Essays about life in Italy, traveling in Italy, and more
A Winter's Harvest at El Marsam
It is the winter solstice and a beautifully clear day; a crispness is in the air even as the melting snow becomes a memory. Paolo comes to the house after lunch and together we take our olives to Anghiari in the Tuscan hills to an old-fashioned mill for pressing into extra virgin olive oil. Located in the upper Tiber valley, the old mill has been run by the Bartolomei family of Compalla since the second half of the eighteenth century but the mill has been in existence since 1421. The very stones of the building seem saturated with the aromatic fragrance of olive oil and indeed we need to step carefully as we cross the stone floors covered with a permanent sheen of pure olive oil.
Paolo and Mike deliver their hand-picked olives to a designated room on the top floor of the mill where their sacks are weighed. Together we have 235 kilos of olives and 61 kilos are ours. While we wait, I talk to Enza, the proprietor's wife, a lovely, cultured lady. She is quite a character to behold as she scurries around in her high heels and elegant dress that is belted around a waist smaller than Scarlett O'Hara's, seeing to the needs of her guests. Indeed, she treats us as welcome visitors as we await our oil. We are seated in a small room, keeping warm by an ancient stone camino where a fire blazes fiercely. When she is not serving up crusty bread on which she has poured samplings of their own oil, she grabs a mop and passes it over the floor lest anyone should slip on the oily surface. Every once in a while she has a moment to spare and sits with us to chat, showing a genuine interest in our new life here in Umbria.
When it is our turn, our olives are dropped down a chute to the mill where two granite millstones grind the olives to a pulp. This purplish brown mush is spread on mats which are stacked and placed into a press which separates the liquid part of the pulp, consisting of water and oil, from the solid parts, consisting of olive husks, olive pit fragments and peels. What liquid remains after this stage of the process is then put through a centrifuge where the water is separated from the oil. Two hours from the time our olives tumbled down the chute into the mill, we have our oil, a thick green-gold liquid. We watch with fascination and deep satisfaction as it pours in a steady stream into our waiting jugs. The oil is as thick and opaque in color as split pea soup but will clarify over time as it sits.
Outside, night has fallen but the black is pierced by the brilliance of a full moon that shines tonight like it has not shone in 133 years. A phenomenon of science, its brilliance is fourteen times greater than normal and will not repeat this luminous performance for another one hundred years. The outline of the walled hill town with its church spires is illuminated by its magical glow, as are the isolated farm houses, the fields, the olive groves and the vineyards, wrapping up the memory of this day in the most enchanting way.
At home, in front of our old fireplace, we drizzle our new oil on our bread to celebrate our first olive harvest! We are as content and proud as any contadini could be!
There is a famous Tuscan white bean soup that is made during the olive harvest and it depends on the first pressing of oil. Served at room temperature layered over grilled garlic bread, it satisfies the soul. Below is our version of this soup. It has become a favorite with our guests here at El Marsam.
Zuppa Frantoiana (White Bean Soup)
14 ounces (400 grams) dried white cannalotti beans
The night before, soak the beans in cold water to cover. The next day drain the beans and cook them in a large deep pot with 10 to 12 cups salted water to which you have added thyme, sage and bay leaf.
While beans are cooking, warm the olive oil in a deep heavy frying pan, and saute the chopped onion, carrot, and celery in the oil until they are soft and translucent, about 15 minutes.
Add this mixture to the simmering beans and cook until the beans are tender, at least one hour.
Remove bay leaf. Drain but reserve the cooking water.
When beans have cooled, blend them in blender with reserved cooking water, adding a little at a time until the consistency is creamy. Return to pot and reheat. Garnish with cracked pepper and serve with crusty Italian bread that has been grilled or toasted, then rubbed with fresh garlic and drizzled with olive oil.
About the Author
© Ginda Simpson, 2005
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