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by julie wong
Poggiagliolmi organic extra-virgin olive oil is USDA and ICEA (Italy) certified. The label on the bottle bears the painting of Isabelle Poggiagliolmi, the daughter of the olive oil producers. - Images from Elizabeth Liew
A parenting decision led Elizabeth Liew and her husband to move to the country; the accidental farmers now produce a fabulously green olive oil under Tuscan skies.
WHEN the children arrived, the fine print on the label on a bottle of ketchup suddenly became important to Elizabeth Liew.
“We wanted to know everything that went into making the ketchup – and other food stuff,” said the concerned parent on her last trip back to Malaysia.
Originally from Sabah, Liew met husband Elio Poggiagliolmi (pronounced pojjia-liol-mi), a geophysicist, in London over 20 years ago while she was working as a graphic designer.
“We wished for our children to be able to play outdoors in wide open spaces, climb trees, and lie on freshly-cut grass – not stay huddled indoors, playing electronic games. We wanted them to have the chance to pick naturally sun-ripened cherry tomatoes and pop them into their mouths – and to prefer them to Smarties.”
When their daughter Isabelle was two years old, Elizabeth and Elio decided to swap a vibrant, exciting life in London for a slower-paced one closer to nature. So in 1999, the Poggiagliolmis moved to Tuscany, Italy, to a new home in the hills of Maremma, about two hours’ drive from Elio’s hometown of Florence.
The region known affectionately as “Maremma Tuscany” is fast becoming popular as a holiday destination – it is near the coast, has exclusive beaches and is dotted with small family estates and farms.
“Our new home is an organic farm which came with 200 olive trees and two horses, and we added chickens, cats, dogs, rabbits and even turkeys, one at a time!” said Liew. “Then we bought the adjoining piece of land when it came up for sale, and added more olive trees and now have around 1,000 trees.”
The farm stretches over an area of 21ha – half of it natural woodland, and 1ha a vineyard.
In this region of moderate climes – winters that are not too harsh and summers that are not too dry – olive trees thrive. Olive trees have been around for millennia – 8,000 years, according to history. They are resilient against long periods of drought, and can survive frost, rain, and snow.
“Surprisingly, that is where organic farming becomes interesting. Olive trees are self-sustaining and need very little maintenance. In fact, they thrive when they are left alone – if the trees have been planted a fair distance from each other, with a lot of air circulation between them, they will be naturally free of pests and have no need for pesticides. Or fertilisers – not overcrowding ensures that each tree will have adequate nutrient uptake and do not have to compete with its neighbours.”
The Poggiagliolmis believe that the basis of organic farming is to understand Nature and work with it. “One of it is to respect the natural growing cycles and to not try to speed it up by applying fertilisers to the crop.”
The couple bring to their farm and olive oil production that same concern that troubled them as parents: they wanted the label on their bottle of olive oil to pass their own stringent tests. That means producing as pure an olive oil as Nature has intended.
Yet, there was never a conscious intention to go into farming. “We moved here when our daughter Isabelle (the artist behind the labels on their bottles of olive oil) was three, and it was time to register her for school.
“We had no previous farming experience; our experience is very much hands-on, on-the-fly. We learnt from the locals and we learnt fast!
“Hand-picking the olives was frustratingly slow and Elio fell back on his seismic knowledge to invent a machine – the Meteorite – to greatly shorten harvesting time.”
The Meteorite has many advantages over other olive harvesting machines – essentially devices that shake the tree to make the fruits fall – and has been described as being more sympathetic to the tree and less harmful to its root system.
“After many years of sharing our wonderful olive oil with our friends, and constantly hearing them tell us that they want to be able to buy it, we decided to take it to the stores. Stringent tests and checks from the appropriate governing bodies came to certify us organic – and we passed with flying colours!”
The organic difference
In the Tuscan region, harvesting generally occurs in November, after the rains in late October. The olives swell after the rain and this means a higher yield of oil for the farmer.
But this is also when the olive fly – the only real enemy of the olive – can infect the fruit.
“When the olive swells, the fly can puncture it and lay its eggs in the fruit; during the long dry summer when the fruits are maturing, they are small, dry and hard, and it is difficult for the fly to infest them.”
The conventional farmer would spray the olives to coat the fruit to prevent the fly infestation. Being organic farmers, the Poggiagliolmis do not use pesticides. To avoid the fly problem, they pick early, in October.
“Harvesting early means less oil,” said Liew. Being organic, wanting to pick early, wanting to press as soon as the olives are picked – all these contribute to a much lower yield. (The “yield” is what you get when you separate the oil from the rest of the paste that is produced when olives are pressed.)
“Normally, one would get around a 17% to 20% yield; we get around 10% to 15%. For a thousand trees, we get around 5,000kg of olives, and from that, a mere 500 litres of oil.”
