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From the Olive Tree to the Oil Mill – The Material Culture of Ligurian Olive Oil

Frisceu, farinata, focaccia… with its delicate flavour, Ligurian oil has made Genoese cuisine unique. Ligurian oil has flavour notes ranging from wild flowers to dried fruit and, due to its elegance, can also be used as a garnishing ingredient at the end of cooking. But oil in Liguria has not only influenced the local gastronomic culture, it has also given a strong imprint to the territory.

The beauty of the contrast between the blue of the sea and the shimmering green of the olive trees overlooking the coast threatens to make us forget the work, effort and time that the inhabitants of Liguria have put into creating this dream landscape. Ligurian olive groves are mainly developed in strips of land that climb up slopes. Over the centuries it has therefore been necessary to invent, literally, stone upon stone and clod upon clod, cultivable land where there was none before.
What follows are notes on the material culture of the Ligurian oil cycle, from the arrangement of the olive grove to the transformation of the olive in the oil mill. Some traditional processes have been lost while others are still alive thanks to the passion of local growers and artisanal oil mills.

Dall’ulivo al frantoio – La cultura materiale dell’olio ligure

A short history of Ligurian olive oil

According to Strabo, a historian who lived at the time of Augustus, the Ligurians supplied themselves with oil by importing it from other regions. It has been assumed then that olive cultivation developed later, in the Middle Ages, with the introduction of this cultivation by the Benedictine monks. It was this monastic order that is credited with selecting the ‘taggiasca’ olive cultivar, which today characterises the Riviera di Ponente.

The real expansion of the olive tree in Liguria, however, did not occur until the 16th-17th centuries, when this crop began to be favoured to the detriment of other historical crops such as vines, figs and woody crops. Thus the olive tree became the dominant crop in the region for at least 200-300 years. After an initial peak between 1550 and 1600, there was a further increase in production in the 18th century. Ligurian oil was purchased by the city of Genoa, both for the domestic market and for export: for example, Ligurian oil accounted in 1700 for 30% of the oil used in Provence, where there was an important soap industry.

After this period, a crisis occurred. Due to rising labour costs in the second half of the 19th century, oil production is no longer a profitable enterprise. The crop is abandoned: replaced by others or the plants are cut down and used for wood.

Fortunately, the tradition of olive oil in Liguria has never completely disappeared and in recent years there has even been a renaissance. In 2011, the protected designation of origin ‘Riviera Ligure’ was recognised at European level for Ligurian oil.

How an olive grove was planted

Today, olive cultivation is present throughout the Ligurian maritime arch up to about 500 metres above sea level. From that point on, the atmospheric conditions of the Apennine hinterland, with frost and fog, do not allow the tree to grow optimally. However, as we have already pointed out, although the olive tree characterises part of the Ligurian coast to this day, its great spread is only ‘recent’, from the mid-1500s onwards. It was during this period that the local peasants performed an engineering feat of great effort. At the time, it required up to two weeks of work for each olive tree, between preparing the soil and transplanting the plant, also considering that the ‘population density’ usually reached 500 trees per hectare.

Let us now imagine that we are farmers of the time and have to plant our first olive tree.
An uneven and stony slope, as is the case with Ligurian soils, must first be levelled out by building the characteristic ‘fasce’. To make a ‘fascia’, it is necessary to erect a dry wall with large stones immediately downstream. Usually, the same stones were used that were removed from the ground when reclaiming it. At this point, the filling can begin. With the help of hoes and pickaxes, the ground is levelled, and the remaining stones are removed, which can be used to make other retaining walls or constructions. Finally, holes can be made in which to place the olive trees, which will then be fertilised (every year, in the autumn). However, if it was an area already dedicated to another crop, as was very likely, it was necessary to do some other work first, tilling the soil and removing the plants present in depth.

When the olive tree is still young, it must be supported with a stake to act as a support. This prevents it from being damaged by wind or other adverse weather conditions. The young tree especially suffers from drought and for this reason pits could be dug around the roots where water would be collected to keep the earth moist.
An olive tree would only be ready to bear fruit after a few years.

The olive harvest

Let us continue our story. Let us assume that the olive tree we planted in the previous paragraph is ready to produce its olives. But how is the tree cared for during the seasons and then harvested in the autumn?
Pruning and treatments are essential every year to keep the olive tree healthy. Techniques changed from area to area but also just from plant to plant according to needs. However, the annual cycle of the olive tree is that it flowers in spring and, after about two months, the olives begin to appear. These are first tiny green fruits that then gradually enlarge and change the colour of the skin, which becomes darker and darker as autumn arrives, with shades ranging from black to purplish. When even the pulp finally has the same colour as the skin, then it is time for the harvest, which will last several months, in several stages depending on the different ripeness of the fruit; it starts in the autumn and can continue even until January.

Traditional harvesting methods were various. They ranged from picking the ripe fruit that fell spontaneously on the ground, to shaking the tree crown to drop the olives, to picking them by hand while they were still on the tree. In addition, at the time, families who did not have enough labour during the harvest also cut the branches, thus also pruning at the same time. Much of the labour came from the Apennine hinterland, if not all the way from Piedmont.

At the oil mill

The historical mills that are still in operation are true museums of local material culture that allow us to see how they were made centuries ago and how they worked.
The fixed part of the mill consists of a stone basin, the edges of which differ in type and height depending on the area. This part called the ‘pilla’/’pila’ is where the olives are poured in to be crushed by a rotating vertical stone millstone. Historically it could be driven by a work animal, such as a donkey or a mule, or it was spun by water.
When the olives have been crushed in the mill, this paste is put inside the “fiscoli”, which are containers made of rope with a large mesh and a hole in the bottom, and which are stacked one on top of the other to be put under the press to squeeze the olive paste. And after much effort we finally have our oil!

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