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Sabina Gold - Annual Olive Harvest near Rome

Gail Spilsbury

The medieval hilltowns of the Sabina, outside Rome, offer some of Italy's most beautiful landscapes in addition to truly delicious olive oil produced by artisanal farmers. Travelers can experience the stunning countryside, unique art treasures, homecooked food, and olive oil production during a larger visit to Rome.

La Sabina: Getting There

In late October the Sabina's olive harvest north of Rome begins, and for the second year in a row I have come to participate. It's a season full of local festivals and unique harvest scenery that many travelers would enjoy, particularly given the Sabina Hills easy access to Rome.

Most visitors to Rome are not aware that the scenic Sabina olive hills lie just north of the city's provincial line with Rieti. The winding Tiber River passes through this wonderful wedge of rugged, stunning olive landscape with medieval towns capping countless hills. This undulating patchwork appears embroidered with olive trees and vineyards in every shade of green. Affectionately referred to as "the Tuscany of Lazio," the Sabina has been known to Romans for more than 2,500 years, not only for supplying the city with its rare and delicious olive oil, but also for supplying Romans with Sabine women.

When Rome was starting out and needed to increase its population, the Romans attacked the Sabine people and stole their women in the famous "Rape of the Sabine Women." Later, these new Roman wives returned as emissaries to make peace and friendship between the two societies. Ever since, a cousinly relationship has existed between the Sabina and Rome, though true to Italian style, each fiercely guards its own identity. Romans continue to flock to "la campagna di Roma" (Rome's countryside), for weekend escape, and the wealthier citizens have built their own vacation villas. Numerous Roman roads connect the two areas, such as Via Salaria and Via Tiberina.

Olive Harvest

It's true that Tuscany is greener, with a more affluent, regal appearance to its hillside estates. But why compare apples and oranges? And let's not forget that the Sabina has Rome attached to it. Visiting this preeminent, energized, and ancient metropolis, including a side-trip to one of the Sabina's many agriturismos (bed and breakfasts in restored farm houses) will bring unsurpassed rewards. From Rome's clamor and endless architecture and ruins, the visitor is transported to bucolic and breathtaking panoramas; centuries of history steeped in the stones of hilltown castles, churches, and towers; mountain sanctuaries; abundant, fresh olive oil to accompany homemade meals by family restaurateurs eager to share local food traditions; and rare sightseeing, such as the Farfa Abbey and St. Francis's several retreats. Each enchanting Sabina hamlet offers treasures of its own for the visitor to discover. For hikers, the area's hills and larger mountains abound in trails, many with fascinating ruins along the way.

Getting to the Sabina from Rome could not be easier, as locals themselves make this trip every day for jobs in the big city. A commuter train runs between the Sabina towns and Rome stations, several with metro access; tourists would find Tibertina, Ostiense, and Trastevere stations to be most convenient. This same train goes all the way to Fiumicino Airport; thus tourists could easily organize their trip to end with a few days in the Sabina before catching the commuter train to Rome's international airport for their homeward flight.

Making a Sabina side-trip even more attractive is the Abitrans car rental shop facing the Fara in Sabina train station. Having a car while visiting these olive hills makes it possible to drive miles of rich territory, stopping for sightseeing gems in several of the hilltowns (suggestions follow this article). There are no lines at this car rental, no long treks in airport garages to find your car, and the rates are better than Fiumicino's.

Olives and Producers

Any season can be enjoyed in the Sabina, though spring and fall are the most exciting - spring for its effusive blossoming and fall for the old-world olive harvest. The farms are generally small and family-worked, thus there are hundreds of them. Some families have just enough trees to produce their household oil for the year, about 80 kilos. A few farms tend 500 to several thousand trees, and these are considered large farms requiring manpower. But the typical small farm can be managed by the family during leisure time from regular jobs, and many Sabini work for the local railroad.

Tuscany controls Italy's olive oil exports, so that the purer, tastier Sabina oil is relatively unknown outside of Rome, where clients and restaurants have purchased Sabina oil for centuries. Around this time of year, Italy's largest olive oil companies come to the Sabina to buy up family surpluses at rock-bottom prices: three euro a kilo. Only a handful of Sabina producers have entered the international market, such as Anna Maria Billi of Castelnuovo di Farfa, whose La Mola label has won "Best Olive Oil" in Italy three times. Many Sabina farmers have expressed longing to get into the international market, but they lack collective leadership and also face obstacles competing with the Tuscan oil monopoly. An August 2007 New Yorker article by Tom Mueller explained the intricacies and fraud of Italian olive oil trade, which have gone on for centuries. Oils from other countries, such as Tunisia and Spain, are blended and bottled under Tuscan labels. Sabina oil, in contrast, is a pure product.

