Puglia, in the heel of Italy’s boot, is the largest producer of olive oil in the country. The dry, hot climate is perfect for the groves of olive trees that carpet the landscape all the way down to the shores of the Adriatic.
It was there that we discovered gorgeous century old trees, sculpted by sea breezes through the decades. The teeny fruit was ripening under the blistering August sun creating a gorgeous coiffure atop the twisted trunks.
“People have been coming here and moving these trees to places like Dubai,” Laura Barnaba tells us. “We were losing our heritage so a law was made to protect them,” she continues. The law, passed in 2007, created a system of labelling and surveillance of the ancient trees and is unique to Puglia and the first in Italy.
We’ve come to Barnaba’s family farm where olives have been grown and pressed into oil for many generations. Laura and her sisters took over running the business from her parents and are now bottling the fine oil under their own brand name instead of selling it to large producers. The quest for artisan olive oil is in its infancy in this part of Italy and Sorelle Barnaba are hoping to capitalise on this growing business by giving tours and tastings. This aspect of the business is so new that there are no signs on the road to find the farm; we stumbled around with Google Maps pulling into farmyards and deserted fields, finally finding it through trial and error.
There isn’t much to see in the middle of August, just the mill and some tanks housed in a large barn; harvesting and pressing won’t happen for several more months. But we get to taste the oil from these historic lands, and it gets our attention. The first sample is of the Soffio oil, a bright green label giving a clue of what’s inside. The oil grabs at the back of the throat with bright, grassy flavor and my companions hack, cough and sputter. It reminds me of fresh-pressed oil, spicy and robust. The next is Pizzico, with mellow and smooth flavors, an all-around oil useful for many purposes. Finally we get to taste Il Secolare, oil pressed from trees that are a century old or more. It’s silky with a depth of flavor belying all the years the trees that grew these olives have been on the Earth. The three oils are pressed from 17,000 trees spread over 110 hectares of land; 1500 of the trees are considered ancient. Sorrelle Barnaba produce 600 tons of olive oil each year.
Laura then takes us to one of the most unusual places on the Barnaba property – an underground stone mill. These mills are present all around Puglia and are places that contain a fascinating history of earlier times. The cave enabled the olives to be kept dry and the oil warm irregardless of the weather outside. The fruit was unloaded directly into the large stone presses through a shoot in the side of the chamber and the residue of waste after pressing was easily absorbed by the limestone floor. Mules pulled the wheels to press the oil and man and beast co-existed underground throughout the harvest.
The Barnaba’s cave also has evidence of religious symbolism and there is speculation that worshippers – who had to hide their spirituality from the various invaders of Italy though the centuries – found a safe haven in this space. The family intends to one day make a museum to share with visitors the beauty, spirituality and history found in the chamber.
We happily packed our bottles of Sorelle Barnaba oil into our suitcases as a reminder of a special time in Italy. With each drop of green gold drizzled on soups and avocado toast or whisked into a dressing for a leafy salad, I’m taken back to the beautiful trees of Puglia.