We met as archaeology students on a dig in central Sicily aged 21. Two summers later, I moved to Rome to live with Paolo. Fast forward 16 years, now married and with two small children, we found ourselves once more in central Sicily, but this time digging holes for olive trees.
After years working in the heritage field - Paolo digging and me in policy and management - moving from Rome to Cambridge, London and Strasbourg, we decided to put our project 'olive oil' into action. Paolo had inherited a small farm with 30 something trees on it and in 2012 we asked a local farmer to plant 50 more. It wasn't enough, we wanted to understand how the entire production cycle worked. So shortly after our second child was born in 2014, we packed up our flat, rented it out and drove down to Sicily.
The grove was in Villarosa, Paolo's parents' village. He had spent many a summer, Easter and Christmas there, as had I in latter years. Paolo's maternal grandfather had been a well-loved butcher, farming his own animals, his uncle the town's mayor. We spent the next year and a half learning the ropes. We read every book we could get our hand on, we were lucky to win an award to take part in the Erasmus for Young Entrepreneurs programme, and were hosted by local farmer, Vincenza Ferrara, owner of a the Agri-business 'Dora Farm'. We watched and questioned local farmers about the key stages of the olive oil production cycle: maintaining your land, pruning your trees, fighting parasites, harvesting, milling and storing your oil. We also planned and planted a new grove. We took courses on pruning and olive oil tasting. The latter also gave us insight on how hard it is for Olive oil to qualify as Extra Virgin.
In late 2015 we moved to Malmesbury, Wiltshire and set up Alivu Ltd. Our vision: to tell you about what fantastic Extra Virgin Olive Oil should really taste like, and of course, sell you some of ours!
How do we make our oil?
We started managing our groves in 2014, pruning, harvesting and keeping our trees healthy. As we only spend a few weeks each year in Sicily, awe have some invaluable help; a local farmer, Mimmo, keeps the worst of the weeds down with his tractor and the multitalented Lucio hand digs weeds from the bases of trees and makes sure the path is accessible with his strimmer. We do not use pesticides or fertilisers, and are following the organic regime, although we are not currently registered as an organic farm. We are at our most active at two key moments of the year: pruning and harvest.
We harvest our olives early in the season, in mid- to late-October. This ensures that we get the highest quality oil, that maintains its beneficial properties for longer. We hand-pick our olives, sometimes using a comb for the higher branches. In 2017 we used a new gadget, the 'olive tickler', for the first time, and this helped us speed up. Hand-picked olives are best, as they do not get bruised, and therefore do not start to oxidise. We store them in fruit crates, so the fruit does not get too hot or crushed under the weight of fellow olives. We take the olives to the local mill, where they are placed in big, shallow 'bins' and are milled within 24 hours.
The village mill, Oleificio Madem, where our oil is stored, and bottled, is run by the Di Stefano family. Although it is a professional mill, it is small by international standards. This allows us to check the quality of the olives going in. Staff are rigourous at extracting the oil "cold" making sure that their machinery doesn't get above the requisite 27'C. The mill extracts the oil in two phases, which stresses the oil less than three phase mills.
A collective effort with family (or friends!)
Lay out the nets
Sometimes you have to climb high, depending on how you prune your tree.
Lower trees can be 'combed'
Gather and pour olives into the crates
Store in small fruit crates
In the bins at the mill
Olives should go to mill within 24 hours
De-leafed and washed
The crushed olives form a paste
The millers skill is in knowing when to centrifuge the mix and separate off the oil
Filtering is minimal
Oil on its way out!
Stored in vats
and in professional silos.