Puglia, also called Apulia, is the largest producer of olive oil in Italy, which is the second largest producer in the world. And, one of the most beautiful sights in Puglia are groves of ancient olive trees.
We were fortunate, during our trip in Puglia (Spring 2019), to stay at two farms with ancient trees. At Masseria Stefanodelconte (Fasano) the trees are about 600 years old and at Il Frantoio (Ostuni) they are close to 1,000 years old.
Walking among the trees is an experience that cannot be forgotten. Like a portrait gallery, you wander among static images but you are instantly aware of the personality of each of the “sitters.” Unlike a portrait gallery, in this gallery every tree is a living, producing being, and the impression that each has a story to tell is not easily dispelled simply because they do not speak.
I found myself enchanted by these trees. I needed to touch them, to simply rest my hand on them the way I might to a very old person, conveying my respect and admiration. It was hard not to trace the curves and twists of the bark with my fingertips, to gingerly access spots of bare wood, and think of all the world events of the hundreds of years that this tree has stood on this place.
Because of my fascination with these trees, my love for olive oil, and the close contact I had with the producers, I interviewed Alessandra Loparco, at Il Frantoio, to get additional insight into the world of olives. Her talk with me emphasized the contrasts of old and new.
She started out by telling me about lamp oil. Though today we use kerosene or petroleum-based oil for lamps and lanterns, vegetable oils were used in the past. The olive trees in Puglia were sources for lamp oil because of the way the olives were harvested: The fruit was allowed to fall to the ground and once it was all there, the olives were swept up with leaves and dirt and more and taken to the mill. The quality of the oil produced was not fit for food, and so was used for lamps. The craze for extra virgin oil is relatively recent and has been the impetus for ever greater care and quality in the production methods that produce the huge variety of oils in our supermarkets today. You’ll find a link below to a video about how olive oil is made.)
Walking in the groves you notices immediately how far apart the old trees are. No, it isn’t that the trees in between have died, but that the ancients planted them far apart, knowing they would live for a very long time and planning for them to have the space to grow. Modern groves are planted close together to maximize production. Today’s trees are only allowed to produce for about 20-30 years, then they are destroyed and replaced. Also, they are planted close together so that harvesting by machine is more efficient.
Alessandra told us that her parents cultivate olive trees on their property, adding their fruit to that of other small producers in the area to get oil for their own use.
She told us that olives grown to eat are not the same olives that are grown for oil, and that there are about 530 different varieties of olives in the world, though only 2 are grown in Puglia. The ancient olive trees produce tiny olives. Their oil is used exclusively to make oil.
She explained the factors that contribute to the ancient olive tree’s unusual and unique shapes: Disease and bacteria hollow them out; absence and presence of water produce the counter-clockwise twisting, and insects making their homes contribute to surface textures.
However, one particular pest is currently devastating the olive trees in Italy, Xylella fastidiosa. One of the most dangerous plant bacteria known, thousands of trees are infected, and dying. We saw groves of dead trees on our drives in the southern part of the Salento region, in what I call the “stiletto” of the boot. The owners of infected farms have been asked to destroy their sick trees to try to halt the spread of the bacteria. That is akin to killing off your grandmother or grandfather. It is heart-breaking. And, the disease is moving inexorably northward.
Here is a comprehensive and excellent article about Xylella and the olive trees in Puglia. It explains the controversies and emotions swirling around the potential loss of these ancient trees, and the seed of hope that they can be saved by grafting branches of disease resistant strains onto the ancient trunks.
The destruction of the olive oil industry in Italy would also have severe economic consequences. And, just in case you feel that this is a tempest in a teapot, each of the ancient trees in Puglia is numbered, as they are considered a World Heritage.