Trani 12 May 2019
I’m just wrapping up my first week in Trani (and so Puglia). I managed to visit five different properties/olive groves and conduct four taped interviews. The properties lie in the provinces of Andria, Trani, Bitonto and maybe Barletta (I wasn’t always driving so at times had a vague sense of where I was). The general consensus here - and here can be described as either the northern Barese or BAT (Barletta-Andria-Trani), the small region carved off from Bari a few years ago – is that Andria is the center of high quality oil production in Puglia. In the 1970s there were 110 frantoi (oil mills there); thanks to technological improvements today there are only 8 while oil production has increased and quality improved. In fact, the historical work I have been doing reveals that reforms introduced in Terra di Bari in the early nineteenth century meant that by the latter part of the century (following Italian unification) observers like Stefano Jacini were declaring the best Italian oils to be those of Lucca and of Bari. So local claims would seem to be more than chauvinistic boasting.
In more recent times, the region suffered a devastating blow last year (2018) when (on Feb. 28-March 1) temperatures dropped to -7C, freezing the trees, and then soared to 20C within a day or so. According to one interviewee, the tree sap exploded and oil production fell to between 0 and 20% of normal. The hardest hit trees were those at slightly higher elevations and further inland. No-one living, and I’ve met several 80+ year olds this week, had ever experienced anything like this.
Nonetheless, prospects for this year are good; the trees are generally heavy with buds and if the weather cooperates, flowering should occur in the next week or two. And while it is hard not to suspect climate change to have played a role in last year’s disaster, what I’ve come to realize is that for olive growers, indeed for all farmers, the quixotic nature of weather is nothing new and so is met with a degree of fatalism. More than once I’ve heard the padre eterno (holy father) invoked as playing a crucial role in determining the nature of the harvest. He is not, however, alone. The care devoted to olivicoltura here is remarkable. The growers I’ve met speak of their trees like children and though they don’t give them names do seem to know each one individually. I was shown pruning and grafting techniques and a host of measure taken to care for each tree and combat the multiple pests and diseases that afflict the trees. And while attitudes about organic farming vary – one yes, one no, one who was organic but switched back to conventional – best practices do include annual pruning (twice a year if you include “green pruning” that removes suckers), at least annual plowing, mowing, mulching, fertilizing and treatments, mostly copper, to ward off pests. I also visited mills this week where equipment and practices vary some, but overall the growers I met are aiming to produce a high quality oil and the market, tight as prices generally are, seems to be rewarding them. I’ve included some pictures from this past week.