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Food + Cooking

Olives of the Roman Countryside

Published in Gourmet Live 10.31.12
Lazio, the region surrounding the capital, has been producing exceptional olives and oil for millennia—and now the world is really noticing. In this excerpt from the forthcoming Popes, Peasants, and Shepherds: Recipes and Lore From Rome and Lazio, discover the history and culture of these precious commodities, from ancient Rome to today's tables—recipes included

By Oretta Zanini De Vita, translated from the Italian by Maureen B. Fant
Olives of the Roman Countryside

If you could fly like a bird over the campagna romana where it fades toward the hills, you would see it clothed in a broad, silvery gray cloak of olive leaves. Those trees are the pride of all Italy's oil production.

For the ancient Italic peoples, the olive tree symbolized not only the fertility of humans and of the earth but also peace and a serene life. Thus, it easy to understand why this plant has traveled the centuries clothed in an aura of sacredness. The oil produced by its fruit was an essential food on poor tables, ever since the time of republican Rome; its oil served to light the lamps, its dregs were a good fertilizer, and its wood, considered precious, could be burned only on the altar of the gods. And the olive tree is indissolubly linked to the advance of Mediterranean civilization.

In the imperial period, the tables of the Roman gourmands made a distinction between the sapid oils of Sabina and the lighter oils of Liguria.¹ The strong, heavy oils from Spain and North Africa were primarily used to fill lamps.

Beginning in the late empire (fourth century A.D.), olive culture declined along with agriculture. The great abbeys, such as Farfa and Subiaco,² had charge, sometimes together, of the large holdings of agricultural lands, rich also with olive orchards. Thanks to them, the region's olive culture survived until the economic upturn between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries.

During the fourteenth century, the olive tree became a leading player in the region's agriculture and appeared frequently in art. It was depicted clothed in the ancient symbolism and the pregnant meanings in the splendid iconography of the time. In the Renaissance, it was, together with the grapevine, the great protagonist of Italian agriculture. But in the agro romano, olive culture was to languish for a long time to come. Until the end of the eighteenth century, the old trees, neglected and unfertilized, had become significantly reduced in number, and almost no new cultivation had been started, either because of the cost of planting or because the olive tree became productive on average only after ten years and no peasant had the means to obtain a long-term rental contract. Finally, a bull of Pius VI (1775–99) awarded cash for every olive tree planted, and subsequent initiatives by the French occupiers also attempted to get things moving. Despite these actions, the oil supply in the papal states continued to depend almost entirely on imports.

At the time, there were twenty-seven olive oil mills in Tivoli and its hinterland, fifty-three in the territory of Frosinone; eight in that of Viterbo, and thirty in Rieti. Most of these were located on the consular roads, which made it easier to get the oil to Rome. The tiny number of mills on so great an expanse of land gives some idea of the gravity of the situation. Many of the mills were water powered, some were horse driven, and typically only four to six men operated in each mill.

De Tournon, named prefect of Rome by the French from 1810 to 1814, was a careful agronomist, sensitive to the problems of the territory, and his study is still one of the most serious. As he himself suggests, it ignores the often superficial observations of travelers. He realistically divides the territory of the agro into healthy and sick, the latter all the part near the sea marred by marshes and swamps. The olive orchards were found only in the healthy part and covered the lower region of the Monti Cimini, of Albano, of Sabina, and of the Monti Lepini,³ often scattered among other crops, and were always present up to an altitude of 1,640 to 1,970 feet (500 to 600 meters) above sea level.

The important operation of pruning was done by specialists, many of whom came from Lucchesia, the area around Lucca, in Tuscany, while the operation known as rincalzo ai piedi⁴ was entrusted to local hands, who fertilized the trees by this method every three or four years. The oil produced, says De Tournon, was as good as that produced in the rest of Italy, and the production methods certainly did not improve the final product, which was already quite good. Nevertheless, at that moment, already in the areas of Tivoli and of Aspra in Sabina, the olive growers were managing, with careful methods, to produce a better oil. And also at that time, production increased significantly, especially along the Via Tiburtina and Via Appia. De Tournon estimated there were about four hundred oil mills in all of Lazio, providing employment for fifteen hundred people. In 1813, the residue from the milling was used to produce a black soap that though not of good quality was sufficient for local needs. Some 60 percent of the oil produced was consumed in the place of production, in part because it also constituted the pay for the day's work on the harvest. The rest of the oil traveled the road to Rome.

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.