Report from the frontline of the olive harvest in Italy

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The olive branch may traditionally be associated with peace, but in a small corner of Abruzzo, Italy, this noble crop is also the harbinger of warmth, vitamin C and a hearty dose of antioxidants.

I’ve come to the outskirts of Casoli, a beautiful rustic area in one of Italy’s most unexplored regions, where the centuries-old cultivation of olives has taken on a new and exciting twist, in the form of tea.

Perched precariously on a sheer cliff overlooking a rugged valley and flanked by slate-grey mountains sporting a year-round dusting of snow, the ‘headquarters’ of Mirabilia Olive Leaf Tea is a rustic Abruzzan house nestled amid thousands of olive trees, encircled by creeping kiwi vines and sprays of fragrant wild herbs. Here, organic olive leaves, traditionally used in antibacterial and antimalarial remedies, are hand-picked, dried and crushed to form a sweet, coppery brew that is high in antioxidants and vitamin C, free from caffeine and tannin, and subtly fragrant.

Women from the local community gather regularly to transform this ancient tree into a warming, healthy liquor by meticulously stripping the branches of their leaves, sometimes combining them with the fat, glowing pomegranates that grow wild by the roadside, or fragrant shards of organic lemon peel and furls of local wild mint.

This revival of tradition makes perfect sense in a region where the olive has been cultivated for more than 2000 years and is still integral to the local economy. During late October, all energy is devoted to the harvest, a physically demanding endeavour that, predictably, is accomplished with apparent ease by the sprightly local women with their special gloves and baskets but which leaves foreigners sweating in the sun. Olives are raked from the trees using giant combs, or shaken from the branches on to huge green nets, which are then gathered up and taken to the local co-operative for pressing into a piquant extra-virgin oil to be drizzled liberally over the local cuisine.

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