ITALY's (NON-EXISTENT) OLIVE HARVEST 2014

Hail damaged olives with olive fruit fly punctures - harvest 2014
Sniffing out the good olives - not that there were many...

A combination of bad weather (very mild winter 2013/14 followed by a rainy summer) has led to Italy's most disastrous olive harvest of the century. Right, the century is still young, but we can only pray that we'll never have to see our grove looking as miserable as this autumn until the end of it. To explain what I'm talking about here some facts and figures from the last three olive harvests in our Tuscan grove and the resulting yield of extra virgin olive oil (EVOO):  

In 2012 we picked 542 kg of olives and pressed 74 kg of EVOO (yield 13%).
In 2013 we picked 713 kg of olives and pressed 78 kg of EVOO (yield 11%).
In 2014 we picked   90 kg of olives and pressed   8 kg of EVOO (yield  9%). 

The 2014 olive harvest is just over a tenth of last year's, but we have to consider ourselves lucky that we actually managed to taste our EVOO 2014. Many olive farmers through Italy didn't even bother to start picking. To save the savable, we spread out the nets as soon as our village's olive press opened in the first half of October. But considering the generous use of EVOO in Tuscan cooking, the picked 8 kg will get my in-laws and our family of four not even through the next two months even though the production of our fifty trees is for private use only. 

Incredibly enough the year started off looking like a glorious vintage. At least to me from my breakfast view point at the table under our Moraiolo tree. Most olive groves are made up of several varietals of olive trees and every year the yield differs between the various types. This spring the Moraiolo olive tree under which I have my daily cappuccino has been bearing olive flowers and later olives like never before. 

A twig with olive flowers and a table with fallen blossoms in May 2014
The flowers of a Moraiolo olive tree in our grove in spring 2014

Water drops on green olives after summer rain in a Tuscan grove
Plenty of  olives on our Moraiolo tree in September

#Febothecat and a pumpkin on the table under our Moraiolo olive tree.


However, other varietals were barren looking all through summer -  mainly the early ripening Leccino trees, which are normally laden with black olives by mid October. But as bountiful as the Moraiolo tree may have looked in late spring and summer, once the harvest started the majority of olives weren't on but already under the tree. 


Infested and shriveled olives lying on the ground
Infested olives of the Moraiolo varietal dropped off before start of harvest in mid October

So what happened? And who is the culprit? 

There are countless olive pests that can kill a whole crop. But it needs a working together of various climatic factors to get them going. The mild temperatures during last winter didn't manage to kill off harmful insects and bacteria and the humid spring and wet summer set the ideal conditions for them to proliferate madly.

THE OLIVE DISEASES

Well known all through Southern Europe, the olive fruit fly (Bactrocera oleae or Dacus oleae) is always a threat for Italy's EVOO production. Lower lying groves near the coast are normally most affected, but this year trees located inland and higher up were also hit hard.

An insect called tignola, the olive moth (prays oleae) is a lesser known plague, since its damage is normally small enough for most experts and producers to agree, that it is not necessary to intervene. Not this year though! 

Fungi belonging to the Anthracnose family have made the disaster come full circle. The secondary infections had an easy game on the already ailing olives in most Italian groves (for an overview of the most important olive diseases and disorders read on here).  


A bottle of freshly pressed Tuscan olive oil on a table with a ginger cat on it and a great view over the hills
Our freshly pressed Tuscan Evoo 2014 - as precious as never before


EVOO is often affectionately called liquid gold. Never will this have been so true as in 2014, since the scarce harvest will skyrocket the prices of Italian extra virgin olive oil. European olive oil at large may see a rise in prices since Spain - the world's biggest producer - is having a difficult year too, because of the extreme drought in the south of the country. 

I'm not a winter person (I've moved to Italy for a reason), but this year I'm praying for a thorough cold season with low enough temperatures to kill each single insect running havoc in Italy's olive groves. Clearly, the winter should be properly cold but not too freezing since otherwise the baby will be thrown out with the water. This happened in the notorious winter 1984/85 during which not just the olive plagues but also most trees in the groves had been razed to the ground by a three week long spell of Siberian temperatures. After this year's non-existent harvest I am starting to grasp the sorrow and despair farmers must have felt when cutting down the dead trees in their groves in the following spring. 


Olive nets and combs lying on a table with a view over the Tuscan hills
Much ado about nothing: packing up the nets and harvest utensils after a mere day of picking

For more EVOO insight read my olive harvest guide for dummies (in some years we do actually get to pick something) or see how the olive trees are pruned every year by the end of winter. 

