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Olive oil c. 1750

Olive oil c. 1750

What follows is a description of olive cultivation and olive oil production in Calabria in the 18th c. It is taken from a work by Domenico Grimaldi, a Calabrian-Genovese aristocrat and Enlightenment figure who was highly critical of these practices and sought to change them. To begin with trees were planted relatively close together (I don’t have a figure) and never trimmed. As a result they grew very tall and the crowns of adjoining trees intertwined. Those trees would of course be difficult to harvest except that in some sense they were not as farmers simply waited for the olives to fall from the trees and indeed generally waited for there to be an adequate quantity so that they could be swept up, generally in May or June (as opposed to October or November as recommended by Grimaldi who advocated picking). Once the olives had been gathered they were put into bins and allowed to heat up (which they do naturally) for as long as 15 days or more. It was apparently believed that all of these practices would increase yields though the harvesting practice meant that they only got one crop every two years. The olives then went through three consecutive crushing and pressings: a first cold press, a second press with hot water, and a final press to extract oil from the pits (sansa). Apparently no attempt was made to segregate the three presses, though given the fruit with which they were working it may not have made much difference. Much of the oil produced in Calabria at the time was used for industrial purposes: soap, wool production, lighting. Good thing you may say, but apparently this stuff was also consumed in notable quantities by the popular classes. So who’s in favor of reviving traditional Italian foodways? Perhaps it is not a surprise that the oil served at the royal table in Caserta was imported. [The images are from Specchia and Gallipoli in Puglia; I still need to visit Calabrian presses.]

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