Olive Harvesting with the Farinas and Palladinis

Back in October, I took 3 weeks out from my cheesemaking schedule and headed south for (slightly) warmer climes and a holiday in Italy.  Holidays for me do not mean getting away from food and producing food, far from it.  It’s just that in Italy there are other things to see, learn and do.
There’s the amazing Rita who makes easily the best sott’olio pickles I have ever tasted.  In the summer, she dispenses recipes for her aubergines under oil, roasted peppers and sweet and sour figs.  In the winter she makes a mixed vegetable pickle (cauliflower, carrot, fennel, celery and little pickling onions).  All of these add a lift to very simply cooked poached meats or bollito misto and make a winter meal that bit richer and more vibrant.  Every year we aim to learn another one of her culinary gems.
But Rita doesn’t just cook like a goddess.  She and her husband Carlo also have some land on which they grow vegetables and have a grove of olive trees.  Every year in November, it’s time to harvest the olives, take them to the Frantoio and collect their next year’s supply of oil.  Carlo is the man who helps us look after our garden too and thanks to him, our ancient and neglected olive trees have been pruned and brought back into some sort of productive order.  Last year it was actually worth our while picking them and Carlo and Rita offered to combine whatever we could get with their olives and give us a portion of the oil commensurate with the weight of olives we’d sent them.
We weren’t the only people olive picking, as you can imagine.  The frantoios locally which are closed the rest of the year, work 24 hours a day at this time.  You book in your allotted time slot, pick your olives and head off with them, returning with 20 litre jerry cans of oil.  A few days before we were due to pick our olives, another group of friends invited us to come along and see their olive picking.  Well olive picking isn’t a spectator sport, you get stuck in, and so we did sorting the leaves and branches from the trailer load of olives as Ennio, Elodia, Paola and Rocco and their cousin picked the olives from the trees.
Elodia harvesting with the motorised combs (see below)
To harvest the olives, you need nets to spread on the ground and big comb like things which you effectively comb the branches with bringing olives and tiny bits of branch and leaf with them onto the nets.  If you have a lot of trees and are serious about it, you have a couple of motorised combs which are on long sticks and which vibrate as you comb, bringing more olives to the ground.  This being Italy, a day’s hard work becomes a family affair.  The kids come out and help or just hang out in the autumn sunshine, taking off for a walk when they feel like it, coming back to help again when they fancy it, and of course there is lunch.
Lunch is served on the car bonnet
I had already heard about the infamous olive harvest lunches that the Farinas and Palladinis have.  My sister Jane and her partner Jon had joined them a couple of years ago to help pick olives and left at the end of the day unable to eat for another 24 hours they’d been so well fed.  On our visit we were treated to a tomato and pepper based beef stew that Paola had prepared, home-made bread from her wood-fired oven, emerald green new season oil from a grove they had harvested earlier, tomatoes, tuna, pecorino and (the bit the kids were particularly looking forward to) sausages cooked on a fire of olive prunings and dead branches.
All of this bounty was washed down with prosecco and beer.  Then, as if that wasn’t enough, the cakes were unveiled.  Cakes are a big part of Italian Sunday lunching.  The local Pasticceria will be rammed on a Sunday morning with people picking up tray after tray of rum babas, fruit tarts, choux buns filled with crema, chocolate custard or coffee flavoured custard.  As everyone gets together after church for a family meal, it’s customary to bring cakes to the house of whoever is hosting where we might bring a bottle of wine and the hosts in anticipation won’t have made pudding, just a bowl of fruit to round off the meal before the cakes and espresso are served.  So out in the olive grove, we too ate cakes, drank shots of espresso and then returned to work, in the afternoon sun, surrounded by the fresh green smell of the olive leaves and fruit, hanging off a big trailer full of olives, sorting out the little bits of branch from the fruit.
The harvest ready for sorting
As the light started to go, the day’s work was finished for us while the Palladinis and Farinas took their haul of olives back home to do further sorting in preparation for the frantoio.  As we drove home, other families were finishing up with their olive picking too.  All of them out in family force, children and all, turning what is essentially farm labour into a fun day out for the kids.  They know how to live, those Italians.

Cheese in Bra

No, not an unfortunate sartorial incident in the cheese world, Cheese is in fact a 4 day festival organised by the Slow Food movement in Italy to celebrate all things milk related.  And Bra is a mid-sized town near Cuneo in Piedmont.  That’s not to say, of course, that the English speaking visitors and exhibitors at said festival haven’t had the odd snigger over the idea in years past.

(A cobbled street in the ‘centro storico’ of Bra, leading to the main piazzas 
and all those cheese stands)

Bra is a self contained town with enough of its own industry to mean it doesn’t rely on Slow Food for its trade and existence.  It existed before Carlo Petrini started the movement and it continues to maintain its independence.  That said though, I doubt even in Italy it would have quite the same amount of good food and restaurants if it weren’t for the Slow Food movement having its headquarters here.  Then, every 2 years the town puts on a homage to all things Cheese and quite literally the entire town dedicates itself to the promotion of cheese.  Talks and tastings are held in some of the baroque buildings that form the older centre of Bra, its streets and piazzas become a market for cheese makers (particularly those who Slow Food have designated worthy of Presidia status – a protection for a highly artisan or unusual cheese that is in danger of dying out) and cheese maturers or retailers such as my erstwhile colleagues Neal’s Yard Dairy.

