Like wine, olive oil is romantic. There is a charming array of books about renovating ancient homes with olive groves in Tuscany and other Mediterranean destinations. These books are as much about renovating lives as renovating homes.
There are equally charming books about creating new olive groves, dedicated to producing the highest quality and most delicious olive oil, in countries like Australia.
The passion for olive oil draws consumers in the transforming and civilizing direction of more natural lives. This page is dedicated to overviewing a few stories.
Frances Mayes’s Under The Tuscan Sun puts a warm patina on the hard work of revitalising trees, restoring houses, and re-working a metropolitan lifestyle. The satisfaction of accomplishment spills out of every word, along with the sense of a fuller life, and a deeper understanding of humanity.
Patrice Newell’s The Olive Grove is a fresh and forward-looking story about moving from a television job in Sydney to a 10,000 acre farm in the Hunter Valley, and deciding to plant a brand new olive grove. ‘Once we’ve settled on the romantic idea of planting our own grove, we’re faced with the practical decision of where to put it’ (38). Although olive trees are not native, ‘their willowing shimmer has an Australian cadence – like our humour, dry and understated’ (236). She has created a biodynamic haven for the production of great food.
Patrice Newell’s achievement is a challenge to the future as much as the past.
Annie Hawes found life ‘amongst the Olive Groves of Liguria’ so appealing that she left London behind. Her book ‘Extra Virgin’ presents a delightful picture of adapting full-time to the life of olive farming in Italy. She makes the case for fulfilment based on a combination of personal achievement, healthy food, community engagement, and working with nature. She concludes a story of a man who survived a great fall by landing in a pile of olive waste by asking ‘Is there no end to the versatility of the olive?’ (322)
Geoffrey Luck’s Villa Fortuna is ‘the story of an Australian couple’s experience of living in both Italies’ (7), i.e. the Italy of historic grandeur, and the Italy of Italians today. The Luck family added 50 new trees to the ‘one remaining old olive tree’ inside the boundary of their new home in Umbria. These trees gave them credit in their community, where the ‘tradition lives on’ of ‘the very special, almost mystical importance attached to the oil of the olive’ (268). ‘To have one’s own oliveto is not merely important in producing oil for the household, which on average uses between fifty and one hundred litres a year, it is prestigious… “You will be self-sufficient”, everyone told us’ (268). On the virtues of olive oil, ‘what the ancients know from experience, modern scientists have proven with their chemical analysis – olive oil is good for you. Containing no cholesterol, it is the best form of fat to use to avoid heart disease, and it reduces gastric acidity… None of this makes up for the fact that olives have to be picked in bitter weather’ (269).
Carol Drinkwater’s The Olive Farm has Mae West’s ‘Too much of a good thing can be wonderful’ as one of its mottoes. But when it comes to the work of picking the olives and laying out nets to catch them, she is mindful of the fact that ‘the work we are doing here is keeping faith with the past. It has been acted out for thousands of years. The olive is un arbre noble, a noble tree… It is considered a divine tree, too… There is dignity and humility in this work’ (251).
Paul Gervais’ A Garden in Lucca is billed as a ‘lyrical portrait of an antique Italian villa, with its olive groves and vineyards, filled with lively lunches, impertinent peacocks and vibrant local characters’. Gervais writes that ‘if the garden is a metaphor for all that we touch with a fervid stretch of our imaginations, then this book will describe my life, or way of life, in a place that (certain) people… will inevitably call, in wistful tones, “paradise”’ (3). And later, ‘it was nothing short of momentous that afternoon in April when I stood in the cleaned up courtyard after a day’s work… My back ached, but I couldn’t have felt better’ (161).
What comes out of all this that there is a rare magic in any involvement with olives and the olive oil which they yield up to enhance our ways of life.