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The Gold of the Brindisi Hills

by Federico Lacche

The Gold of the Brindisi Hills

Country lanes, at times bordered by dry stone walls meander out of sight on the estates that encircle the farms. All around, thousands of monumental olive trees. The slanting rays of the sun settle on these giants, caressing their spectacular foliage. They are ogliarola and cime di Mola, centuries-old olive trees that can exceed ten metres in height, with crowns twenty metres in diameter and a harvest of a tonne and a half of olives. Some were planted more than 700 years ago by Basilian monks who fled from the East and began to transform underground caves and hermits' cells into oil mills.

A few kilometres from Fasano, on the outermost reaches of the Murge, between the lands of Bari and those of ancient Otranto, the first stage of an itinerary begins, whose goal is to discover what the Greeks called elaion, the Latins oleum, and which for all the populations of the Mediterranean was true liquid gold. Olive oil has been used for massaging Olympic athletes, anointing kings, perfuming pharaohs and filling ancient coffers. And, of course, for enhancing all food with a flavour steeped in history. Here in the hills of Brindisi, a road has been dedicated to "his majesty" olive oil, perhaps the first in Italy. It runs for about 150 kilometres, linking the municipalities of Carovigno, Ceglie Messapica, Cisternino, Fasano, Ostuni, San Michele Salentino, San Vito dei Normanni, and Villa Castelli, passing olive mills, rural villages and, above all, old farmsteads. For it is farms that are Puglia's historical "olive oil industries", located at the centre of vast lordly estates whose prestige was not measured in acres, but in the number of olive trees.

Some had up to 50,000 "crowns", their production justified by trade and export. Hence there were ports: Gallipoli, where the oil left for the Marseilles soap industry, and Otranto, Monopoli, Bari and ancient Egnazia. From their warehouses in the fifteenth and sixteenth century, there left every year for Venice alone as many as 52,000 "salme" of oil (a salma weighed about 156 kilograms or 168 litres)!

If you are in the area a few weeks after the harvesting and pressing of the olives, a visit to the Olive Oil Museum near Fasano is a must. It is part of a farm owned by an historic family of Apulian olive growers and is located on the original 11th-12th century nucleus of a farm that was attached to the abbey of the Greek monks of St. Nicholas in Casole d'Otranto. On display are traditional millstones once operated by draught animals, machinery for removing the olive pits, and mahogany oil presses fitted with strainers used when crushing the olives, oil collection tanks and many other tools that tell the story of oil production from 1600 to the early years of the last century. Another stop on the journey is the Museo Oleario di San Vito dei Normanni, housed in the magnificent halls of a former Dominican Convent. A precious legacy for the younger generations, the exhibition tells the story of olive oil, the art related to its production and rural culture.

On the road that links Fasano to Ostuni – the white queen of olive trees – one passes dozens of dwellings, often used for agritourism and with widely varying architecture: noble farms, abbey farms and fortified farms, not infrequently in late Renaissance and Baroque style. Some have been abandoned for years while others have been tastefully restored and organised to accommodate tourists who pass through seeking purchases and tastings. There are tiny cups of olive oil to taste in a special ritual. You hold the cup in the palm of one hand, covering the rim with the other to warm the oil.  You then remove your hand and the bouquet of perfumes explodes. Next comes the tasting: inhaling deeply, moving the tongue quickly to better appreciate the flavour.
Olive oil has to meet specific criteria: extra-virgin must be below one degree of acidity, virgin below two degrees, while oil over three degrees is classed as non-edible "lamp" oil. The oil from the hills of Brindisi was the first to receive a protected designation of origin (DOC). Essentially, this is olive oil produced from ancient trees of which at least 70% are of the ogliarola salentina variety, and the remaining 30% celline di Nardò or a mix of coratino and leccino.

Olive oil can also be regarded as an elixir or "medicine": it slows down cell aging and helps prevent hardening of the arteries, cancer and gallstones. It is also a cosmetic. The Egyptians knew this and used it as an anti-wrinkle preparation and an emollient for the body. So did the old rural communities, who used oil to extract thorns from the skin or to make their hair shine. It's true, olive oil is able to charm and seduce. In the mighty branches of this area's olive trees, or in the trunks that are sometimes made into sculptures, the extraordinary power of nature is reinstated. Not only are the olive trees beautiful, they are our historical landscape. And this is why the first Italian oil route was established. All you have to do is follow it – perhaps in this period of harvesting and pressing, when every year for the past thousand years we celebrate a silent alliance between man and nature.

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