Growing olives on the slopes of Mount Etna

In the summer of 2020, out of the blue, my father told me about a friend of his who, after decades of working in Milan as a photojournal...


In the summer of 2020, out of the blue, my father told me about a friend of his who, after decades of working in Milan as a photojournalist, decided to go back to his roots and start producing extra virgin olive oil from a family farm on the slopes of Mount Etna, a active volcano – The largest in Europe – east of Sicily.

I took the plane to meet the man, Enzo Signorelli, at the start of the olive picking season, at the end of October of the same year. It was very humid the first few days, so the harvest was postponed, and there was no certainty that I would be able to photograph it. Fortunately, towards the end of my stay, the skies opened up and gave us two warm and bright days.

Due to its height, Mount Etna is visible from practically everywhere in northeastern Sicily. (In August, its peak was 11,014 feet high, although it changes with eruptions.) But the volcano holds a particularly important place for farmers and winegrowers in the region: for millennia they have enjoyed mineral-rich soil as a result of its eruptions.

“Somewhere along the slopes there are olive trees that are at least 500 years old,” Enzo told me, adding that the Greeks and then the Romans were known to harvest olives here.

Enzo, now 63, returned to Sicily in 2011, becoming the keeper of the olive groves his family has owned and maintained for over 100 years. “I wanted to devote my time to the land and the olives,” he said. “At first, I didn’t know that this interest in me would turn into a passion – and later a full-time occupation.”

Each fall, Enzo gathers a small team of ten pickers to help with the harvest. The men work elsewhere for the rest of the year – picking oranges and lemons, for example – but remain available to Enzo during the olive season, which typically lasts from late October to mid-November.

Workers met every morning at seven o’clock, while it was still dark and cold, to build a fire while they discussed the day’s program. Then, they quickly placed the nets under the designated trees.

To harvest the olives, the men used their hands as if they were rakes, reaching into the trees with both hands and gently but firmly pulling as many of the olives as they could, then letting the fruits fall into them. fillets below.

The men, who all knew each other, spent their working hours telling stories and telling jokes. As they worked in the open air, they did not wear masks. During their lunch break, they pulled out their generous packed lunches and shared their food. Riccardo, the team leader, kindly invited me to taste the meal his wife had prepared for him and his friends. Alessandro, another of the young workers, had joined his father for the harvest season and had discussed family matters with him.

Throughout the day I heard a constant symphony of calls from birds, crickets and other buzzing insects, olives falling first against wooden ladders and then against the ground, and the very local Sicilian jargon of pickers. .

The men often sang while they worked. Dark-haired, black-eyed Roberto, 35, kept everyone entertained with an impressive repertoire of local folk songs, most of them about love and desire.

Although often difficult to cultivate, the volcanic soil near Mount Etna is extremely fertile. Over time, the lapilli, ash and lava rocks deposited by the eruptions degraded to form a crumbly soil rich in nutrients, especially minerals and organic matter. The altitude and exposure of the groves to the sun and southerly winds, as well as a moderate supply of rainwater, also promote soil fertility.

Since the grass in his groves is useful in protecting the soil from excessive evaporation and as it softens the fall of the olives when they fall on the nets, Enzo only cuts it about three or four times a year. Yet during the summer months, the centuries-old roots of its olive trees will smash through lava rocks in search of water.

The weather this year was particularly hot. In the midst of a heat wave, a nearby monitoring station, about 50 miles south of the Enzo Groves, recorded a temperature of 119.84 degrees Fahrenheit, possibly the highest temperature ever recorded in Europe.

Often a few hours after harvest, the olives are taken to the oil mill, where they undergo a series of mechanized processes: the leaves are vacuumed; the olives are washed with water and cold pressed to become a paste; the paste is sent to the kneader, which begins to separate the oil from the pulp. From there, the oil, which still contains water, is extracted by centrifugation and then filtered.

The process, from start to finish, takes at most 40 minutes, after which the oil is ready to be consumed – although the flavor stabilizes over time, Enzo explained.

“We are not throwing anything away,” he added. The solid residue and the paste are dehydrated and converted into fuel. Residual water is transformed into a concentrate from which polyphenols, a broad class of antioxidants found in plants, are extracted and added to animal feed.

Enzo produces four different olive oils, each from a different cultivar or variety of olives. (In practice, this means that each oil is produced from olives from a separate orchard.) While each oil retains its own individuality, they all exhibit all three characteristics typical of that region: bitterness, pungent, and a sweet aroma. .

In addition to producing olive oil, Enzo has set up a new program to recover several old and abandoned olive groves on Mount Etna, many of which were damaged this summer in a series of forest fires.

Since moving to Sicily, Enzo says he has found a new balance. “The countryside has taught me its own pace – new to me, but as old as these mountains themselves,” he said.

“I wake up, I go out the door and the volcano is there. How could I not be happy with my decision to come back?

Marta Giaccone is a photographer based in Tallinn, Estonia. You can follow his work on Instagram.



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