As the sun slowly disappears behind the Tuscan hills and cloaks the Arno Valley in its golden rays, Mauro Galardi can finally start to relax. The days on his estate start early and end late: he cultivates 4,500 olive trees and 25,000 grapevines, looks after tourists and keeps his house in good repair. And he occasionally has to hop on his motorcycle to chase off voracious wild boars. Mauro is eating dinner with his wife Elisabetta and his daughter Martina out on the terrace in front of the typical Tuscan country home in which the family lives. They’re serving their own house white wine, minestrone di verdure, Prosciutto toscano with melon, pasta fredda—and olive oil, naturally also home-made. Mauro uses it on every dish, drizzling the golden oil on his plate with pleasure. “The olive oil, the wine, it’s my life,” he says. Mauro looks down onto his grove, where there are hundreds of his olive trees. No wild boars, no deer. All is well.
The plates have been cleared, night has fallen over the Poggiopiano farm and the wind is getting a bit brisker. The table lamp’s feeble light falls onto the family’s house just a few meters away. It was built with stones found here in the eighteenth century, in the soil where the olive trees now stand. “The farm is a responsibility for me”, Mauro says. He wants to tell me what he means by this tomorrow. It’s a long story, describing decades of striving to make the best product. Told by a person who has always enjoyed the long hours of working in an olive orchard, even if only a few minutes of pleasure remain in the evenings.
The next day is bright and sunny, and he’s back in his olive orchard, where he easily walks a few kilometers every day. Mauro Galardi, 58, grew up cultivating grapes and olives on this farm, a few kilometers outside of Florence. He’s been living here since he was six years old, 150 meters above sea level, with breathtaking views of the Arno Valley. Although he took a few engineering courses in his youth, he never completed his studies—he simply didn’t want to give up the farm. He was quick to devote himself to the production of oil and wine—working outside, amidst nature, was and remains his elixir of life.
Mauro checks the trees one by one, caressing the branches and testing the fruits by gently pressing them between his fingers to determine whether they are firm enough. The 30- to 35-day harvest, which yields between 35 and 40 tons of olives, usually starts in mid-November. “It’s a period of time when I’m more nervous than usual,” he says. “But when I’m finally standing in the oil mill and taste the marvelous juice of the olive, that’s when I’m satisfied.”
The harvest’s sequence is always the same: when the color of the olives turns from green to violet, the olive trees are gently jiggled with the assistance of tractors and shakers until they drop their fruits. The fruits are collected in nets to ensure that the olives remain intact. It’s a difference in quality compared to the harvesting processes outside of Tuscany, where olives are sometimes knocked off the trees with rakes and sticks. “The fruits have feelings,” Mauro explains. “If you hurt them, they’re unforgiving.” If they fall to the ground or get squashed in storage, the skin breaks, resulting in premature oxidation of the oil and a lower quality.
The fresh fruits must be pressed in the oil mill a few hours after harvesting: that’s when Mauro gets an olive oil that is rich in antioxidants and has a fruity scent. “All the steps must be adhered to, to get a good product,” he says. Mauro Galardi holds several olives in his hand, practically stroking them—he thinks this is going to be a good harvest.
The olive oil business is a lucrative one in Italy. In 2015, 302,000 tons were produced—with a total value of 3 billion euros. And where there’s money, criminal machinations are often not far behind. It’s said that the mafia is involved. Tunisian and Turkish oils are sold as Tuscan even though they’re only bottled, not grown, in Italy; cheap hazelnut oil is mixed in with expensive olive oil, refined oil with virgin olive oil. In addition: Multinational firms buy out the Italians and weaken quality standards. And the bureaucracy isn’t helping: the olive oil regulations have lowered the standards so much that it’s difficult to find any grades other than extra virgin in supermarkets these days.