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Episode #173: From Tree to Table: The Olive Harvest in Umbria

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In Umbria, as in other regions in Italy, the olive harvest is one of the most important times of the year and involves many local rituals, not least around the first press of olive oil. Umbria is revered throughout Italy for some of the most beautiful hilltop towns, delicious foods and fascinating local festivals yet is off many visitor’s radar. With ancient olive trees and processes that date back 100s of years, they are known for the incredible quality of their olive oil which they are fiercely proud of.

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Show notes

We talk to Sarah and Salvatore who have run boutique B&B, La Cuccagna, an agriturismo set in the beautiful Umbrian countryside near the medieval town of Gubbio, for 20 years. They share why the olive harvest in Umbria is so special, the importance of timings and processes to the quality of the oil, and how some of the rituals create special moments as individuals as well as for the community. 

What you’ll learn in this episode

  1. Sal and Sarah, as keen travelers, set out with a dream of running a place for people to come and visit which would mean they had constant contact with travelers so that they could travel through the eyes of other people. Almost 20 years on, having left the rat race of corporate life to open their agriturismo in Umbria, they’re still there enjoying it
  2. La Cuccagna is the name of their agriturismo. It’s in the middle of the Umbrian countryside, perched on top of a hill with a gorgeous view over the valleys below, beautiful grounds and a stunning infinity pool. La Cuccagna means ‘life as you want it to be’. In Italian, it’s a mythical utopia – a place where there’s no work, good food, and lots of wine. At local festivals, you often find a La Cuccagna tree, which is a pole covered with cheese and ham with wine hung on the top
  3. La Cuccagna is their home and lots of their return guests say that when they drive down the drive they feel like they’re coming home, and are going to stay with friends – which makes Sarah and Sal very happy
  4. When Katy and her family were staying nearby last June, they were lucky enough to be invited to La Cuccagna one evening and were spoiled rotten by Sarah and Sal with a delicious dinner and were treated to the presence of the last of the seasons fireflies buzzing around
  5. Sarah and Sal like to take people off the tourist trail and offer authentic local, unique experiences where you’re meeting and mixing with real locals rather than commercial outfits and just getting guests to places that you wouldn’t find in guidebooks
  6. The olive harvest is part of their lives and something they love to share with their guests
  7. The harvest start towards the end of October and finishes at the beginning of December. There is a big difference for the oil as to whether you do an early pick or a late pick. The earlier you pick it, it will likely cost you more because the yield is lower. There is more water in the crop and therefore, you pay more because you bring more weight to be pressed, but the quality of the oil produced is absolutely amazing
  8. At La Cuccagna they are the early pickers starting around the 20th October.
  9. Around 80 % of oil growers pick by the middle of November, except for large, commercial properties where they cannot do that as it takes them 40 – 50 days to actually do their harvest. But to get a top-quality oil it is always best to pick at the end of October/beginning of November
  10. The acidity changes in the oil –  the longer an olive is on the tree after maturity, the more it deteriorates, reducing the quality of the oil. When we talk about reducing the quality of the oil, however, we’re talking about a top-quality product in the first place – so even if you pick olive in December, it doesn’t mean you get bad oil, it will still be amazing, just not the best of the best
  11. The quality of the sourness of the oil is a very important part of the olive oil. It’s a good sign of an oil when you feel that slight burn/tingle in the back of your mouth
  12. The main producers of olive oil in Italy are Calabria, Puglia and Campania, with Puglia probably being the biggest with 5% of the oil production. But the quality of the oil in Umbria is much higher. They work with an acidity that is in between 0 and 0.2, which is very low. Even if they’d pick at the end of November, they would still have an acidity of around about 0.2 and it’s still an excellent oil
  13. When you’re looking at the difference between virgin and extra virgin oils – for something to be classed as Virgin olive oil, apart from the fact that it should be completely unadulterated, it also has to be less than 2 % acidity. To be Extra Virgin, it has to be less than 0.8 %. So when we’re talking about these oils being  0.2 % or less if there was such a rating it would be extra, extra, extra, extra, extra…
  14. Puglia, Campania, and Calabria do also produce excellent olive oils – but each area is different because the ground and environment are different. Umbria has a stony, clay ground, up north in Liguria, they are by the sea and Lake Garda with its unique micro-climate – they all have different qualities
  15. There are also different types of olive oil producers. There are small little farms like La Cuccagna, there’s the big commercial operations and various in-between and how they pick is dependent on that. Big commercial operations with thousands of hectares of olive trees use a special olive-picking machine, which is clamped to the bottom of the tree. They open a kind of upside-down umbrella underneath the tree and the machine shakes the tree and within about a minute and a half, the entire tree is picked
  16. There is picking by hand, wearing thick gloves to protect your skin and then smaller scale olive picking machines that shake the leaves to get the olives to come down
  17. Although you might assume it’s by hand, the kindest method for the tree, is actually the one with the tractor that shakes the tree as it doesn’t come in contact with the foliage. It’s got a rubber-like material that holds the tree. The worst one can be by hand if it’s heavy-handed or particularly by rake where you get very close to the branches and are scratching an area where the fruits for the next year are already starting to sprout
  18. La Cuccagna pick and press their olives within 40-48 hours – you really cannot leave them any longer to press. Commercial operations that can pick a tree within a minute and a half, can get their olive straight to their olive press, so can pick and press within a couple of hours or even quicker. But smaller operations that pick by hand and or by mechanical hand,  pick like mad for a couple of days and then get the olives to the press as quickly as possible.
  19. The olive starts degrading us the second they come off the tree. And again, when we say degrade, we’re not talking about this all of a sudden, they’re just going to mulch and mold. But because we’re s which is why it should be pressed so quickly. This is not a serious degrading – it is not going moldy but it’s just not the maximum quality it could be. You have to be very careful when gathering the olives not to step on them as any squashing is going to increase the speed of degradation
  20. La Cuccagna has around 400 trees. They took on very old olive groves, which had been abandoned for about 50 years. WIt has taken them many, many years to bring them back to production and currently, they are still only picking around about 100
  21. An olive tree normally in a production farm in many other regions, will only last about 40 to 50 years. In Umbria, they have trees that are much older. Most of Sal and Sarah’s trees are around 200 years old. This means the trees are bigger – so picking from a 5 to 6 meter tall tree likely requires a ladder/some climbing as opposed to picking from a 15-year-old tree at about 2.5 meters
