Olive Harvest in Umbria

As the ancient round, grey stone slowly rotates around the deep metal container, crushing piles of dark glistening olives into a thick paste, I step in for a better view and almost slide to the ground on the olive-oil-coated floor in the Ravagni mill. As I adjust my balance, the olive paste–a mixture of leaves, pits, and flesh–shoots from a small opening in the tub’s bottom on to a circular, woven mat. Stacked upon another, the mats are placed beneath a hydraulic press to extract the liquid from the fleshy pulp.

Olive Mill

It’s a frigid, early December day and the olive harvest is in full swing. I’ve ventured into the countryside near Anghiari, in Tuscany’s Upper Tiber Valley, to meet the Bartolomei family, owners of the Ravagni olive oil mill since the 18th century. Founded in 1421, the mill has been in service ever since.

Olive Oil Pressing Mats

Stone-pressed olive oil is a rare find these days, even in Italy. Very few mills still adhere to this ancient practice, since most companies abandon tradition by using more cost-effective machinery. The Bartolomei family still works as their ancestors did with one exception–power motors now replace the donkeys that originally walked in circles pulling the heavy pressing stones behind them.

Olive Oil Press

In late fall, men and women–supervised by the Bartolomei’s eldest son, Francesco–hand-harvest olives daily and take them to the mill, where they are processed into oil within 36 hours. After the two-step cold processing is complete, the shimmering green-amber oil drips from the hydraulic press into a bucket, where it rests for a few days, until the water rises to the top and separates completely. The oil is stored in metal tins, away from sunlight and oxygen, to maintain its freshness.

Attached to the small mill is Ravagni’s cozy tasting room, which consists of a tiny kitchen, a long wooden table with many chairs and an old, stone fireplace fueled with fresh logs. Cecilia, the Bartolomei’s daughter, who also happens to be an opera singer, invites me in and cuts a few slices of bread. She places them on a wrought-iron grate over the burning fire to make bruschetta, the old-fashioned way. When the bread is toasted, Cecilia takes it from the fire and drizzles on some fresh olive oil, followed by a sprinkle of salt. The oil, already rested for a month, to allow the water to separate, and the flavor to develop, has a fruity flavor with peppery undertones.

Bread for Bruschetta

As I reach for another slice, the family patriarch–Giacomo Bartolomei–sits beside me sipping a glass of wine. He entertains me with stories about working in the olive mill, when he’s not teaching philosophy at the University, doing what his father and grandfather did before him. I cannot think of a better way to spend a cold December afternoon.

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