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At a restored villa on a rejuvenated olive farm, writer Dee King gets a taste of what life was like for olive harvesters before mechanisation – and drinks deeply of Tuscany itself.
My trip in 2012 to the small hamlet of San Macario in Monte, turned out to be more than just an ordinary holiday. I soon realised, on accepting an invitation to experience the olive harvest in the southern foothills of northwest Tuscany’s Apuan Alps, that I had also embarked on a trip into the past.
Having left behind the cold grey damp of a London October morning, I emerged into the full sunshine of a mediaeval Lucca, at a pleasant twenty four degrees. Met by my charming hosts, I was chauffeured through verdant, rolling Tuscan landscapes, accented every few yards by the majestic silhouettes of silent cypresses.
rolling hilltops. We were heralded by a stirring symphony of birdsong, a sound so all-pervading that any distant memories of a loud London life soon seemed to dissolve in a haze of semi-conscious daydreams.
I soon found myself in elegant rooms, furnished with an array of antiques, and locally sourced tapestries. The walls were graced by photographic prints conveying a mystical interpretation of local imagery; beds were adorned with sumptuous linens and fluffy towels. As the evening began to unfold, guests were transported from dreary city routines by the taste of culinary delights, and later the sounds of exquisite piano melodies around a crackling log fire.
Arty Brown purchased this unique, history-steeped, seventeenth-century property in 2001 and immediately commenced an ambitious renovation programme. Today, it stands in all its glory on sunny southern slopes just outside Lucca. Complete with panoramic infinity pool terrace and a choice of outdoor dining locations to suit the time of day, it is a haven of relaxation in which to find rest and renewal before and after the energising oliveharvest routine. Views in every direction from the villa and its terraces skim delicately through silvery grey foliage: the two and a half thousand thriving olive trees, which make up this ancient grove; mist enwreathed mountains; villages in the valley, shimmering in the magical autumn sun.
During our week’s stay we are blessed with day after day of warm sensuous sunshine. I join the team of harvesters each morning, as we don our gloves and set off into the wilds of the olive grove in search of our daily workout.
Did I say “workout”?!
This is no ordinary physical workout. We tune into this rejuvenating experience, as Mother Earth and Nature’s gym embraces us with the supremacy of their mysterious powers. The olives are harvested in the time-honoured, traditional way. We cluster convivially around a chosen tree to release folds of netting with which to catch our first harvest. Finally the process begins. As I climb up into the tree, I find distant memories of childhood adventure returning. Once up high, and armed with a small rake, I can reach up to propel bursting explosions of these tiny green jewels down into the waiting nets below. Meanwhile, colleagues on the ground whisk poles and combs among branches, sending more and more showers of these perfect fruits plummeting earthwards. Others gather below, as if performing some mysterious pagan dance, they lift the edges of the oil-scented nets high above their heads entrapping the cascading armies of emerald ovals. As they fall, the tiny fruits of our labour, now moving at speed, make a last bid for freedom from the awaiting crates, as they roll frantically into pockets and crevices. Military precision prevents any chance of escape.
The day’s work draws to a close. While our host makes plans to revive us with one of his “special cocktails,” we envisage a well-deserved soak in a deeply aromatic bath.
Day Three dawns and, with crates piled high and loaded onto waiting transport, we now escort our plentiful crop with collective pride and make the seven-kilometre journey to the age-old, traditional oil press. Here we meet leather-faced locals of calm demeanour, who transform our colourful produce, with mind-boggling efficiency, into a delectable green nectar.
That evening we celebrate our triumph, and have our first taste of this new and sacred bounty. We are not disappointed. I vow never more to buy my olive oil in the supermarket. This is a taste straight from the gods. I have never experienced anything as uniquely uplifting. It even beats chocolate!
After proudly labelling each bottle or can with the distinctive ‘A Capo’ name (the official name of Arty’s property), we spend the remainder of the week in gentle exploration of a proud and noble land. From the exquisite delights of the walled medieval city of Lucca, bustling with local colour and steeped in Etruscan history, to the serious pursuit of higher culture and quality retail therapy, offered by nearby Florence, home of the Medicis. Our palates are pampered all the while by all manner of local delicacies, as well as the extraordinarily creative culinary expertise of our host. We sample wines and aperitifs, which elevate our taste buds to new heights, while evening entertainment is provided from our host’s distinctive repertoire of musical expertise.
The day of departure arrives all too soon and I find myself once again bound for English soil. I have a lightness of spirit however as I embark on the plane. Only I know the secret of the precious Tuscan cargo now packed carefully into my hold bag. It will be my defence against the grey and cold of a London winter. As I share the magical nectar with family and friends, memories return again and again of the warmth of a Tuscan sun mingling gently with sounds of birdsong and vistas filled with heavenly hues.
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