Ode to the Olive

Tuscany Olive Harvest
Olives Tuscany Harvest 2011

Looking outside the window today, Tuscany appears volatile and dark. The weather is moody, swinging between heavy rain showers, and dry periods with warm blustering winds. The sky is dark, and the energy in the air is particular. The Olive trees on days almost seem to glow silver. They light up in contrast to the black sky, and create an interesting and gothic landscape.

The olive originated in Asia Minor.From Syria and Iran, it was brought to the Mediterranean basin. This was 6000 years ago. In Jerusalem there are trees that may date back 2000 years located in an ancient garden. Nobody can tell for sure the age of these trees as the Olive tree does not develop rings in the trunk, but experts estimate that they have been there between 1000 and 2000 years.

The olive tree cannot usually produce fruit for the first 8 years, but after this they can survive for centuries. Olives have been mentioned in Egyptian texts and Roman texts as well as the Bible, and the Koran.

The oldest olive tree in Italy is located in Sardinia ‘Cormacs Tree’ is believed to be over 3000 years old, and its gnarled roots, and wild shape make it a true living work of art. There is an olive tree in China estimated to be 5000 years old, the oldest living speciman in the world, and the oldest living fruit tree.

Drive anywhere in Tuscany at the moment,and you will find olive groves are abuzz with movement. The olive oil harvest is often a time when friends and family members are called upon to lend a hand, with the offer of a bottle of oil or two at the end of the job. The harvest can be good fun (whilst hard work) due to the communal spirit. The highlight at the end of any harvest, whether you have thirty trees or 300, is watching the hours of hard work (in the form of small green and black olives) turn into a stream of fluorescent green oil before your eyes at the Frantoio (olive press).

Back in my University days, Pablo Neruda was one of my favorite writers, the poem that I have attached below is a beautiful literary celebration of Italy’s favorite tree , and a suitable finish to this ‘Ode to the Olive’ post.


‘Oda al Aceita (Ode to the Olive)’

by Pablo Neruda

Near the murmuring
In the grain fields, of the waves
Of wind in the oat-stalks
The olive tree
With its silver-covered mass
Severe in its lines
In its twisted
Heart in the earth:
The graceful
By the hands
Which made
The dove
And the oceanic
Of nature
And there
The dry
Olive Groves
The blue sky with cicadas
And the hard earth
The prodigy
The perfect
Of the olives
With their constellations, the foliage
Then later,
The bowls,
The miracle,
The olive oil.
I love
The homelands of olive oil
The olive groves
Of Chacabuco, in Chile
In the morning
Feathers of platinum
Forests of them
Against the wrinkled
Mountain ranges.
In Anacapri, up above,
Over the light of the Italian sea
Is the despair of olive trees
And on the map of Europe
A black basketful of olives
Dusted off by orange blossoms
As if by a sea breeze
Olive oil,
The internal supreme
Condition for the cooking pot
Pedestal for game birds
Heavenly key to mayonnaise
Smooth and tasty
Over the lettuce
And supernatural in the hell
Of the king mackerels like archbishops
Our chorus
Powerful smoothness
You sing:
You are the Spanish
There are syllables of olive oil
There are words
Useful and rich-smelling
Like your fragrant material
It’s not only wine that sings
Olive oil sings too
It lives in us with its ripe light
And among the good things of the earth
I set apart
Olive oil,
Your ever-flowing peace, your green essence
Your heaped-up treasure which descends
In streams from the olive tree.

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Tuscany Olive Tree
Horse in Olive grove

