IN THE PAST
When in the early ‘20s Antonio and Iris Origo bought the La Foce estate, to which Chiarentana belonged, for centuries Tuscany had been farmed through the “mezzadria”, a system by which each tenant farmer strove to produce enough food to carry his family over to the following year. This meant that each house had its own small olive grove, vineyard, wheat and hayfields, plus livestock and as many pairs of hands as possible.
The La Foce estate included 54 tenant farmers’ houses, with a population of over 600 people living in conditions of extreme poverty, verging on hunger in unproductive years. These were the conditions that Antonio and Iris endeavoured to improve in a lifelong project.
During those years of real hardship the primary purpose for the production of olive oil, as for other essential foods, was therefore quantity, rather than quality: enough oil to last until the next harvest. The traditional varieties of olive trees were based on each one's resistance to different potential threats, such as late frost, insect attacks, and diseases, in the hope of containing recurring risks of insufficient production.
Regardless of oxidation and different times of ripening for each variety, after being hand-picked by the whole family the olives would be loaded onto an ox-driven cart, which would then wind its way over long distances and rough tracks to the only press, in the estate's center; there the olives would often have another long wait for their turn to be pressed, leading to further fermentation. In spite of this the new oil would always be cause for great celebration, and drizzled with relish over hot bread: fett'unta, literally oily slice of bread. But the enthusiasm was to be short-lasted, as within a few months the oil would gradually begin to lose its freshness.
The rise of an «olive oil culture»:
Long after the end of the mezzadria in the ‘50s, and many decades after the development of a wine culture (during the ‘70s), scientific and sensorial research and studies have recently led to a remarkable improvement of the quality and duration of olive oil worldwide. At the same time informed awareness of tastes and aromas is beginning to develop in perceptive consumers. One can say that, at last, a new «olive oil culture» is developing.