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 Slow Tuscany > Tuscany > Pisa > The Good Giants of Tuscany
Olive trees:
The "good giants" of Tuscany

Damiano Andreini

Olives in Tuscany
Since November is about to begin, I need to tell you about another great Tuscan symbol: the olive. In fact, the period in which olives are picked and pressed is just now beginning. It is a ritual that seems to have been repeating itself identically for thousands of years. The same gestures, the same rhythm of work, even the machinery in the olive presses are virtually the same. Participating in a harvest is like going back in time and becoming an Etruscan, Roman or medieval farmer. We get up early in the morning because November days are short, and there is no time to lose. And then its coffee, milk, and jam on your bread that has been toasted in the fireplace. We dress in wool so the fog and the cold won't penetrate our bones.

The stairs, the nets, a pair of gloves and we're off! The best way to pick olives is the simple antique way of taking a hold of each individual branch and sliding your hand up and down it until every olive has fallen off onto the net below. The olive tree is a majestic and robust plant. It's a symbol of nobility and stability.

Olives trees in Tuscany

According to mythology, the olive tree was created out of a dispute between the Gods Poseidon and Athena who were competing for the protectorate of a Greek region. In order to win the favour of the men, Poseidon donated a beautiful horse to them as a sign of strength, courage and war. Athena planted her spear in their land and from it germinated a plant that gushed gold liquid from its fruit. The Goddess promised all of them that if they drank the liquid, they would never become violent. The people chose her gift and called the city Athens. Since then, the olive has been a symbol of peace, work and serenity.

In Italy, the olive appeared in about 600 B.C. It was brought by sea from Greek colonies and was first cultivated by the Etruscans. Adult olive plants are tall and large enough so that at least three or four people are needed to work on them at a time. This is when different personalities will emerge: who will be on the ground to pick and who will be adventurous enough to climb to the very top of the tree.

From the top of an olive tree at the peak of a hill, the world is not the same. The sky is cloudy. The fog in the background is disturbing and the dark and dangerous forests of autumn furnish gloomy and suggestive scenes in which it's a pleasure to lose oneself among the repetitive movements of the harvest. On beautiful days those forests and valleys come back to life with the warm colours touched by golden rays of sunlight. In either case, you will never feel like coming back down. In Tuscany, and in Italy in general, there are olive trees as old as Romanesque Cathedrals and, sometimes, even more beautiful. It is a fact that an olive tree can live for over 1,000 years. Broad, dark trunks that are contorted and hollowed out from centuries of rainfall often seem like strange animal shapes. The tallest branches, dry and curved, resemble thin, shaking arms. But it isn't easy to find them.

An ancient Olive tree

In 1985, Tuscany was hit by an exceptional cold spell and many of the trees, even the oldest ones, did not survive the snow and ice and had to be replaced. Yet it seems incredible that the majority of the surviving "good giants" are found not just in Tuscany, but near antique monastery complexes. Is it the meticulous care of the monks or Divine favour? Whatever it may be, try to visit the Benedictine Abbey of Sant' Antimo, or the one near Mt. Oliveto Maggiore, or the ones of the Carthusian Monks of Calci and of Florence. The list could go on and on. Along with its bricks, statues, and enormous frescos on the walls, each one of these incredible architectural complexes has preserved its precious olive trees for centuries as well.

As you can see, I haven't talked to you yet about olive oil, and there is a reason. On-line you can look up a site that was created by a Tuscan farmer who seems to be not only an expert on good olive oil, but also a true believer in the traditional Tuscan farmer. On the site you'll find sections on the cultivation, harvesting, and pressing of olives as well as pictures of Gino and Pina, experts in pruning and harvesting olives. Before saying "goodbye", I want to remind you about another site that will tell you about the health benefits of an olive-oil based diet.

Damiano Andreini
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