine solution when I remember (hopefully once a month) until they are ready.

Water method 2
Make a vertical cut or two down each olive using a sharp knife or prick them with a cocktail stick and place them in a brine solution (see above). Cover the bowl, ensuring that the olives are submerged.

Shake the bowl daily, changing the brine solution once a week. Start tasting olives for bitterness after week three but continue until necessary.

Once they taste good, remove the olives from the old brine. Make a new batch of brine, and fill jars with it. Put the olives in the jars, and top off the jars with four tablespoons red wine vinegar, and a tablespoon or so of olive oil. They should keep for a very long time if properly stored.

As a bonus, I’m hoping to use some of this solution to make dirty martinis with over the festive season. ☺

Water method 3
I’m using Fasole (or Pasole as they are known locally) olives for this method as they are little sweeter than other varieties so should cure slightly quicker (one month, rather than three) For every kilo of black olives use around 30g of salt. Place the olives in a container with the salt, and cover them with water and some sprigs of wild fennel and blueberry. Cover the pan (ensuring the olives are submerged) for one-three months changing the water every fortnight.

Olive Fritte

They may not look much, but trust me they taste divine

No-cure olives
Luckily for impatient olive-loving souls, such as myself, Puglia is famous for two even sweeter varieties of olives, which can be eaten without curing. Both Nolche, which are ready in September and Amelie, which are ready in October are sautéed, either on their own with salt or with any combination of garlic, chilli and chopped tomatoes. The salt helps rid the olives of any bitterness, but I prefer to fry them with garlic and tomatoes as well.

Just heat some olive oil in pan, add olives, salt and whatever else you wish and fry until the olives soften. These really are a taste sensation so if you ever get a chance to try some then I heartily recommend that you do. Each bite involves a burst of bitter/sweetness, which is quite heavenly. A friend told me you can even buy these olives in trendy London markets nowadays, so keep you eyes peeled for fresh sweet olives for sale.

So there you have my tale of bringing olives to the table. I’ll keep you posted on successes and failures.  In the meantime, we’ll be starting our olive harvest to make oil shortly as the olive mills open for the first time next week, so think nice weather thoughts everyone.

* An important note for all methods, which require that olives be submerged in liquid, place a weight on top of the olives to ensure that all the olives are submerged. I use plates when they are in a bowl and cut the bottoms off ricotta moulds to keep the under water when in jars.


Ali Ali Ali – it’s been raining olives again November 27, 2010

Filed under: Garden,Italian life,olives — contadina @ 9:14 am

With November not yet finished, you’ve no idea how chuffed we are to have two olive pressings under our belts. The weather has been kind to us, plus we’ve had help from a couple of friends. So a really big thanks to Silv and Steve – it wouldn’t have been the same without you.

Our first olives going to the mill for pressing

While my achy bones recover and I attempt to get some neglected housework out of the way, I thought I’d share our olive harvesting experience with you before we get back to it for, hopefully, another couple of pressings.

First off, here’s some information and observations about olive harvesting and pressing.
In Italy and the rest of Europe, the quality of olive oil is measured by the acidity.  The lower the acidity, the better the quality of the oil. Levels of less than 0.8% denote Extra Vergine oil, with oil between 0.8% and 2% being Vergine. We only sell oil of less than 0.5% acidity, typically 0.3%. Acidification is caused by olives coming in to contact with the soil, delays between harvesting and pressing and bruising; so we pick our olives carefully by hand and take them for pressing within two days of starting harvesting.

The mill, or frantoio, that we use is a cold press between our local town of Ceglie Messapica and Martina Franca. Here, the olives are crushed into a paste by three huge granite millstones, before being spread onto special fibre disks in layers to form a spindle. The spindles are gradually compressed over a three-hour period to release the juice. The oil is separated from the juice by means of a centrifuge.

Ooh I could crush an olive

The olives being cold-pressed by granite stones

We use cold presses to ensure that heat and chemicals do not alter the taste of the olives. This traditional pressing method helps reduce the release of oil oxidation enzymes, as hot water and steam are not used. Furthermore, it minimises the washing away of beneficial polyphenols. The higher temperatures and additional water used in modern decanter centrifugation results in reduced antioxidants, polyphenols and vitamins, and lower quality oils.

Spot the olive oil oozing from the stack

Compressed stacks of olive pulp

We have 170 old olive trees, with some dating back over 1,000 years. Our oil is pressed from a mix of Nardò, Ogliarola, Fasola, Cerasola. Menella and Leccino olives.

Olive fact lesson out of way, let’s get back to harvesting. We picked up Silv and Steve on Sunday from Ostuni train station. Only over dinner, with wine in hand did we let on quite how much hard work is involved in harvesting olives. They both said they were up to the task and promised to be up by 7am the next day to begin harvesting.

