Thursday, May 1, 2008

The Magical Olive Trees of Salento

Otranto is located in Salento (or Salentu, if you want to speak like the locals), which truly is the heel of the boot. It is the south eastern part of Puglia, which is one of the 20 regions of Italy. For those of you, who like me a year ago, are clueless as to Italy's make-up, here's a quick rundown:

Italy is subdivided into 20 regions (regioni=plural, regione=singular). It is further divided into 109 provinces (province) and 8,101 municipalities (comuni). So I've been living in the region of Puglia (or Apuglia for us foreigners), the province of Salento, and the municipality of Otranto.

Puglia, like many of the southern regions of Italy (Calabria, Basilicata, Campagnia and Sicily) is know for it's production of olive oil. It seems as though each family owns their own batch of olive trees and produces their own oil. And if they aren't direct producers then they have a cousin of an uncle, or a sister of a godmother's nephew that is a producer, so of course, it's still considered family. And it's hands down the best olive oil I've ever tasted. Which is a good thing, considering they put it on their cereal in the morning (sto scherzando- I'm joking- but really, they do use it to cook virtually everything).

Paolo's uncle produces THE BEST (yes, I am biased, but it's won awards in both Italy and the US) olive oil in the world. His secrets: he does not use olives that have fallen off the tree and hit the ground. Apparently, if the olive skin breaks, it loses some of it's natural properties and becomes "less pure." He also uses a process in which he does not heat the olives to extract the oil. His process is more time consuming and retracts less oil from the olives, but again it keeps the oil in its purest form. Seriously, I could drink it straight from the bottle it's that good. Oh, and it's almost florescent green in color.

But as fascinating as the olive oil making process is, the place where it all begins--the olive tree--is far more fascinating.

I could use so many metaphors to describe these trees: knobby old men, bent and weathered from a long life of hard work; graceful dancers intertwined as though they are one (and in the case of the trees, they are one); or ghostly characters from Disney's Fantasia waiting for nightfall to uproot and prey on unsuspecting visitors. Each tree has it's own story, it's own character, and the one's I've taken photos of, have had a long, long life (usually between 100-400 years).

Let's have a look:

This old guy with his calloused trunk and arthritic branches reminds me of the old men sitting on the benches throughout Paolo's town. If you sat with him for a while, I bet he'd have some stories to tell...

This is one tree, but like many of them it's split at the base and comes together in the middle. Much like two dancers whose feet cannot touch but whose bodies never seperate. It's rare to see an olive tree grow completely vertically, and like this "couple" many appear to be midway through a sweeping dip in a ballroom dance series.

This younger guy is giving the old folks a run for their money. The twists of his trunk at such a young age (he's probably under 100) shows that he is on his way to trunk greatness. But watch out, because if you are a child playing hide and seek in the dark olive groves, his youthfulness might get the best of him and he'll untwist, rise up to his full greatness, pull his giant roots from the ground and try to play along. Spooooky.

And then there are some that are just plain welcoming. Like their human counterparts here in the south, they are always ready with their arms wide open, waiting for you to crawl in, pose, and smile.


Cherrye - My Bella Vita said...

Yum! and beautiful trees. I've been trying to plan a trip to Puglia. Think I can try some of that olive oil if I do??

Where in the World said...

I don't think Zio Antonio would allow you to go home without a bottle or two as parting gifts! It's called "Conte" if you ever happen to run across it.

And, yes. A trip to Puglia is a must. I told Michelle we should do some "region swapping" show me yours, I'll show you mine :)

mei said...

I didnt know olive trees were so gnarly and cute!

JenniferLWilliams78 said...

what a lovely post. the last tree is just beautiful... and you two are so damn cute.

Anonymous said...

It is fascinating to read your blog. My family and I have lived in Bari for the past two years. We started in Lecce for language school and have been to Otranto a number of times to go to the beach there. Thanks for your perspective on life in Italy. We understand much of it!

Chris Riddle