Olives of the Roman Countryside

continued (page 2 of 2)

This situation remained almost unchanged until the eve of World War II. The harvest workers were mostly women and children, most of whom came from the areas on the border with Abruzzo. They worked from dawn to sunset and, like the farmworkers, slept in temporary shelters or in scattered farmhouses. The meal was bread and oil, supplemented, depending on the season, with wild chicory or tomatoes. In the evening, after the local farmworkers had walked the long distance from the orchards scattered on the hills to the town, they were greeted with a caldarello—a cauldron—on the hearth in which a hot soup or a good polenta was slowly cooking.

The old people of the olive-growing areas in Sabina still remember with nostalgia the festivals and dances that, weather permitting, took place every evening after work, accompanied by the accordion and concertina.

The years after World War II are those of the rebirth of olive culture in Lazio, especially after the distribution of new lands to the farmers, which encouraged new planting. In Sabina at that time, when a child was born, an olive seed was planted in a pot. "It will be your dowry," mothers used to tell their daughters. It would be ready to plant in the ground when she married.

Today the olive tree is one of the main crops in the hilly area of the region. The old system of harvesting the olives only when they have fallen to the ground has almost disappeared. The olives are now harvested by hand and milled quickly. Most of the old stone mills have been abandoned. Specialized machines now produce far better oils, in terms of both the flavor and the almost nonexistent acidity, and they can withstand comparison with their more popular Tuscan cousins. The few stone mills that remain produce the cold-pressed oil so much in demand by gourmets for their salads, but also for the ancient, poor soups of days gone by.

Recipes follow below.

1. Apicius (1:14) suggests keeping olives whole and to press them only when needed to preserve the fragrance and flavor of the fruit.
2. The powerful imperial Abbey of Farfa, about 23 miles (about 37.5 kilometers) from Rieti, with its extensive holdings in Lazio and elsewhere; olive culture, from the Middle Ages on, was one of its important activities. The abbots possessed a fleet of trading ships that they anchored at a port on the Tiber, which at the time was navigable as far as Perugia. In the Middle Ages, the most important fair in central Italy was held at Farfa. The Benedictine abbey of Subiaco (about 43 miles/70 kilometers east of Rome), one of the fourteen founded by Saint Benedict, is located in the upper valley of the Aniene River and is still a religious pilgrimage destination.
3. Mountain chains in the central Apennines.
4. "Tucking in at the foot," that is, a process of pushing manure beneath the roots of the tree.


Makes 4 servings


2 sprigs rosemary
2 garlic cloves
1 pound (450 g) chickpeas, soaked and ready to cook
4 oil-packed anchovy fillets
4 tablespoons intensely fruity extra-virgin olive oil
7 ounces (200 g) cannolicchietti or other short soup pasta


  • Tie tightly together 1 rosemary sprig and 1 garlic clove with kitchen twine. Put the chickpeas in a saucepan, pour in 2 quarts (2 liters) water, and add the rosemary-garlic bundle. Season with salt and a generous grinding of pepper and cook over low heat until tender; the timing will depend on the age of the chickpeas. Check after 20 minutes and frequently thereafter.
  • Drain the anchovies and chop very finely. Pour the oil into a separate pan, add the remaining garlic clove and the remaining rosemary sprig, and sauté over low heat for about 4 minutes, or until the garlic is golden brown. Discard the rosemary and garlic, add the anchovies, and mash them with a fork until they dissolve. Add everything to the chickpeas and let the flavors blend for a few minutes more. Add the pasta and cook until al dente (6 to 7 minutes for cannolicchietti). Serve immediately.


Makes 4 servings


7 ounces (200 g) dry-cured black olives
Rind of 1/2 pesticide-free orange (colored part only)
Rind of 1/2 pesticide-free lemon (colored part only)
small piece dried chile, or 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
2 tablespoons lemon juice
3 tablespoons medium-fruity extra-virgin olive oil, preferably from Sabina
Leaves from 1 small bunch marjoram


  • Soften the olives in lukewarm water, drain and dry them, and put them in a serving bowl. Cut the orange and lemon rind into very narrow strips and add to the bowl. Crumble in the chile and add the lemon juice, oil, marjoram, and a pinch of salt. Stir to combine, then let the flavors blend for a couple of hours before serving. Serve the olives with aperitifs.

This excerpt from Popes, Peasants, and Shepherds: Recipes and Lore From Rome and Lazio, to be published in early 2013, is reprinted with permission from University of California Press.

Oretta Zanini De Vita is a distinguished Italian food historian and author of more than 40 books, including Encyclopedia of Pasta. Encyclopedia of Italian Pasta Sauces, coauthored by Maureen B. Fant, is forthcoming from Norton in fall 2013.

Maureen B. Fant is a native New Yorker who has lived in Rome for many years. Trained as a classical archaeologist (she is coauthor of Women's Life in Greece and Rome), she now specializes—as writer, translator, and teacher—in the culture of Italian food from antiquity to the present. Her Encyclopedia of Italian Pasta Sauces, written with Zanini De Vita, will be published by Norton in fall 2013.

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