Olive Oil and Disco Dancing

Yes, olive oil and disco dancing. What could possibly be the connection? Well, let me tell you.

It’s a sunny yet cool day in Italy’s Upper Tiber Valley, in Tuscany, ten minutes from the Umbrian border. I’m with my culinary tour group, visiting an olive oil mill, which has been operating in the same family since 1421. For those who are challenged with historical dates, that’s before Columbus sailed the ocean blue…71 years before the discovery of the New World. I’m talkin’ the Americas here: North, Central and South.


Ravagni Olive Oil Store

Next to  the Ravagni’s home is a small store selling their products.


The Ravagni Olive Oil Mill is my favorite stop on my Umbria tour itinerary. It’s amazing: the large stone wheel for crushing olives, the old woven mats used for pressing olive pulp into liquid, the family’s 15th century home, complete with soothing gardens and patio…it’s the Tuscany of magazine covers. But that’s not the reason why I adore the place. You see, I love the family more than I love their oil, even though I love that too.

Between visits, I remember the fun, often magical times, gathered in the family’s cozy, antique-filled dining room when it’s cold, or lounging under shady trees as the evening turns to dusk in the warmer months. I always schedule our stop for one hour, but we linger for 2-3, and hate that moment when we have to leave. Really? We can’t spend the night?


A fireplace within a 15th century fireplace.

A cozier fireplace within a mammoth 15th century fireplace.


Francesco, the Ravagni’s youngest son, tall and thin with a seldom-tamed crown of brown curls, is the heir apparent to the olive oil dynasty. He runs the tastings, his father having retired a few years ago. I refer to him as the mad scientist of olive oil: natural, infused, scented…in creams, soaps and lip balms. Then there’s his homemade grappa—probably the best I’ve ever tasted. And his aged balsamic, boldly mixed with blueberries. But that’s not why I adore Francesco. I love his quirkiness more than I love his oil, even though I do have about 4 bottles of the “experiment” in my cupboard. That would be the blueberry balsamic.


Stone wheel for crushing olives

Stone wheel for crushing olives


After touring the mill, our group slowly heads down a windy road, then up a small hill toward the family’s house. It’s a 15-minute walk, flanked with remnants of a medieval abbey, fields of olive trees, and the mountaintop town of Anghiari in the distance. Halfway there, I look behind me and Francesco, who said he’d follow us in his car, was stopped and madly flashing his headlights. I wait as the group moves forward. Francesco keeps pulsing the lights, faster and faster. Car trouble??


Olive press extracting oil

Olive press extracting oil


I turn around. When I reach the car, I stick my head inside the passenger window to see if I can be of assistance. And there he is, grovin’ to the beat, singing at the top of his lungs, one hand in the air, the other on the lights, flashing them to the tempo of Gloria Gaynor belting out “I Will Survive.”

“Get in,” he says. “Let’s dance!”

I look toward my group, who steadily keep their pace and think for a moment what would a professional person do. I really want to dance with Francesco, but I’m technically on the clock and I do have a reputation to protect. Or do I?

“Come on! It’s disco.”

Temptation pulls me in one direction, good judgment in the other. It’s “no one is going to know” versus “they’ll see me and loose all respect.” Reminding myself that not everyone shares my sense of humor, I turn and re-join my group.


Lazy afternoon in the Ravagni's courtyard.

Lazy afternoon in the Ravagni’s courtyard.


Once, when I had chosen spontaneity over professionalism, I ended up in a ditch outside of Salvatore Ferragamo’s country estate. Luckily, my trial tour group was comprised of friends who, like myself, thought it a brilliant idea to scrap the day’s itinerary in lieu of gently and innocently stalking Ferragamo. (Spoiler alert: we got inside the gates—stay tuned for details).


Olives before the harvest.

Olives before the harvest.


Back in Tuscany, we gather inside the Ravagni’s house. Francesco is refined and attentive, acting as if the disco episode never happened. He introduces his petite, always impeccably dressed mother who’s prepared a few snacks for us. We sit around the table, look at family photos and taste the oils: garlic, truffle, sage, pepperocino, to name a few. We drink wine, made from the grapes on the vines we just walked past, and marvel at Signora Ravagni’s hard work. When her husband joins us, I tell the group that she was once an opera singer, her husband a philosophy professor whose hobby is 15th century music. And that’s when they start to sing, sometimes together, sometimes alone, from classics to ballads once popular in the Medici courts of Florence. It’s a far cry from disco, but the experience is equally enjoyable.

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