Against the green of the sweet hills of Umbria the silver leaves of the olive stand out. From many aspects the cultivation of the olive could be said to represent this region well. In fact, the olive is the biblical and universal symbol of peace, it recalls great religious values, so important in soil that not only for its conformation [orografica] has been called "the Holy Earth of Italy". It suffices to remember the great Umbrian saints (like Benedict of Norcia, Francis of Assisi and the Holy Claire, and Rita of Cascia), the big sanctuaries and the other magnificent religious buildings that punctuate the region. But the olive, vine of great longevity and slow growth, well represents the ability of this region to safeguard [amorevolmente] lay traditions, handed down from generation to generation. And finally, the palatable Umbrian oil well represents the regional cookery, those simple and artless things made from genuine and wholesome foods.
In Umbria the cultivation of the olive is among the most ancient of Italy, given that the first to take care of this fertile tree were the Etruscans. One of the most powerful cities of Etruria, the ancient Volsinio, today Orvieto, drew its affluence and prosperity from agricultural production, including the commerce of olive oil.
Already in the first century B.C. olive oil was among the most remarkable agricultural productions of Umbria. The active "harbor of the oil" was Otricoli, situated in an ancient and ample bend of the Tevere River, then tunneled for deflecting the course of that river. From there the oil reached the capital city, Ove. Umbrian oil was considered among the more valuable: gourmets preferred it to oils produced in Iberia and Dalmatia.
With the growth of the Roman civilization came the incentive to increase the cultivation. In fact many patricians chose this region for their country villas. Countless finds, like the "dolii" (typical Roman containers) and edges of large [ziri] have been found in the proximity of the Roman villas, in the zone among the Tevere and the Black, to testify of a very diffuse consumption. Finds can also be admired in many of the museums of the Umbrian cities. A fine example of which is safeguarded in the room of the Town Counsel of Citta’ di Castello: a fragment of a dolio marked by a rectangular stamp that confirms its ancient history.
At Narni, under the Abbey of Saint Stephen, has been found a vase with writing framed by olive branches. Near Trevi, in the locale of Borgo, has come to light a complete crusher, built in stone grit, blessed with an enormous earthen dolio, noted for the excellent conservation of the oil, then a privilege exclusively reserved for the upper classes.
At Orvieto, visiting the caves and tunnels that have been dug under the cliff of volcanic tufa (there are more than a thousand), to the N° 536, close to the church of Saint Francis, you go along one of the terraced crags to the southern border of the cliff. Here hides, still in the depths, a crusher called "the mill of Holy Claire". It has pressed olives from the time of the Etruscans up to the 17th century A.D. Perhaps it was not the unique example of the zone but it is the only one to have been found that is accessible to visitors. The enormous burrs in basalt, the closets used for the olives, the oil tank, the stalls for the animals that must have furnished the energy to turn the grindstones, these testify of a very productive installation which was surely industrial in character.
The barbaric invasions put an end to the oil trading and were probably responsible for the slow abandonment of the olive tree and its cultivation. In medieval times, with the extension of the large estates and vast ecclesiastical holdings, appear the first obligations for the colonists and the tenants to establish each year a certain number of olive plantings and graftings. The restoration begins.
During the 6th century were written treatises in which the Umbrian olives are praised. In 1577 Leandro Alberto of Bologna published "A Description of All Italy and Her Islands". Here are the passages regarding Umbria:
Of Perugia is written: "She is set on the hill of the Appennines, in the best part of the picturesque territory, delectable, fertile hills, from which one draws good wines, oil, figs, apples and other palatables."
Of Spoleto: "They come from every side of the Flaminia to find this beautiful fertile plain, adorned by different orders of trees and vines, with many brooklets of clear waters. In addition they see great crowds of almond trees, and olives, where in the early winter great numbers of thrushes are seized as they descend from the mountains to look for the olive for their food…She is able to be numbered among the beautiful and fertile places of Italy."
Still of Spoleto: "Here they find copious amounts of wine, oil, almonds and other fruits." On the "Walk to Temi" is annotated: "From Spoleto therefore enter walking in the rocky Valle di Strettura along the Flaminia, placed among soaring cliffs, in whose near end to Terno, from 4 miles you find again olives sheltering with vineyards and other fertile trees."
The Valnerina: "The produce of this area (whether of plain or of hills) are good and palatable fruits with wine of each manner, that is vernacce, austere moscatells, common, and also a great abundance of oil."
The soils of Castel Todino and of Sangemini; "The surrounding country is so beautiful, as far as the eye can see. There are hills all full of vines, olives, fig trees, and other fruits."
Finally, Amelia "It is good and fruitful territory, placed above the picturesque hills, adorned with vines and fertile trees, and it yields wheat, wine, oil, and other necessary things for nurturing the life of mortals."
The olives cultivated in Umbria enjoy more or less all of the particular climatic conditions that allow a very slow maturation of the fruit. This causes a rate of acidity that is extremely limited. Particular importance is attributed to the hill soils and the terraced foothills: rich terrain of composition that increases the permeability of the nutrients so that they may penetrate the roots of the olive trees more easily.
To these climactic conditions must be added the contributions of man. First of all the harvest of the olive; it is not delayed beyond the time that the olive comes to the term of natural maturation: "general sort" has recently been the recommendation of picking when it arrives at the beginning of the maturation, that is when it results [semi-invaiata] and is present the maximum of yielded that the minimum of acidity (beginning of November). Instead we have preserved the traditional "browse," that is to say the operative harvest. Experimentations are being made for the mechanical collection, but with fit modes to avoid damaging the olives.
The olives are not allowed to remain lying in wait for completion of the harvesting, but instead they are sent immediately to the crusher, thus preserving the maximum of their breeziness and integrity.
Umbria then, soil of oils by definition and blessed with distinctive extra virgin olive oils so palatable that they even hold their own against the black truffles of the Valnerina. The fortunate placement of the Umbrian olive trees (90% grow on the terraced hills and 10% on the mountains) combined with the conditions of the earth and of the climate, allow them to give around 90% of the complete production (80 thousand annual quintals on average) this is, note, extra virgin: not an insignificant record!
Today the success of the Umbrian oil is under the eyes of all. There has been, it is true, the affirmation of the Mediterranean diet, but also has been noted the ability of the Umbrian producers to enter the market with decisiveness and to begin to stand out and to dominate it. Today 60% of the regional oil is sold in elegant bottles or sealed containers not more than five kilos; the remaining 40% is consumed locally.