FIAT 500 IN PITIGLIANO - TUSCANY REVISITED

Considering Pitigliano's breathtaking setting on top of a steep and crumbly Tuscan tufa stone formation, it's surprising that the town hasn't become one of the major film locations for Hollywood productions in Tuscany. Montepulciano and countless churches and hamlets in the cypress lined Val d'Orcia have prominently featured in films like Gladiator, the recent Twilight or - obviously - Under the Tuscan Sun. 

But Pitigliano's low exposure in the film world may change after its appearance in the latest Fiat 500 commercial. 







No Photoshop needed, since Pitigliano's town center and the views from and onto the town are just as beautiful as seen in the fun commercial. Balancing on its rock, the southern Tuscan town is the ideal destination for a romantic getaway - with or without the little blue pill. 

Read What to do in Pitigliano to find recommendations for best hotels, restaurants and sights in towns and great organic winery visits nearby.


DYNAMIC YOGA, WINE AND WALKING IN TUSCANY

I normally wouldn't tell my best friend to come to Tuscany to attend a yoga seminar. I love yoga and thankfully there is a wide choice for any of its practices all around. And yes, it sounds great to spend a week bending and stretching with awe-inspiring views over the rolling hills. But it sounds sad - at least to me - to have to forego Tuscany's fabulous wine and food whilst you're out here because of all that downward facing dog. 

To make sure I can at last recommend a yoga seminar in Tuscany, the people from It's Yogafirenze and Villa Le Pianore organize a joint venture stretch with plenty of chances to taste, eat, drink and explore some of the area's best in food, wine, culture and nature. 






VINYASA WINE AND WALKING AT LE PIANORE
Daily Ashtanga yoga, organic winery visits, great food, guided countryside walks, sightseeing (e.g. Sant'Antimo Abbey, Tuscany's Romanesque treasure) and a hot dip in Bagno Vignoni

Join the troupers from September 24 to 28, 2014 (or just for a day if you happen to be in the area) at gorgeous Villa Le Pianore in the green hills near Monticello Amiata in southern Tuscany. More info on the seminar and its fees via nadia@lepianore.it.

Have more time? Stay on and party along during the yearly wine harvest festival in Cinigiano. 


ROMAN PEASANT LIFE IN TUSCANY: THE EVALUATION OF THE CINIGIANO DIGS

Roman ruins are all over the place in Italy and locals normally stifle a yawn when zealous archaeologists lecture about the discovery of yet another Roman villa or thermal bath. Science has managed to puzzle together every minute detail of the modus vivendi of the Roman upper class, but things are very different when it comes to the majority of the population, since surprisingly little is known about the living conditions of the Roman farmer. 
  
During the last years groups of Brits and Americans hailing from the universities of Cambridge and Pennsylvania have tried to fill this enormous gap in a joint venture called the Roman Peasant Project together with the universities of Siena and Grosseto (I've written about the strange sudden influx of young attractive foreigners the project brought to our Tuscan backwater before). The team under scientific director Kim Bowes has been digging through the fields around Cinigiano summer after summer with the aim to unearth living quarters and artifacts which supply clues in regard to the way of life of the Roman farmer. 


Archaeologists of the Roman Peasant Project in a dig near Cinigiano
What did they find?


This summer the collaborators of the Roman Peasant Project are shoveling for the last time through southern Tuscany's hills. Before the closing of the digs the archaeologists have organized a talk to inform the locals about what life would have looked like for the most of us had we been born 2000 years ago. 

ARCHEOLOGI IN PIAZZA - CINIGIANO, JUNE 26 2014, 9.30 pm
The project directors will give an account of the works carried out, artifacts found and knowledge gained of the Roman empire's working class. We'll meet in front of bar Sport, Cinigiano's Athenaeum and true center of any kind of Tuscan knowledge exchange. In case of bad weather the event will be moved to the local theater (but we'll make sure you'll still get a free glass of wine afterwards). The talk is in Italian, but a lot of archaeologists will be around if you'd like to ask question in English later on. 

VISITING THE CINIGIANO DIGS: JULY 2 2014, 7 PM
Join us for a guided tour of one of the Maremma digs near Cinigiano. The significance of the unearthed Roman and medieval artifacts and remains of Tombarelle will be explained and put in context by the experts from the Roman Peasant Project. We'll meet in front of the tourist office (called Pro Loco in Italian) next to bar sport at 7 pm and drive to the dig in our own cars. 

Find more in depth info about the Roman Peasant Project on the website of the University of Pennsylvania. You're just after a drink? Read on about Cinigiano and its surely ancient aperitivo culture.  


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