madonna del piatto

Italian family cooking


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gifts

olive oil is good for the heart, in many ways.

This year I have already had my Christmas gift. Within a couple of days of posting the picture of olive harvest, our very small production of olive oil was practically sold out.

Please believe me, I did not make a penny out of it. The costs of production on a small scale are so high that I am lucky if I cover the preparation of the field and the new nets.

However, this is not the point.

The point is the appreciation of friends and former guests of our B&B for what we do here.

We own a small piece of paradise where these trees have been growing for centuries and we keep it alive. We use no chemicals, we respect the soil, we allow the plants to fend for themselves save for a light spring-pruning.

our olive grove

We watch the drupes, every year with worried expectation, until they are just the perfect color to harvest. The color indicates the peak of flavor and smoothness. We work long hours at the end of a busy tourist season to harvest as quick as possible so they don’t become too ripe and loose that beautiful quality

Invariable, at the end of this gigantic effort we happy and proud of the emerald elixir, “the nectar of the olive gods” as a friend of mine calls it. Now, after having acquired a new olive grove, we can share some of it. Its’ been big news for us.

But even more surprising has been the love of people, the understanding of what we do and why, wanting to support and share our little bit of Umbria. So much enthusiasm has blown me away.

This Christmas, even more than usual, I need to give thanks for what I have received.

buon Natale, buone Feste!!!

Thank you also to my friend Gloria from At Home in Tuscany for inviting me to participate with this post to the Italy blogging roundtable special Christmas event. This is organized, besides Gloria, by  the other fabulous rountablers Alexandra from ArtTrav,  Rebecca from Brigolante, Melanie from Italofile, and Jessica from Why Go Italy . Until 14 December, bloggers are invited to expand upon the topic of “gifts,” somehow connected to Italy, on their blogs. You’re still in time to join!


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olive trees pruning

olive trees just after pruning

olive trees just after pruning, the cut branches still on the ground

POTATURA. Spring is making some appearance and it’s now time to prune olive trees.  Some of the locals have actually started in November, just after harvest. Some have run to the fields during the very few sunny days we have had during this rainy winter. We have a small olive grove, so we can take it easy and wait for the nice weather. Pruning is important as it’s needed to remove the non productive shoots and to give light and air to the tree. This will maximize production and minimize the onset of disease due to excess humidity. We still have plenty delicious olive oil from last year, but we look with anticipation to the next harvest.  This is for us the first celebration of spring which will come later in its full glory.

early spirng blooms

early spring blooms


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know your extra virgin, think local

bruschetta, the real one, no-frills

bruschetta, the real simple one, no topping

If one loves Mediterranean food one loves olive oil. As promised, I will now tell you what to do if you do not live near our deep blue sea and want to make a wonderful bruschetta like that one above.

If you are looking for a good quality extra virgin olive oil, you might need to visit several specialty shops or well stocked supermarkets.  If you find a promising bottle, you need to study the label in order to understand where your oil comes from. The more details you get about its origin, the better -though probably more pricey – the oil will be.

Check the lable, it should tell you where it comes from. Look at the beutiful color, it’s as fresh as it gets!

A good extra virgin olive oil has a unique flavor that is due to the combination of climate, soil, farming methods and plant cultivars in a specific area

Big brand oils are mostly made of mixtures. In contrast,  single estate oils or oils produced by small coops of growers are made with olives of a single  district. That extra virgin will have the distinctive character that belongs to its land. A complex flavor that enhances the food on which that oil is used.

If you are unable to obtain a single estate oil, look for a DOP.  The acronym DOP indicates that the European Community has assigned a  “protected origin designation” or appellation to the area of production. For example, in our area the label of a certified extra virgin will indicate not only  the region Umbria but also the district “Assisi-Spoleto”. By European regulation,  high quality extra virgin in this district can only be  made using 3 cultivars of olive trees,  Moraiolo, Leccino and Frantoio. Each cultivar contributes to the taste and balance of flavor. Oil from Moraiolo is intensely peppery, that one from Frantoio is fruity and from Leccino is mildly sweet.

Basically if you buy certified DOP or single estate you should be able to get back home with a reasonable bottle of extra virgin. Check the production date, as oil must be as fresh as possible. If budget allows take two brands to compare.

On your way home, do not forget to buy some fresh bread. White crusty Italian style, no baguette  please.

To determine the quality, taste on a little plain bread at room temperature or even better directly from a teaspoon. Then finally, take a whole slice, toast it,  rub it with a clove of fresh garlic, drizzle with the liquid gold you have conquered, sprinkle with just a hint of salt an pepper and enjoy your bruschetta when still warm. Relax, good red wine is welcome.


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good olive oil

This post is dedicated to my friend Morgana who lost her house in Melbourne’s fires last Saturday. Coraggio Morgana!

our baby production of wonderful Extra Virgin Umbrian olive oil

our baby production of wonderful Extra Virgin Umbrian olive oil

The definition of what is a good olive oil has changed a lot over the last decades in Italy.

