A cut above: olive pruning in Le Marche

Italian Food and Flavours


Olive pruning in Le Marche

Here in Le Marche the level of care that olive trees receive from the locals is on a par with that of royalty! Trees aren’t even planted until they have chosen the right mix of trees for the type and quantity of oil that they want. There are over 300 different types of olives in Italy rendering a huge variety of oils to suit personal tastes.

Previously to buying the trees the best plot of land is chosen according to their needs; sun, plenty of it,to ripen the fruit and encourage growth; ventilation to lessen fungal attacks; fertile and firm soil, accessible by tractor if possible to speed up the maintenance of both the soil and the trees.

From their first year in situ the critical part of shaping the trees begins. Olive pruning techniques vary all over the world and even throughout Italy itself. A research team at the University of Ancona in Le Marche has been developing for over ten years a new approach to pruning that I was lucky enough to learn about on a course last year. Traditionally olives have been pruned to the shape of a red wine glass with a fringe all the way around, lopped flat across the top and opened out to let the all important sun into the middle of the tree. New thinking has it that the tree should be allowed to grow to its’ optimum height, forming a shape more like an ice cream cone. The tree will naturally fight you to shoot upwards every year and this is wasting the tree’s energy which could be put into the fruiting branches which will shoot from the sides. I was warned that when I prune my own trees in the new way I will have a lot of negative comments from the traditionalists but now that I am on my second year of this method I notice that some of my neighbours have pruned half of theirs in the old style and half in the new. It will be interesting to see what they opt for next year.


If the new cultivars of disease resistant trees are planted in a sunny aerated spot and given a twice yearly feed of Nitrogen, Phosphorus, Potassium, zinc, manganese and iron and pruned yearly then they should be fairly problem free and this has been the case generally…until now..with climate change; no surprises for guessing that one. The olive fly is a regular problem for olive farmers but usually a few pheromone traps among the branches are enough to lure away the females and keep the worms inside the fruit down to a level that doesn’t really affect the oil quality when pressed. This year however saw last year’s larvae (hibernating underground) not being killed off as the winter was so warm. The increase of flies meant a lot more damage to the cell structure of the olive fruit and this was compounded by a very damp summer which allowed fungal diseases (not normally a huge issue for the very tough olive fruits) into the flesh and at last count around Le Marche the failure rate of last year’s harvest was 90%..unheard of in living memory. We are buying in imported olive oil for the first time since moving here and it’s just not the same.

So far this winter has followed the same patterns as the last. If we don’t have a substantial spell of very cold weather and snow on the ground we could be looking at total destruction of the crop again. The residue of last years fungal diseases can be treated with winter and early spring spraying of copper and sulphur (non water soluble and therefore doesn’t enter the fruit) but the only way to keep the fly under control is insecticide, which is water soluble and pretty much renders your oil inedible unless you are partial to glowing in the dark. So my last line of today’s blog is pray..pray for some snow for us…pray that global warming is reined in by the powers that be and pray that at least next year Italy will be back in business producing polyphenol rich oil that works miracles on weary bodies and their tastebuds.


Presepe: Porchia

Italian Food and Flavours

Loosely translated, the Italian word Presepe means crib, as in nativity scene. As with many aspects of christianity you might expect the devout Italian to take a nativity tableau slightly more seriously than the perhaps more secular, certainly less flamboyant Northern European. Germans have their christmas markets, the English their carol services but cribs, well aren’t they for kids? Not in Italy. There is a tradition in Italy for creating life size scenes from the bible that predates the renaissance.


From at least the early middle ages right across central Italy a traveller would not be surprised to come across live size painted terracotta figures arranged to recreate a significant moment from the new testament, dotted around the countryside. This tradition has quite literally come to life in a few places in modern Italy.


What has to be one of the most spectacular incarnations of this age old tradition takes place in the small town of Porchia, close by Cossignano. For two evenings each January the entire town is closed off from the rest of Italy, armed Roman centurions bar the entrance with fearsome looking spears and, wearing full ceremonial armour and grim demeanours they grant entry to small groups of gawking visitors at a time.


We wait patiently in the throng, Italians are not known for queueing etiquette, but the Roman guards do a good job of keeping us inline. At last it is our groups turn to pass under the arch of spears and walk back in time 2000 years and as many kilometres t0 the small Nazarethan town of Bethlehem.


For two nights only this remarkable tiny central Italian town and its entire population transform themselves, their town and their homes into a glorious, living, breathing, technicolour, nativity scene. Not just the manger, not just the stable, not just the Inn, not just the street with the Inn in it, but the whole kit and caboodle; bakers, candlestick makers (I must have missed the butchers) potter, artist, stone mason, Roman garrison, High Temple, tavern, spinners , weavers, cloth makers, threshers, millers, blacksmith, scribes, school and too many more to list, plus of course the manger itself.


Though in the theatre that Porchia has become, the site of the virgin birth holds little more prominence than the humble abode it represents, well perhaps a little less humble, it is sited in a delightfully frescoed ancient crypt. Like virtual all buildings in the town both public and – mostly – private, it has been lovingly transformed into a scene from the year 0.*


To the cynical eye it may have overtones of a Disneyland, without the rides, but if this is the case it also lacks the gift shops, the paid actors in absurd costumes, the giant mice, the choreographed parades, the forced smiles and best of all the entrance fee. Our street theatre is free, as is the vino cotto and the paper cones of fried savoury treats to sustain you on a cool January evening, the actors are real people giving their time and skills, opening and decorating their homes, and turning their town into a spectacular time machine, all for the joy of it.


The Porchia presepe is one small town showing a quite remarkable communal spirit, a collective social will to create a piece of living theatre for the wider community to enjoy and to wonder at.


This year’s Porchia presepe was held on the 4th and 6th of January.

*(pedants will point out that there was no year 0, but they have no romance)



A herald of spring in deepest November..

Italian Food and Flavours

..spring peas are pushing upwards towards the winter sun and with them the reminder that the cold weather is soon over and outdoor living will be upon us again..including of course fine dining and delicious dishes of spring vegetables cooked as only the Italians know how.
One of Fabio’s preferred dishes using fresh peas is a combination of crisp newly picked broadbeans, melt in the mouth peas and the intense earthy flavours of young artichokes cooked to perfection with herbs and just a splash of the local white wine. This makes a simple but gratifying anti-pasto or contorno that would impress even the most die-hard “foodie” in your life.
Of course you will have to wait for Spring to sample this delicacy other than with your imagination. If your tastebuds have been woken up from hibernation by the thought of sweet young peas, a winter alternative using the frozen remainders of a bumper crop could include tender pea omelettes or a puree of peas, garlic, fresh new olive oil and your favourite herbs in which to dip chunks of toasted crusty bread in front of a roaring log fire….
Watch this space for a profusion of mouth watering recipes using the simple but high quality ingredients that the Italian countryside is renowned for.