But precious oil it is.
“Olives harvested early produce oil that is high in polyphenols (antioxidants). As a result, the oil produced is more aromatic and pungent, and has a long shelf life thanks to natural preservatives. The chlorophyll content is also high so the oil is often quite green. Ultimately, it is this fabulous colour and aroma that sets our oil apart from the others.”
What happens to the pulp after the oil is extracted?
After the first extraction of oil (“first press”) the pulp is run through again, with a slight temperature increase (the resulting oil would no longer be called “cold pressed”) which makes the remnants of the oil more viscous; it is then further centrifuged until the next lot of oil is extracted (to be labelled “pomace oil” by US Department of Agriculture restrictions). This goes on to extract oils of lower grades until only granules (mainly of the stone of the olive) are left.
It is only recently that the granules have been put to use, in the making of body or facial scrubs in the cosmetic industry, or in the making of pellets sold as biofuel.
The acid test
The acidity of the oil is also important and contributes to its quality and taste. By International Olive Oil Council law, Premium Extra Virgin Olive Oil must not have more than a 0.2% acidity level; Extra Virgin Olive Oil has its benchmark at 0.8% and from 1% onwards, the oil can only be called Virgin Olive Oil.
From the moment the olive fruit is plucked, its acidity rises. Hence, it is of utmost importance to press the olives in the shortest time possible.
The difference between a great oil (extra virgin) and a very good oil (virgin) may be just half a percentage point of acidity. Premium Extra Virgin Olive Oil, nature’s finest, can have acidity possibly as low as 0.225%.
“The Poggiagliolmi Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil is in this category, as our acidity has never measured more than 0.2 in the last 10 years,” said Liew.
Virgin olive oil has an acidity level of no more than 2%. It is less expensive than Extra Virgin Olive Oil but is close in quality and is good used as a dressing.
Poggiagliolmi organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil is one of the greenest oils you will find, as it comes from unripe, green olives that impart a slightly bitter, pungent flavour.
Emerald-tinged oils have dominant fruity, grassy, and peppery flavours that are great with neutral-flavoured foods that allow their bold notes to shine.
You can pair green olive oils with strongly flavoured foods as long as they complement the oil’s pungent taste.
Poggiagliolmi olive oil
Italy grows about 20% of the world’s olives and Italian olive oil is often dark green with a herbal aroma and grassy taste; in general, the deeper the colour, the more flavourful the oil.
Poggiagliolmi olive oil is estate grown, produced using olives from a single farm. “We grow, harvest, press, package and market the oil ourselves – no middle man!” said Liew.
Estate olive oils – the equivalent of single origin in coffeespeak – are considered the best and offer a taste profile unique to the estate. They are usually produced in limited quantity and you can expect great flavours, but also expect to pay more.
“As we have only just gone commercial, and because we have such a small production, we are only now gently entering the market.
“Singapore’s Supernature Organic Supermarket takes most of our oil, and we also sell in Sabah, only because it is my hometown and has a special place in my heart. We are now exploring introducing our oil to Kuala Lumpur,” said Liew.
> Poggiagliolmi Olive Oil:
> Premium Extra Virgin Olive
> Extra Virgin Olive Oil: 0.8
> Virgin Olive Oil: 2.0
> Pure Olive Oil: 3.0
Learning to be farmers
Weather takes on a new meaning when you are a farmer. If rain previously meant an “inconvenience”, now it bears a whole new significance for the Poggiagliolmis. Rain in July when it should be sunny could mean half a crop in the harvest of grapes. Too much sun in March when it should be wet could mean that the olives will not flower. And again, half the crop.
“So, every year, come September, we watch the skies with diffident eyes.
“We worry if it gets cloudy – we don’t mind rain, but not too heavy; a gentle light rain to freshen the air after the long hot summer from June to August is nice.
“You could almost hear the olive groves sigh in relief in unison with the farmer!” said Liew.
Choosing the right day to harvest the olives is a big decision. It is the start of a flurry of activities: the laying of the nets to catch the olives when they drop, and the harvesting machine, the Meteorite, has to be readied. Before that, the crates have to be delivered, and pickers have to be notified.
The day of the harvest starts with frenetic activity. From sunrise to sunset, it is non-stop picking. The crates are filled with the day’s picking and are delivered immediately to be weighed and tagged, and then pressed in the olive press, the frantoio. This goes on the next day, and the next – harvesting typically takes a week.
Then suddenly, it is all over in the field.
“They say a true farmer is never relaxed,” Liew mused. “We are constantly worried. We worry from the moment the land is tilled and the seeds are sown, to the day the crop is harvested.
“Yet, in every step, there is wonder ...”
Pay a virtual visit to the farm through its Facebook page: Poggiagliolmi Deliciously Organic; e-mail Elizabeth Liew at email@example.com.
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