  22. Sal and Sarah believe picking olives is the most relaxing and therapeutic experience you can have and you get a sense that the olive trees speak to you. If you’re having a bad day and go in your olive grove you get the vibe to ‘slow down, take your time, it’s all good!’. Olive branches have been used as peace offerings all over the world for centuries, no doubt because of this calming aura of the olive tree
  23. The harvest is Sal and Sarah’s favorite time of year. They’ve come to the end of their season and are usually pretty exhausted, yet the olive harvest feels regenerating
  24. It’s been a long time since they left the rat race, when they’re doing the olive harvest, it’s the time of year Sarah thinks to herself that they definitely did the right thing. You’re on the hillside, out in the fresh air with the sun shining and it involves all the senses. Obviously, there’s the touch and feel, but then there’s the sounds of nature and the church bells ringing regularly in the background and underneath the olive groves is lots of wild sage and lemon, so they get these incredible smells too
  25. Long lunches are an important part of the harvest. Sitting underneath the shade of the olive trees, looking out of the countryside, just resting and chatting with the people that are there helping – it’s a really social time
  26. The Frantoio is the place you go to get your olives pressed. Sal and Sarah make an appointment with their Frantoio and start picking around 2 days before 
  27. On the first morning, they set up their nets. Their giant 50-meter-long nets net up to around three trees at a time. Sarah is not good with heights, so she stays on the lower levels and picks by hand. You literally just caress your (globed) fingers through the branch and the olives just drop into the nets – there’s no collecting into your hands. Sal, meanwhile, has a mechanical hand and does the higher branches – sometimes having to climb right up into the tree. It takes about 2 – 2.5 hours to do each tree
  28. It’s satisfying when you finally gather up the net because it can seem like you’ve not done very much, but when you gather the nets up (a 2 – 4 person job) – you find you’ve got this huge pile of olives. You gather them all up into the middle of the net and decant them into the crates. And olive crates can normally hold about 22 kilos. The average production of a tree is 25 kilos per tree and will take about 20 minutes to do, but because their trees are very old and large it takes about an hour and a half, but then they produce between 75 – 100 kilos per tree
  29. At La Cuccagna they usually have help – perhaps 2 – 3 people. They take part in the WWOOFing scheme (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms) so are lucky to have those people helping out
  30. They go all out picking for 2 days and at the end of the second day, Sal goes straight to the Frantoio with the olives.
  31. Choosing the right Frantoio for you is important because the different frantoio produce different oils. There are different techniques. They use one that does the cold press – mechanically press with the temperature below 25/26 degrees. As well as air and light, high temperatures can degrade the olive’s quality too
  32. The Frantioi they have chosen is an amazing place in a number of ways and going to press the oil is a ritual. Sal can end up going at all times of day – 4 am if that’s the only slot they had with the correct timings. Going there, you meet all the other producers and everybody goes there and brings something to eat and maybe some beers. They always go there with bread so they can do some bruschetta to try the oil and check out the quality for that year
  33. Their frantoio is also part of a big estate with a beautiful, old, ruined Abbey sitting in the heart of their olive farm. When the last member of the previous owner’s family died, they left it to a children’s hospital in Genoa. It’s a lovely, small, traditional frantoio run as a charity for the children’s hospital
  34. The oil pressed is predominantly for their own estate, but there are certain other locals they press for too
  35. The producers and press workers gather together and make a big fire, cook steaks and enjoy a few beers. The workers at the press have been working incredibly long hours and so are eating there too. The producers and the workers may not see each other all year but spend this time together each year and become friends. Everybody brings food, they have dinner together while they wait for the machine to do its job
  36. The first question that anybody will ask anybody at harvest time is “What was the yield?”. The yield is the percentage of oil that comes from the quantity of olives picked. We buy olive oils in liters, but they don’t talk liters when they’re making olive oils – it’s always in grams or kilos because they start with a product that is a solid product and therefore they keep the ratio in kilograms
  37. This year, their average yield was around about 15.6 % – 15.7 %, which is pretty decent
  38. As with so many things in Italy – nothing goes to waste. The olive stones get separated and dried – not all frantoio have the ability to do this, but theirs can.  They dry the stones till they look like little pieces of gravel. La Cuccagna has a specially adapted boiler, which they use to heat their house and hot water in the winter. They have to pay to get their nuts dried and returned, but in the long run, it’s cheaper and really environmentally friendly
  39. The pulp gets taken aside and is either chemically wash it to get rid of the tannin, or you can wait 3 – 4 months until the tannin slowly wears off, and then you can use it for a multitude of uses including fertilizer and beauty products
  40. From mid to end of October until mid-December, there is Frantoi Aperti, which means ‘open frantoio’, and is a bit like open houses where you can go and taste the olive oils from the harvest
  41. There are different types of oils because there are different types of trees. The 6-7 varieties of olive tree in their areas include Frantoio, Leccino and Moraiolo. Leccino trees create a milder/lighter oil which is great for salads. Frantoio (same name as the press) trees produce a much stronger oil. La Cuccagna finds a mix of all 3 can create a blend with a nice taste and aroma. The La Strade dei Frantoio, which means ‘the street of the press’ is where you can do more than one tasting. You get a map of those which are open and you can just turn up,  have a look around, they show you how the process and you can have a tasting
  42. At the same time of year as the olive harvest is the white truffle season. The Umbrian medieval city of Gubbio even has a white truffle festival. At La Cuccagna they arrange lots of truffle hunting for their guests. Their truffle hunter is born and bred to the Umbrian hillsides, and as well as doing the truffle hunting, he actually works at the Frantoio – truffle hunting is his side-job
  43. The experience of truffle hunting is not just looking for the truffles, but being deep in the beautiful countryside. Unlike some commercial operations, you would not find their truffle hunter planting truffles for people to find if they’re none there. Finding a truffle on a hunt is not a given to a truffle hunt – it’s the experience of it all 
  44. Sarah and Sal welcome guests into their home at La Cuccagna all year round, but they also offer olive-picking holidays for people that would like to come and experience the olive harvest. At the end of October and the first couple of weeks of November and it depends on how many days olive-picking guests would like. On an olive-picking day, they would take guests out for a full olive-picking experience. They prepare a lovely lunch in the olive grove, and then in the evening, they take them to the Frantoio to see how the pressing works and experience everything around that. They then get to try the olive oil as soon as it comes out and take some olive oil back home with them

