Olive Oil Lucca’s centuries-old traditions

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Beyond the medieval brick walls that enclose the Tuscan city of Lucca, the rolling rural hills are blanketed with acres of silver-leaved olive trees. The arrival of late autumn here signals the season of the olive harvest, as it has since the 1300s, when the city’s noble families first built vacation homes with farms and groves on the fertile slopes of the province, supplying their households with olive oil, wine and firewood throughout the year.

There’s something persuasive about Lucca’s centuries-old traditions: Most of the area’s farmers are deeply committed to the land and to organic and biodynamic agriculture. “We’re returning to the old-fashioned techniques,” says Barbara Chelini, one of the four siblings running the Colle di Bordocheo farm. “In Lucca, we try to preserve everything as best we can.” She was born 100 yards from where her pickers rake olives from the trees into nets that cover the ground underneath, to be gathered up and cold-pressed under a mill wheel the same day. This season, Chelini is bottling around 2,000 liters of oil, most of which will sell immediately to local specialty stores and restaurants, to visitors to the farm and to locals placing Christmas orders.

The oil of Lucca — grassy, herbaceous, with notes of artichoke and a peppery finish — is among the most prized in Italy, but limited production means that very little makes its way beyond the region. There are only small-batch farmers here, and their natural methods reduce output and carry more risks. Chelini sprays her plants with copper-infused water to prevent fungus — but that method proved an impotent defense against the olive fly invasion last year, which left every organic and biodynamic farm fruitless. This year’s warm, dry summer and the plentiful harvest that followed were cause for relief and celebration.

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