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Travelogues

Ligurian Olive Harvest

“Francesco!”

Monica Cotta wandered through the hilly, terraced olive groves near her home in Pantasina, searching for her father’s cousin Francesco. It was a warm, sunny morning in January, and we were due to help him with the last of the olive harvest. Here in Liguria, where Taggiasca olives produce the sweet oil the region is known for, the olive season can stretch from November to as late as February.

Cotta Olive GrovesMonica’s father, Giuseppe, has been producing olive oil in this small town for more than 25 years. Today, the family’s company, Azienda Agricola Cotta Giuseppe, which also includes Monica’s twin sister Simona, sells both organic and conventional olive oils — sold exclusively in the U.S. at Formaggio Kitchen — along with cured olives, tapenade and lavender essence. The Cottas also run a secluded bed and breakfast with dramatic views of the Ligurian sea.

Taggiasca Olives When we caught up with Francesco that morning, we didn’t so much help as watch this final harvest. Harvesting olives by hand, we learned, is an intensely physical process, and we could do little but stand by as 70-something Francesco scurried up a ladder and beat the tree branches with ten-foot-long chestnut switches, chatting all the while. A hail of small, dark olives fell onto wide nets, making for easier collection.

Hand Harvesting OlivesMany of the trees in the Cottas’ groves — which are taller than olive trees in regions such as Tuscany — date back 150 years. Monica, who grew up playing with her sister here, pointed out fresh tracks made by wild boars, stone steps that had been built into the sides of the terraces, and structures that looked like small igloos, where workers would stash their belongings.

“For me what is impressive is every stone has a story,” Monica said.

The Cottas press the ripe olives within 24 hours of harvesting, so after a simple lunch of pasta and homemade wine at their home, we joined Giuseppe in the frantoio, or mill, on the house’s first floor. Here, the olives were washed and piped directly into the mill, which consists of two large stone wheels that spin around and gently crush the olives, turning them into a thick and beautifully aromatic paste. Once the olive mash was ready, Giuseppe packed it into soft rope baskets called fiscolos, which he stacked on top of one another. He then placed the entire stack in the press, and we watched in amazement as streams of thick, golden oil began oozing out of the baskets.

Crushing the olivesAfter the oil was placed in a centrifuge, which separates it from the water, we got our first taste — it was fruity and vegetal and had a light texture. Francesco would probably keep this oil to use at his home.

Giuseppe, meanwhile, would keep the leftover olive pits to fuel wood stoves at the family’s house and bed and breakfast, ensuring that nothing went to waste.

We truly enjoyed our time with the Cotta family, who made us feel so welcome in their picturesque corner of Liguria, and who gave us the chance to see this centuries-old Italian practice first-hand.

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