The cultivation of olive trees and the production of olive oil in north Lazio, known locally as La Tuscia, predates the ancient Roman period to Etruscan times, and some 600 years BC. It is surprising how much evidence remains and those farmers working in the territory still hold the Etruscans in great regard.
Olive oil traditions in north Lazio
During a visit to find out for ourselves, we met Vincenzo Allegrezza an expert in olive production in the Tuscia who has recently studied the DNA of abandoned olive trees in the zone between Civitavecchia and Viterbo. They are, to all effects, wild orchards which were once tended with great care but have remained lost for centuries.
He told us that his research should help us to understand what ancient people here actually ate, and may lead to a new cultivation of rare autoctonous olive strains. This may have unforseen health benefits by aligning modern cultivation to the 'brado' state of the land respecting the wider context of local plants and micro-climates.
As well as abandoned olive trees, the remains of ancient olive presses can still be seen all over Tuscia in what were once small homesteads. Do pass by his website (https://allegrezzadioliodioliva.wordpress.com) to find out more.
Vincenzo also told us that olive oil was not just an element for cooking and preserving foodstuffs, but valued as an ingredient in cosmetics and for its medicinal powers. Roman legionaries would also use it to heal wounds while olive oil was given as a prize to gladiators and during similar competitive events. The Tuscia provided much of the best olive oil during the Roman period.
Olive oil presses
Mario Matteucci is now over 80 and is the 4th generation to work Frantoio 'Il Paradosso' (image above) situated below the ancient medieval walls of Viterbo. The frantoio was the first olive mill in the city to get electricity and during his father's time was the most important in the zone as mechanization took hold.
Nevertheless, the original artisan mill can still be visited and is now a museum. You don't need much imagination to get an idea of how they used to work as everything has been left much as it was. This includes the hole in the roof through which the season's crop of olives would pour into the frantoio from the street above.
Yellowing photographs line the walls and reveal many other sides to the process, not least the use of local canapa or hemp to produce the 'fiscolo'. These are the containers or baskets into which the olives were placed for eventual pressing and do watch our video above.
The fiscolo was known in Roman times and during this period was made from juniper or rushes. Mr. Matteucci is the last person to make them in the traditional way, by hand. 10 would be filled with olives and placed in the press to extract water and oil from both the olive and the nut. The liquid was then heated to allow the oil to rise above the water over 90 minutes or so. There was no centrifuge. The oil was skimmed off by hand using a plate then poured into a clay pot or amphora.
Frantoio 'Il Paradosso'
Via Paradosso 3, 01100 Viterbo
tel +39 0761/300050
Frantoio 'Il Paradosso' on Facebook
Recuperating abandoned olive groves
Azienda Agricola Biologica DEGIOVANNI based in Vetralla is a modern reality which has embraced the past and is now working to produce some of the finest olive oil in Tuscia from abandoned olive groves. They may not yet be those mentioned by Vincenzo Allegrezza above, but they are local plots of land whose owners have lost interest and are now being bought by the company and farmed organically, with a mix of modern and traditional methods.
We visited a grove of 800 trees producing DOP olive oil of the 'canino' and 'fosco' varieties. An example of their approach is that they are keen to keep a large space between each tree. Many would take the opportunity to double the output, or even grow additional crops, but Andrea and Alessandro told us that good growers are aware of the natural water retention of the land to ensure the optimum number of trees. The olive trees are also pruned in a conical downward shape to favour mechanical harvesting of the fruit. There is, however, a compromise between the structure of the plant and its health; even trees need to breathe.
Tasting 'Supremo' olive oil in Vetralla
Azienda Agricola Biologica Degiovanni
Via Mazzacotto 71, 01019 Vetralla
We also learned during a tasting of their olive oil (above) that a healthy olive tree must ideally reach 15 years before it is fully mature and the best temperature to pick the olives is no higher than 24°. Due to oxidization the olives are picked from 7am to reach the olive mill by 1pm. The olive oil of Degiovanni is marketed with confidence as 'Supremo'.