Tuesday 19 October 2010

Olive picking in Umbria

So many times I've found myself writing about wonderful events and times of the year that are current, here in Umbria and Tuscany. My philosophy has been that our readers might be inspired by these profiles and want to plan trips around them for the following year.

This time, I will talk about olive picking in Umbria. Some agricultural estates in Umbria offer olive harvest holidays, you can participate in the harvest as much or as little as you want and take home extra virgin olive oil from Umbria, which is considered among the best of Italian olive oils.

So, if any of you are coming to visit this autumn, you may want to add this idea to your itinerary.
I hope you enjoy reading this blog article as much as I have enjoyed researching and writing it!
November is the month to pick olives. The earlier the better.

In most Mediterranean areas, olives are harvested in the months of November, December and January. But here in Umbria, where cooler valleys are sometimes touched with early frosts, the harvest can begin as early as the end of October. Our early harvest means that the fruit is less ripe, and therefore produces less oil, making Umbrian olive oil a bit more rare than others. The less ripe olives also account for the prized peppery taste of our oil. Of course, we love this special oil, and its arrival is always cause for celebration.

Olives are still picked by hand, and they are combed from the tree branches with a long instrument that resembles a strange pair of scissors, and then put into baskets. While some areas are using more mechanical methods of harvesting the olives, these are not yet ideal, as they can damage both the olives and the trees. The old method still prevails. In Umbria, the olives are always picked by hand, for Umbrians do not believe that an olive that falls to the ground is worthy of our fine olio; such an olive could be damaged and spoil an entire pressing.

Because it is done by hand, olive harvesting is difficult work. Usually, the entire family, and often their friends, are called upon to pitch in with the farm workers for the harvest. The olives are picked while green and timing is vastly important. Once the fruit is off the trees, it must be rushed to the press in order to avoid spoilage. An olive is 20 percent oil, and while this may not seen like a lot, the high fat content can cause the olives to spoil quickly. Fermentation also becomes an issue once the olives are picked. So, it is on to the presses as quickly as possible.

It takes a lot of olives to produce a liter of oil; about 200 hundred per liter is an average number. However, among the finest oils, it sometimes takes the fruit of an entire tree to produce a liter.
In Umbria, as in most of Italy, the olives are pressed at a communal mill which is called a Frantoio. At the frantoio, many growers bring their olives to be pressed, but each grower is proud of his olives and comes along with them to the mill, to be sure that only his harvest goes into the pressing. Each grower must make an appointment for his pressing, and sometimes his entire family comes along to await the final product.

Friday 15 October 2010

Chestnut festivals in Umbria

October is the month of the chestnut harvest and there are chestnut festivals all over Italy, with small taverns serving excellent homecooked food completely focused on the creative and original use of chestnuts. My favourite chestnut festival is the one that takes place in Preggio (Umbria).

Local residents open up their houses and cook a selection of local dishes, which are served on the streets to hungry residents and visitors. These meals go down a treat with a glass of novello wine (new wine).

All the basement rooms of the old houses of the village open up as tiny restaurants, featuring varied menus that include roasted chestnuts and dishes made with chestnuts. Local artisans display their crafts.

Monday 11 October 2010

Eurochocolate in Perugia

There are few things I can think of that make travel more pleasurable than food – whether it’s trying something new, or tasting an old favorite in the place where it was born. And because so many people around the world are so passionate about chocolate, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Perugia’s annual Eurochocolate festival draws countless visitors from all corners of the world.

Held in October each year since 1993, Perugia’s Eurochocolate chocolate festival has been steadily growing in popularity. Today, it is one of the most important chocolate festivals in Europe and features everything from theatre and music performances to cooking demonstrations and chocolate art exhibits. A highlight for most visitors is the collection of outdoor chocolate sculptures; between all the chocolate used in the artwork and all the chocolate being sold by vendors outdoors, if the weather is warm you won’t be able to walk through town without breathing the chocolate-scented air.

Each year, Eurochocolate has a different theme – in past years it’s been things like “City of Chocolate,” “Chokolate Revolution,” and “Chocolage.” The latter theme was meant to speculate as to the evolution of chocolate, and the promotional photographs included a woman using a chocolate bar as a mobile phone!

Perugia, the capital and largest city in Umbria, was the sole site of Eurochocolate until 2000, when other cities in Italy saw what a great idea it was and decided to get in on the act. Many of those cities have broken away from the Eurochocolate umbrella and have started their own chocolate festivals (such as Turin’s annual chocolate festival, CioccolaTÃ’), but one city which remains affiliated with Perugia’s Eurochocolate festival is Modica – their chocolate festival is held each year in March.