Net's down and time to start tickling

With everyone raring to go at 7am the next day, our first job was to cut up a new roll of nets, which were then placed under a few trees. We then seemed to fit into different roles as we began tickling the olives off with little rakes or rastrallini. Silv took the lower ones, I took the next ones up, whilst Steve took care of the inside of the trees and Jeremy took care of the really high ones.

The boys climbing trees

As most contadini generally leave olives on trees to fall and then sweep up, the height of trees is not a problem and the older trees are generally at least six metres high. As we’ve taken a decision to only harvest by hand onto nets height is more of an issue, even when we use telescopic poles and ladders. To get around this we’ve been pruning our trees into what is known as the Baresse shape, which encourages the branches to hang down rather than up and the few trees, which have been pruned this way were infinitely easier to harvest.

The constant looking up and the inability to reach big clumps of olives hanging just out of reach is frustrating though and Steve believes it’s about time someone invented a hover board as they’d be perfect for olive harvesting.

Steve takes care of the middle hanging olives

Look no hands

Jeremy takes care of the high olives

As each tree was harvested we collected the nets and poured the olives into buckets which were then poured into a machine, known locally as ticka tacka, as this is the sound it makes as you slide it back and fourth and the olives tumble though it’s grates and into a sack. The machine helps get rid of excess leaves and twigs, so that crates are then filled with relatively debris-free olives.

After two days we managed to harvest 303 kilos. We’re getting better at judging the amount we harvest, as we’ve been woefully short in the past and the ideal weight for a cold pressing is 300 kilos. You can press less, but you pay the same, so it makes sense to try and get at least 250 kilos for each pressing.

We took the olives to the frantoio, only to discover there was trouble at t’mill. Two of their presses were not working, which had caused a huge backlog during the day. With promises that they’d press our olives during the night we were sent home with a bottle of the owner’s freshly pressed oil, so we could enjoy some bruschetta that evening, as is the tradition round these parts.

The next day we were very pleasantly surprised to find out that our olives made 45 litres of oil, at 0.2% acidity. With our trusty helpers we managed to press a further 250 kilos of olives a couple of days later, which gave us a further 45 litres of oil, also at 0.2%.

Here it comes...cold pressed olive oil

The end result - green gold

We’d been warned by neighbours that olives being pressed at the moment were only producing around 10% of oil, so we were pretty chuffed to receive around 18% back, which is pretty good for this time of the year – 90 litres of oil in a week is also pretty good going.

Choosing the best time to harvest olives can make all the difference as far as yield, organoleptic characteristics, shelf life, and colour. Many contadini harvest their olives around Christmas time as the olives are more mature then and the olives contain more oil.

The best time to harvest them is when the olives turn from red to purple to produce robust fruity oil, retaining maximum goodness and a long shelf life. See the Olive source for a more detailed explanation.

We harvest our olives around this time but there will still be around 10% green olives and some black ones in the mix as olives mature at different rates. Oil produced now is a vibrant green colour, which will mellow over time. It will keep for a couple of years as opposed to just the one-year for oil made with matured olives and retains a good balance of anti-oxidants and flavour.


It’s not just about oil – contadini olive curing methods November 1, 2010

Filed under: Garden,olives,Recipes — contadina @ 10:04 am

Picking olives for the table is an altogether more leisurely affair than the olive harvest proper, which we will begin next week, weather permitting. Because olives contain a bitter component called oleuripen they must be processed before eating, so now I’m going to share the four curing methods favoured by local contadini.


Look good enough to eat, but patience is required

A riot of colours to show different stages of olive maturity

1. The lye method
Recipe one is generally used with large green olives. I think the ones preferred locally are called Bella di Cerignola, although, confusingly they are referred to as Corno in dialect, which is a different variety of olive altogether.

First, handpick the olives and wash and weigh the unblemished ones. For every kilo of olives use one litre of water and for every litre of water add 20g of caustic soda. You can also make your own lye from wood ash.

Add the caustic soda slowly and carefully to the water and stir until dissolved. Wear gloves and avoid contact with skin, eyes, and clothing. You should also leave the water to cool as it will get really hot after you add the caustic soda.

Carefully place your olives in the solution and make sure they are all completely submerged, by placing a wooden, ceramic, glass or plastic cover over them (a suitably sized plate should do the trick). Keep the olives submerged until they are tender (which could take anything from four to ten hours). Keep sampling until the olive flesh falls apart in your fingers. As caustic soda is a poison be sure to place the bowl away from children or animals that may want to “play” with the water.

The solution will have turned dark brown – a good sign the lye has removed the olive’s bitterness. Transfer the olives into a bowl of fresh water and change the water daily until it stops discolouring and turns clear.