About our guests – Sarah and Salvatore of La Cuccagna

English Sarah and her Italian partner Salvatore met while paragliding and discovered a mutual passion for adventure and sustainable travel. After many experiences around the world interacting with ‘real’ locals, being invited into their homes and being shown hidden gems off the beaten track, they decided to find a little piece of paradise in Italy.
At La Cuccagna, they open their own home to offer guests a unique and authentic experience in the best possible accommodation at an affordable price. They love the Umbrian way of life and all the sights and activities its countryside has to offer and it gives them great pleasure to help their guests enjoy the very best stay in the stunning surroundings.

They do everything possible to minimize the environmental impact of La Cuccagna, and observe sustainable practices wherever possible, working with small local businesses and tradesmen, local materials and natural-based products from the local area. Original materials from the house have all been re-used in the restoration project and around the grounds. The property has an under-floor heating and hot water system that is run by solar power in the summer and from their special boiler fuelled by olive nuts in the winter months.

Their suppliers are carefully selected for the quality of their produce but also for their impact on the environment and local community. Most of the fittings, fixtures and furniture are locally sourced. Their beds are made by the local ironmonger and much of their tableware and ceramics are from various local potters and artists. Where they have to go further afield from their local shops and markets, they use Umbrian suppliers to ensure their business stays within the regional economy.

When catering they use home grown produce whenever possible (they grow herbs, fruit, and vegetables and make all their own passata, wine, limoncello, olive oil, chestnut products, and plenty more) and as a registered organic farm all their produce is free-range and organic.

You can find La Cuccagna on these channels:

Places mentioned in the show

  • Gubbio – city in Umbria, located on the lowest slope of Mt. Ingino, a small mountain of the Apennines

Resources

  • frantoio – the olive pressers
  • WWOOF (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms) – living and working on local organic farms and home-stays all over the world
  • organoleptic – the aspects of food that create an individual experience via all the senses
  • Frantoi Aperti – olive press open houses to taste from the harvest

An Untold Italy Tour of Umbria

If you like the sound of Umbria and its medieval towns and cities, like Gubbio, we’d love you to join us on tour later this year as we explore Umbria during the harvest season. There’ll be delicious porchetta, local wine, and freshly pressed olive oil for which the region is celebrated. You’ll find all the details on our website at tours.untolditaly.com/umbria

Resources from Untold Italy

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