In Casperia, one of the Sabina's most beautiful towns, I met with Johnny Madge, a former Slow Food oil taster for Lazio. Originally from England and married to an Italian, he organizes olive oil and wine tastings and has written a delightful booklet on when and how to abundantly use Sabina oil with his favorite seasonal (and nonseasonal) recipes.

According to Johnny, the best Sabina oils result from the producer's ability to blend flavors. For example the more acerbic early-harvest oil can be enhanced by the later, "softer" batches. The longish, black frantoio is the most common olive in Central Italy. In the Sabina, however, the carboncella is more popular and gives the local oil its characteristic "green, peppery flavor, and pungency," Johnny told me. Raja is the Sabina's third most common olive and is related to the frantoio variety, but has a softer quality. In the town of Nerola, Giorgio Griscioli's raja oil has won prizes.

Without question, the sun bakes the Sabina to a crisp in July and August, which is how the carboncella olive got its name - cooked by the sun. This oil can be "rustic and intense," Johnny said, but if the olives get too cooked, then the oil is "tasteless, yellow, acidic, and without aroma."

Local producers make both single variety oils and blends, and in Johnny's opinion, the subtleties of Sabina oil lie in the blend. With more Sabina farmers producing organic oil, global warming becomes a deep concern, because it aids proliferation of the Mediterranean fruit fly.

Johnny explained that getting the picked olives to the press as soon as possible is a vital factor in the oil's quality. "The acidity goes up the longer the olives sit around," he said, "they begin to ferment." The press temperature should be 28 degrees Centigrade, which is not particularly "cold," as in "cold pressed," but if the temperature goes only two degrees higher to 30, then the oil loses its flavor and polyphenols, which are healthy antioxidants. Johnny also mentioned that operating the antique olive press, which mashes the fruit between layers of flat woven plates, takes such artisanal skill to keep the flavors in, that modern presses are more reliable for the average farmer.

As a Slow Food taster of Lazio oils, Johnny worked with a rating sheet of 100 categories, including color, aroma, mouth feel, flavor, and balance. He said that some raters don't consider color, but Slow Food is all about the pleasure of eating, and color thus is an important category.

In Castelnuovo di Farfa, visitors will find a fascinating museum in a sixteenth-century palace, the Museo dell'Olio della Sabina. Its contemporary art installations not only pay homage to the olive tree and its luxurious product, but also reinforce the message of the timeless importance of oil to Mediterranean cultures. It provided light, sustenance, and medicinal uses and for centuries has been cherished and honored.

The Harvest

Autumn weather invigorates everyone with its angled sunshine, crisp air, and leaf-scented, gusting breezes. Mornings are chilly enough for jackets but noontime can be warm enough for summer shirts. For the second year in a row I'm harvesting a small olive grove with Massimo, a Sabinese in his early thirties. By day he works in a factory, but his free time is spent with the land, his true love.

Visitors driving around the Sabina in late October will see the same scene everywhere: a woman and a man working an olive tree together, usually the man on a short wooden ladder propped against the tree, and the woman handling the lower branches. Everywhere you look, green nets lie under the crooked, silvery-leafed trees. The nets, or tele, have a slit down the middle to the half-way point, so that the net can fit snugly around the tree trunk without bunching. The olives get raked off their fine brittle branches. They grow in tantalizing ripe clumps, similar to grapes, but only two to six olives in a clump. The black or green skin is dusty. Green olives would turn black eventually; so we are picking a mix of olives that will blend together. Everywhere I turn is the soft smell of oil and it hasn't even been produced yet. The nets smell like oil from years of catching the olives, and after picking, my shirt, hair, and skin also smell of the oil, as if it were a mild soap. It's a pleasant, earthy smell, just what you want to eventually come to the table.

Massimo knows every nuance of the land and the trees; he teaches me the tricks of the trade, such as testing out the ladder before climbing it. "Tap it like this against the branch you choose and listen to the sound," he says. "Did you hear that creak? That means the branch is old and weak and if you press the ladder on it, it might break on you." Every year someone dies falling from a badly placed ladder. Massimo also explains that the black olives fall immediately when touched by the rake, while the green ones, less ripe, take a little whip from the wrist to free them.

