Agriturismo Protects Puglia’s Ancient Olive Trees
by Andy Balestracci
photos by Andy Balestracci & Linda MacElwee
In a country where olive oil is revered, Puglia is the heartland. Located in the heel of the Italian peninsula, it’s home to an estimated 60 million trees—one tree, our host explained, for every Italian.
We were walking through the warm sunshine of an olive orchard planted approximately 2000 seasons ago at Masseria Brancati, an agriturismo olive farm and Bed & Breakfast, located a few miles outside the whitewashed hilltown of Ostuni. The Masseria is a traditional Puglian Farmhouse, with thick, fortified walls to protect their wealth against centuries of attempted theft. The coveted riches were not coins or jewels but the liquid gold of the day— olive oil.
Corrado Rodio, Masseria Brancati‘s visionary owner, oversees a living treasure of the Puglian culture in the olive trees he stewards. There were two striking observations on our arrival: the girth of the trees and the wide spacing.
Having lived in the Mediterranean climate of California for the last 20 years, I have grown to love the hardiness and abundance of the Olive or Olea europaea. Where other foodcrops would wither to dust, it’s able to thrive dry-farmed, from the first fragrant June blossom to the oil-plump late fall harvest of ripe fruit. Olives were first planted in California in the late nineteenth century—relative toddlers compared to the massive, gnarled, Ent-like trees of Masseria.
These trees are also distinguished from their California cousins by their open, park like spacing. Most modern day plantings are closely packed to maximize production with irrigation. The Masseria’s trees were planted sometime in the 1st century A.D. using the Roman method, with trees spaced approximately 60 feet apart. This approach maximizes soil moisture—helpful for a time when there were no machines to pump water from underground aquifers.
The Roman writer Columella described this practice in his 1st century A.D. agricultural treatise, De Re Rustica.
There are two varieties of olive trees grown at Masseria Brancati: Ogliarola Salentina and Coratina. Of these the Ogliarola Salentina variety is, perhaps, the oldest. Amongst the wide and evenly spaced Roman era giants stands a bent over spiral living trunk known as The Old Man—estimated to be 3000 years old and perhaps the father of them all. At the time of its planting, olive oil was not just used for cooking. Olive oil lamps lit the ancient world. And Ogliarola Salentina oil from The Old Man may have lit up a million nights. Last year, it still produced about 15 pounds of olives.
Despite the hardiness of these and other Puglian Olives, they face many obstacles. To combat market pressures to maximize orchard plantings and standardize for increasingly mechanized harvesting, the regional Government, in June 2007, gave designated ancient trees protection under law. The Millenari di Puglia project was born to identify and protect these ancient trees—sometimes individually, sometimes as whole orchards—like those at Masseria Brancati.
The orchard may not have changed that much over the centuries but the technology of olive milling and pressing has. We walked down a flight of carved out limestone stairs into the hypogeum, or underground cellar. These are common among the Masserias of Puglia—both for the natural climate control but also for keeping the oil safe from marauding Adriatic pirates. This space carved from the native limestone, and a “newer”19th century millstone aboveground, contains oil presses, mills, and settling basins that span 2,500 years: Messapian (700BC-200BC), Roman (200BC-), and Medieval/ Venetian (1400AD-1880AD).
In 2013, an insect-borne bacterial blight, Xylella Fastidiosa, emerged, causing quick death in infected trees. The current theory proposes that the bacterium was introduced from landscaping plants imported from Brazil. In Puglia, more than a million trees have been killed. And despite a government- imposed quarantine zone that spans the breadth of the Italian peninsula, the bacterium has spread to France and, most recently, to Spain. Concern is high and there has been a lot of finger pointing, but it looks like Xylella is here to stay. Let’s hope that a method of control is found soon, or a tiny bacterium may eradicate trees that have endured through many centuries and multiple empires.
As we walked through the orchard in the afternoon light, we couldn’t help but be overcome with emotion, contemplating the foresight and labor of a long dead farmer. The impressive longevity of these trees has yielded so many harvests, lit up so many nights, and brought a smile to many a grateful visitor. Let us hope for another 2000 years of plenty.
Masseria Brancati: http://masseriabrancati.it/index.php/en/
Millenari di Puglia: http://www.ulivisecolaridipuglia.com/en/the-project