In the past, the majority of Italians were poor farmers and lived on a simple diet of grains, pulses and vegetables.  In the Center and South of Italy, people used as much olive oil as they could afford to increase the  caloric content of their food. Therefore,  they preferred their oil to be rather bland and cooked it for a long time or at high temperatures so that none of its flavor was left.

To date, most of the big-brand olive oils that are  sold in the world are designed to have a bland taste. This is expected to please those users who are not acquainted with the relatively strong flavor of olive oil. Even though these oils are sold as extra virgin, they are obtained by mixing mass produced oils of various origins, especially from Spain and Greece. The label “imported from Italy” or “bottled in Italy” does not mean you are buying a high quality Italian extra virgin oil.

Olive oils that are not virgin – e.g. light olive oil or pure olive oil – are obtained by mixing virgin oils and chemically refined oils. As the refinement process involves the use of solvents like hexane, I really cannot find any good reasons for using these oils in cooking. Of course, there should be no residues of solvents, but I’d rather buy a product obtained with mechanical means such as the extra virgin.

I mean, I do not have to buy olive oil, because we produce it. However, until we produce enough to be able to actually sell it, I promise I will tell you how to buy a good extra virgin. Soon.

Update: from November 2011 we’ll actually be able to sell our wonderful oil, drop me a line if you are interested!


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new oil

Extra virgin Umbrian olive oil is considered one of the best oils in the world for quality, bouquet and taste.

“Olio nuovo” – new oil-  is what we call the olive oil when is just pressed. In contrast with most wines, olive oil is at its best when fresh. Just like we do, most Umbrian olives are picked between the end of October and mid-November. Therefore “new oil” is anything produced and sold in the last part of the year. The new olive oil is fragrant and peppery. After 3-4 months it becomes smoother and slightly sweeter but still intense. A good extra virgin olive oil remains a delicious condiment for at least a year.

Most olive farms in Umbria are rather small, counting anything from 20 to a few hundred trees. People picks olives quickly and brings them to the mill  when they have at least 3-400 kg (approx. 650-800 pounds). Mills are owned by cooperatives of farmers or by large farms.

Here below is the mill (frantoio) where we  our olives  were processed at the beginning of December.

The Valorosi frantoio near Assisi, a family run operation

The Valorosi frantoio near Assisi, a family run operation

Olives move from right to left in the series of machines above. Whole olives are first washed, then crushed into a pulp and subsequently kneaded to separate oil from water. The crushing machine cannot be opened during operation, so unfortunately  I have  no picture for it.

washing, crushing and kneading

what happens at the mill: removing leaves, washing olives and kneading the olive paste

The resulting olive paste is subsequently centrifuged and filtered to obtain olive oil. The whole process is kept at relatively low temperature, around 20 C (68 F) to avoid oxidation and loss of flavor. The olive oil is transferred into stainless steel containers and the exhaust olive pulp (pumace) is transported outside.

For more details on classification of olive oils and their production please give a look at this excellent olive oil glossary.

centrifuge, containers and left overs of olive oil production

centrifuge, containers and left overs of olive oil production

At this stage, while we see the golden liquid filling our tanks, we feel very happy. After many days of hard work, we run home and enjoy the first fragrant slice of bruschetta of the new season.

The mill works 24 h a day for several weeks, these guys are lucky if they are ready for Christmas. Thank you guys!

the frantoio workers are in good spirits even if very busy!

the frantoio workers are in good spirits even if very busy!


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olive harvest

Ours is a small farm, we have 11 hectares land, about 27 acres. This year we have taken advantage of the last sunny days of the season to harvest olives from our 250  trees. We like to harvest early, between the end of October and the beginning of November, when olives are just turning from green to purple. At this stage olives are rich of oil and aromatic compounds.

The oil will be fruity and peppery with a slightly bitter aftertaste.

Umbrian oil at its best.

olives for olive oil are best harvested when turning from green to purple

beautiful olives, perfect stage for harvest

Potentially we could produce some 3500 kg/7700 pounds olives. However, most of our olive trees are very young so  we presently  make only a fraction of that. We pick olives by hand, using small rakes and nets.

the slow work of harvesting olives

it's a slow work

We try to pick fast as olives should not be stored too long before processing. However, it takes at least an hour to harvest a tree like that one in this picture below. All for 2-3 bottles oil per mature tree, yeld is 15%.

harvesting from one of our mature trees

harvesting from one of our mature trees

As our fields are on a fairly steep hill, with all the climbing up and down and carting stuff back to the house at the end of the harvest we are dead tired. Luckily this year we had an energetic helper.

our dog google, not only she does not find truffles, she not even very good at harvesting olives!

Google, our only farm animal

Just like us, she can’t wait to get to the mill and see the results of our efforts.

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