“November may not be the time of year that you’d think of for going to Italy but as we soon discovered, it’s the best time to visit – much quieter so you avoid the big tour groups, fields full of vines turned fiery and trees a stunning shade of yellow/orange, soft warm light and lots of sunshine. Driving up the windy roads to La Cuccagna, the views getting more and more stunning as we climbed higher into the hills, I could tell I wasn’t going to want to go home! Hosts Sarah & Salvatore had invited us into their home to experience their olive harvest and make our own olive oil, one of many great experience holidays they offer (alongside pasta and pizza making, art retreats and weddings and special events).
We stayed at La Cisterna, a beautiful outhouse alongside their four B&B rooms and a self-catering cottage on site. This offers the perfect mix of B&B and self-catering with a beautifully comfortable bed, fantastic rainforest shower and a small kitchen unit for tea and coffee and simple cooking if you wish, although given the amazing food both on-site and nearby, you probably won’t want to cook much!
After a delicious continental breakfast complete with homemade jams and chestnut honey from Salvatore’s chestnut farm further south, we headed out in the pick-up to the olive groves, a 10-minute drive away. A short walk up a dirt track revealed one side of the grove, the site for today’s harvest. The olive nets had already been laid out under the trees by Salvatore and fellow farmer and good friend Paolo, and we were ready to get picking. Sarah & Salvatore are one of only a few bigger olive farms that still harvest by hand, using a mix of electric pickers operated by climbing in the trees and picking the lower branches by hand.
Given how steep the slopes are, it’s the best way to get access to the most olives. We work our way round each tree, being careful not to tread on any of the fallen olives and using the nets to roll them down the hill where they are collected for cleaning. This involves sitting in the sunshine and running our hands through the piles of olives to remove as many of the big branches and leaves as possible, very therapeutic. A sunhat and suncream are necessary at this point as the midday sun streams down on us, reaching 24 degrees which we really hadn’t expected in November! We stop around 1pm for an al fresco picnic lunch of breads, meats and cheeses washed down with a glass of their homemade red wine. Sat on the nets under the shade of the olive tree, I really couldn’t think of a better place in the world to be!
A few more trees to go and then we packed up around 4 as we needed to get everything over to the olive press to make sure the oil is as fresh as possible. Some farms wait until the end of their harvest to press the olives to make it cheaper and more convenient than doing several smaller trips, but Salvatore is a true perfectionist and knows that the best oil comes from the freshest olives so every 2 or 3 days, he takes what they have to the press.
The press itself is like stepping back in time – old farmers and young helpers congregate and compare harvesting stories. Set in the valley below the striking Montelabate Abbey which dates back to the 9th century, they work into the darkness to press olives from several different farms, each of which has a distinct flavour and colour depending on the variety. Firstly, the olives are put on a conveyor belt type machine to be washed, then taken through to the main building and labelled with the family name of the farm. Then they are tipped into another machine that washes and cleans them again – there are a lot of bits of leaf and branch to remove. From there, they head into the barrels to be crushed into a paste and then pumped into another container to be filtered and strained before one final filtration and cleaning process and then the bright green oil pours into the containers. Several hours later, we are beaming as we lug our haul into the pickup and head home to taste the results!
This is a real labour of love – La Cuccagna have been lucky to have a good crop this year as last year’s was hit by bad
weather but this autumn has been beautifully warm and compared to many locals, they are on target to get a good percentage of their crop. The 3 days of harvesting which we took to the press produced 477 kilos of olives, which made 71 litres of oil for us to take home, but what oil it is! I’ve never tasted anything like it – vivid green, slightly bitter and delicious simply coated on to fresh bread – “pane e olio”. We share bread and oil and a lovely homemade wild boar pasta dinner with the family and collapse into bed exhausted from a full day outdoors, the best kind of tired!
I can’t recommend an olive picking experience at La Cuccagna enough – we spent 3 glorious days there exploring the many amazing historic towns that surround the farm – Gubbio, Assisi, Perugia and eating some of the best food I’ve ever tasted. We were even lucky enough to take part in one of Salvatore’s pizza nights – with homemade pizzas cooked in their wood-fired oven and plenty of good red wine and conversation. We left feeling part of the family and we’re already planning our return trip next year. A true taste of Umbria and a stay that really was unique and special!”
To plan your next Italian foodie adventure, visit our Taste of Italy collection: www.sawdays.co.uk