(The NYD stand this year, Stilton side)

Neal’s Yard Dairy has been selling cheese in Bra since 2003.  Randolph first visited the fair 2 years before that to help out a friend, Ari Weinzweig of Zingermans who had been due to give a talk there and was unable to get a flight post 9/11.  He was simply struck by the unique atmosphere of the place and the abundance of interesting cheeses and people there – completely unlike any trade show or food show held in the UK.  The town is entirely welcoming to its huge influx of visitors too with local shops getting behind the idea and theming their displays around cheese for the duration of the fiera.  If this was the UK, much as I hate to talk my country down, there would be groups of people moaning about parking and rubbish and the disruption to their daily routines.

(The butcher up near the Hotel Cavalieri getting into the spirit of Cheese.  
For those who like to know this sort of thing,
 this is where Giorgio Cravero buys his salsiccia di Bra.)

When we took the first stand in 2003 we noticed further benefits too.  Italians of all walks of life have a much more extensive vocabulary to describe food than the Brits, they are interested and keen to try new things and pretty forthright about saying what they think be it good or bad.  For a shop that values feedback, these comments on  our cheeses are hugely interesting.  There was also the minor consideration that as a place to meet and socialise with wholesale customers, the atmosphere of Bra can’t be bettered.  Maybe it’s all that Italian Dolce Vita, or ready access to Barolo, or the cafe society but people drop by and chat in a much more relaxed way than they ever do at any trade fair in the UK or USA and simply by enjoying a coffee together and having a chat, great ideas can spring up in a completely natural and unpressured way.

This year was my first year out there as a cheesemaker.  Before leaving NYD, Jason Hinds who had basically been my boss, asked if I’d join them on the stand as I’m an Italian speaker and, more to the point, I suspect, if I was there, my Italian speaking and absolute Trojan parents would be more likely to come along too and help explain and taste out cheeses to the Italian public.  As such, of course, there is a different perspective to the one you have as a cheesemonger.  I particularly wanted to know what they thought of the cheese and had a sneaky feeling they might well like it.  This proved to be the case.  I was waiting for people to come back with comments for improvements, over salted, too strong etc but didn’t really hear much of that.  On the contrary I did hear that pretty much everyone liked it.  To say that was a big pat on the back would be understating it really.  Of course the batches had been deliberately selected by Bronwen and the buying team to appeal to the Italian palate (a bit more adventurous and raucous than the UK) but between her selection and our cheesemaking, we made them happy.

With that established, the next thing I enjoyed while out there was meeting former colleagues and the wider family of the NYD network.  Mateo and Andy from Jasper Hill in Vermont were out there with their families, Joe Schneider and his Stichelton team were on the stand (naturally), Caroline and Will who make Stawley, Julie Cheyney formerly of Tunworth, Kate Arding who I worked with back in my early NYD days and who is now part of the Culture Magazine team, Val Bines, Jamie Montgomery, Mary Holbrook… I could go on and on.  It is a bit like in part a great big reunion of a lot of people you really want to chat to and you sell cheese and talk about your different cheeses altogether.  Yes it’s definitely an occasion for the cheese geek but as such it’s very rewarding and interesting.

(The 2 Joes (Schneider and Bennet) talk cheese over a beer in a quiet moment on the stand)

And have I mentioned the eating out possibilities yet?  Not only is this Italy but it’s Piedmont, widely regarded as one of the best areas of Italy for food and wine and everyone is putting on the classic dishes over this weekend: vitello tonnato (veal with a tuna emulsion basically), vegetable souffles, fresh tajarin (thin tagliatelle) with butter and sage, hand pinched ravioli (agnolotti del plin), carne cruda (thinly chopped raw rose veal with olive oil), salsiccia di bra (raw rose veal sausages – seriously don’t knock it if you haven’t tried it they are addictive), meat braised in Barolo and panna cotta.  And then there’s Caffe Converso, the ONLY place in Bra to get your coffee and pastries with its wood panelled walls and the little shop next door selling home made chocolates, nougat and their own chestnut cream and upmarket Nutella.

(Caffe Converso – a place of pilgrimage)

All this and the chance to learn about other cheeses and try new things too.  The Strada dei Presidii is the road along which the endangered cheeses are displayed.  This ranges from the weird and wonderful like Swedish goats cheese, smoked cheese from Poland, to the more recognisable like Bitto an Italian mountain cheese like an aged and drier Gruyere or Sbrinz and finally Somerset Cheddar represented by Montgomerys, Keens and Westcombe.  Cheddar may not initially seem an endangered cheese but given that it is ubiquitously used as a name for hard block cheese these days, the Somerset Cheddar boys are claiming the name back for those still making cheese in the original county of Somerset and following an old fashioned and traditional recipe.

(Swedish goats cheese and a somewhat impressive poster of the goats!) 
(Romanian cheeses matured in fir bark and Polish smoked cheeses) 
(Bitto – the Italian mountain cheese)

For anyone with even a passing interest in all things Cheese that hasn’t discovered it yet, this fair is worth the trip.  See you there in 2013!

For another perspective on the Cheese event and more pics too have a look at Justine’s blog littlemisslocal.com