Prepare enough brine solution to cover the olives (around 25g salt for every kilo of olives, or keep adding salt until you can float a fresh unbroken raw egg in the solution). Boil the brine with a couple of handfuls of myrtle and wild fennel and around 30 bay leaves.

Place the olives in sterilised jars and pour in the brine solution, top up with water to cover the olives completely and seal. Leave for a few weeks before eating so the olives can take on some of the brine solution flavour, which thanks to the herbs tastes rather Christmasy. Only keeps for a few months.

2. The brine method
This can be used for green or black olives, although they’ll cure at different rates owing to the difference in the maturity of the olives.

This is my favourite method as it allows you to decide how salty the olives are and seems relatively foolproof. They were so nice last year we ran out before the year was out – a crime when you have over 150 olive trees. I’ve just prepared some fasole (or pasole as they seem to be called in dialect) olives and I’ll probably use the same method on some leccino olives in a month’s time when they are a little more mature.

As before, pick unblemished olives and wash them. Whilst draining the olives, make up a saline solution (I think it’s 10% salt) don’t quote me on the percentage, but it’s ready when a fresh egg floats in the water. I keep adding a little salt to water, giving it a stir and then pop my egg in to see if it floats.

Pop your cleaned olives into the biggest sterilised jar/container you have and cover with the saline solution. You’ll then need to find a way of keeping the olives submerged in the liquid (if air gets to them they can spoil). For the last batch I filled some freezer bags with water and placed these on the top before screwing the lid on. Yesterday I followed a Blue Peter route and cut some flexible plastic to cover the olives, ensuring they were all fully submerged. I’ve also heard that you can pour a cm of oil on top the jar before sealing, as this will keep air from the olives.

The olives will remain under saline for a month or so, when you should taste them. They’ll probably still be fairly disgusting so strain the olives and put them under some fresh saline solution. Keep repeating this until the olives are to your liking.

When they are ready, strain and cover with water and store in the fridge. If they still taste salty change the water again and leave in the fridge for 24 hours before eating (the plain water leaches some of the salt out of the olives). Do this with every jar when you are ready to eat them. Will keep for 12 months.

3. The brine and bruise method
Bruise, prick or make slits in the skin of each olive. A three-pronged sweetcorn fork worked well for me. This bruising, pricking or cutting allows the water and salt to penetrate the fruit and draw out the bitterness whilst also preserving it.

This is my first attempt using this method, but it should accelerate the curing process so they are ready to eat within a couple of weeks, although they’ll store for a lot longer.

Dissolve half a cup of coarse salt for every ten cups of water, or for people like me who have a phobia of measurements use the egg float method. Add the olives and ensure they are submerged ( a clean plate should do it). Pour the liquid away each day and replace with fresh salt water. Repeat this washing process for about 12 days for green olives and about 10 days for black olives (black olives are just mature green olives so take less time to cure).

Bite an olive to see if they are cured, when the bitterness has nearly gone, the olives are ready for the final salting.

Dissolve one cup of salt to 10 cups of water. Place the olives in bottles and then pour the brine over them until the fruit is completely submerged. Top up the bottles with up to one centimetre of olive oil to stop air getting to the fruit and seal the lids on. Should keep for 12 months.

When you are ready to eat your olives, pour out the strong preserving solution and fill the jar with clean, cool water. Leave in the refrigerator for 24 hours and taste them. If they are still too salty for your liking, then refill the bottle with a fresh lot of water and return to the refrigerator for a further 24 hours.  At this stage you can also add flavourings, such as garlic, basil, oregano, onion, chilli, lemon juice and lemon pieces.

A selection of olives curing, including green ones we prepared earlier, which our now ready to eat

4. The frying method
Last, but not least, is a more immediate method favoured in Puglia with certain sweet varieties of olive, which only need 10 minutes in a frying pan before they are ready.

The mature black olives (possibly Ogliara Bari and Pizuttella) are fried in a little oil and salt, either with or without the following (tomato, onion and chillies) and are ready when the skin starts to pucker. If they are mature enough they should have a wonderful sweet olive flavour, if not, they’ll still taste a little bitter and you’ll need to add more tomato.

Olives prepared in this way will not keep, but they are a real treat around harvest time.

Next blog will be about a day in our slow life as I’ve been invited to take part in a blog meme on the topic by Pat at Having never been flashmobbed or twittered before, I must say I’m rather excited to be involved in a mass blog movement, albeit from the comfort of my own chair.


The greening of the grove April 13, 2010

Filed under: environment,Garden,olives — contadina @ 5:11 pm

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.

clean but lifeless

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.

Jeremy tickles olives onto nets

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.