Olive Oil Tuscany


The olive tree varieties that still exist come from the cultivation made 6000 years ago in the siro-palestinean area, where the oldest testimonies were found.
In fact, the cultivation of olive trees, as well as the vines , corresponds with the evolution of human beings in the whole Mediterranean area.
Italy, especially, remains the biggest producer of high quality olive oil and Tuscany plays an important role in this.
The olive harvest is done between November and March depending on the different olive tree varieties and the different regions. Tuscany is one of the earliest Italian regions to harvest.
Olives are picked by hand before they are fully ripe. Whilst this obtains less quantity, it ensures a higher quality, verifiable in the particular peppery taste and the green colour obtained.
As soon as the olives have been picked and collected in small boxes, they must be taken very quickly to the olive mill where the process of oil-making will start straight away.
This process consists of three main stages and it is interesting to notice that the first two steps have remained almost the same since olive oil was first produced, with the only change being in the kind of machinery employed .
After the olives are separated from their leaves and washed, firstly they are crushed and secondly the resulting dough must be thoroughly amalgamated.
The third important step, which in recent times has had various evolutions, consists of separating the water from the olive oil. In the past this was done with a presser machine, nowadays more sophisticated systems allow it to be done by calculating the physical laws (the different specific weight of oil and water).
At this point the new olive oil is ready to be bottled, although it is usually filtered to avoid possible residues in the bottle.
The high quality of the olives is the most important factor to obtain a high quality oil.
For an olive oil to be defined as extra virgin, it must have an acidity level of not more than 1 gr. per 100 gr. Chemical analysis testifies this before the oil can be bottled.
Unlike wine, the younger the oil, the better it is and it is advised not to buy it after it is 18 months old, and even after the first year it will loose a bit of its better characteristics, as well as its colour, which will turn a deeper yellow (this is particularly visible in the extra virgin Tuscan oils).
Modern scientific researches have confirmed the healthy virtues of olive oil in the alimentation, especially comparing the lower risks of cardiopathic illness in the Mediterranean countries, in comparison to places where butter and other kind of fat produces are used instead of oil.




Olive oil has been constantly present as an indispensable element of nutrition and social survival in all Mediterranean cultures for four millennia, and probably longer. The archaeological evidence of prehistoric oil lamps shows that long before proper comestible oil had been perfected by about 2000 Before Our Era, the rude greasy muck extracted by pre-agricultural man served to satisfy his need of making light, of illuminating darkness, of keeping at bay the terrors of the night . . . and in fact, oils not of comestible quality were used for home illumination in many Mediterranean rural areas until well after World War Two. Besides their alimentary uses, good oils have always been vitally important as medicinals and cosmetics and as deeply-rooted symbols in religions and mythologies . . . Noah’s olive branch, sacred ritual anointings, Odysseus’ marriage bed built out of the living trunk of an olive tree, a recently-founded Italian progressive political party, to name a few.

By the time of Moses, around 1800 Before Our Era, olive cultivation and olive oil production – the Old Testament speaks often of it – had spread to all the then-known arable lands around the Mediterranean, an economy carried farr afield many centuries later by Roman expansion. Many different kinds of trees and fruits came out of this, partly by natural selection in different soils and climates, partly by empirical observation and grafting for desirable traits. In the course of the eighteen centuries between Caesar and Napoleon, nearly all of the then-populated Italian peninsula lying below certain temperature limits broke forth in olive trees that bore fruits of widely different characteristics. Today the oils from the lands around Lake Garda in the north are considered the lightest, those from Liguria the most fruity, the Tuscan ones the most balanced in extremely fine olivy flavour, robust consistency and durability, the Apulian ones the pepperiest, and so on through many zones and regions. The long-proven healthfulness of diets based on ample lashings of extra-virgin olive oil need hardly be reit-erated here . . . by now universally known, it attracts new and contented adherents every day.


The oldest traces of plants that may be thought of as the ancestors of olive trees have been found in south-central France and dated to about fifty million years ago. Olive-tree fossils have turned up in the Sahara Desert. Prehistoric man doubtless ate the small, harsh, bitter olives he found on wild trees. After roughly 2000 Before Our Era, olive culture and the complicated science of oil extraction spread outward from the eastern Mediterranean basin into Anatolia, Egypt and Greece. Much later, by the first century Before Our Era, olive oil production had become so vital to Roman Italy that thousands of Greek slaves, trained and specialised in these arts, worked vast estates for domestic use in the endless empire and for export to the barbarian north. After the fall of Rome in the fifth century of Our Era, Italian production fell on hard times and eventually all but perished, but the Arabs in Spain not only carried on old traditions but developed new and better methods.

Around the year One Thousand, in the times of the Italy of the City-States (Comuni), new impetus was given to this so very vital economy, at first especially in Tuscany around Florence and Siena but soon, by about 1300, all over the peninsula. Not only did good extra-virgin oil become an indispensable staple of diets but also an index of prosperity, even of wealth. Ever since about 1880, all of southern Italian agriculture has been pivoted on oil production in great quantities, with less attention to quality. For long now the extra-virgin oils of the Centre and North, especially of Liguria, Tuscany and Umbria, have led in quality by unbeatable margins, as is recognised by demanding gourmets the world over.