We work one tree at a time, spreading the net first. The trees stand on a fairly steep slope, so at the base of the net, we drive five stakes into the ground and then drape the bottom of the net over the row of stakes so that the olives won't roll down and off the net. They get caught in the net's pocket.

It takes us thirty to forty minutes to clean off a tree. Then we take the corners of the net and lightly shake the olives down to the net's pocket created by the stakes. Hundreds of perfect little olives cascade with a pattering sound to the bottom of the net where they come to rest. Carefully, Massimo and I gather the net edges and pour our riches into waiting plastic containers called cassetti.

On day three we have filled about ten of these cassetti, which will make about 30 liters of oil. Our next job is to clean up the harvest before heading to the town's press, for which we have already made an appointment. We spread newspaper on a brick patio and pour out one container of olives at a time. Our fingers work speedily to whisk away twigs, leaves, and other debris that got mixed in with the olives. When all ten containers have been cleaned, we drive to the mill and drop them off, along with a fifty-liter, stainless steel tank for the finished oil. At the mill I see enormous versions of this same tank, some that hold five hundred liters of Sabina gold.

I feel excitement in the air at the local frantoio or press; each Sabina town has one. The huge hall is a little hazy with oil fumes - or so I imagine. The aroma is just wonderful, a more intense version of what I smelled while harvesting: the fragrant film of olive oil. The assembly-line machinery makes plenty of noise, and the mill operatives look long accustomed to their jobs, while the clients linger around looking like expectant outsiders. Their faces are filled with an array of emotions to have arrived at this stage of their annual farming journey. It is the last, culminating stage, and all of us eyeing the end of the assembly line where gold oil is pouring out of a spout into a stainless steel basin. Our own blend will be along in a day or two and we can't wait to taste it.

Any of the Sabina agriturismos can help visitors find a farm for a morning of picking. Most family farms can also sell visitors cans of their home brew, and it's easy to take home, as long as packed in your checked luggage. To make sure nothing goes wrong, I duck-tape the can's sealed spout, then wrap the can in bubble paper, which is sold cheaply by the meter at cartolerias (office supply stores). On my customs form I list the oil as one of my purchases, and call it "can of factory-sealed olive oil."

Suggested Resources

Visitors should drive through as many Sabina towns as you can: Casperia, Cantalupo, Selci, Torri, Montasola, Cottanello, Roccantica, and Castelnuovo di Farfa, to name a few. A good "olive oil road" map is available once you arrive showing all the country roads and towns (La strada dell'olio). A few tidbits not to miss include:

  • Santa Maria in Vescovio Sanctuary, a spellbinding church with Roman roots and recovered frescoes.
  • Casperia's Presepio, a hand made model of the medieval town by a local artist, Gianni Mariani, and located in the S. Giovanni Battista Church.
  • Greccio, St. Francis's sanctuary, an hour away over stunning mountains and landscapes; the Fontanella restaurant is nearby in Contigliano for lunch afterwards.
  • Farfa Abbey, one of the most famous abbeys in Europe, and in the Middle Ages, the seat of authority for much of the Sabina.
  • Museo dell'Olio della Sabina (museolio@yahoo.it).

Excellent and picturesque restaurants include: La Vecchia Quercia in Selci and Pepperoncino and Gusto al Borgo, both in Casperia.

On Friday and Saturday nights, Johnny Madge's tasting bar is open in Casperia, and is a lively international gathering. Johnny can also help visitors find the best Sabina oil - www.johnnymadge.com.

Available on the web, and only in Italian, is Slow Food's guide to extra virgin olive oils: La Guida agli Extravergini.

For car rental opposite the Fara in Sabina station contact Abitrans (the Fara in Sabina branch email: passocorese@abitrans.it; tel. +39 0765 488 416).

A few agriturismos I personally know to be good are the Tevere Farfa Ecoturismo in Nazzano, located in a peaceful Nature Preserve (www.pianopiano.info); Montepiano in Montasola, a palace converted into apartment-style accommodations (www.montepiano.com); and the Penucha Grove near Farfa (+39 0765 387 288).

Gail Spilsbury is the author of two books, Rock Creek Park (Johns Hopkins University Press 2002) and The Washington Sketchbook (Library of Congress, in press) and has lived in Italy on and off for seven years. Gail works with Mangiare Bene, cooking classes and tours in the Sabina Hills.

© Gail Spilsbury, 2007

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