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Olive cultivation in Tuscany

Quality as far as the eye can see

For more than thirty years, Mauro Galardi has been producing olive oil which is renowned well beyond the borders of Tuscany. He and his daughter know that the high standards they set for their products ensure that they will always meet with success.

Text Tino Scholz  Photos Michael Englert

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.”

Lucrative Business

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.

 

 

A watchful eye

A watchful eye

Mauro Galardi cultivates 17 hectares of olive groves, not to mention 25,000 grapevines. “It’s rare,” he says, “that I’m here in my house.”

As a result, the manufacturers’ margins are dwindling. Getting involved in price wars with the cheap producers wouldn’t be worth it. Where Italy’s traditional olive farmers must succeed is by keeping the quality high—and by building on the fact that a certain clientele is willing to pay more for it. While a half-liter of Galardi oil costs around 14 euros, adulterated oils can be had for between 3 and 4 euros.

Mauro looks over at his daughter, who’s joined him in the meantime. Whenever he speaks about Martina, he can’t help smiling with satisfaction. She’s the one who will be taking over his role bit by bit—it makes him a proud father and saves him from having to toil away on the farm well past retirement age. Martina, 22, is currently finishing up her studies in winemaking at the University of Florence. She’s also been studying everything about olives and olive oil for quite some time. And together, father and daughter are working on a strategy for how to successfully sell their olive oil in the future.

That their strategy is bearing fruit is demonstrated in a separate room of the home, where the family often conducts tastings. Numerous prizes in the form of official certificates are conspicuously displayed in a neat row on a cabinet. There’s not much more space left to fill. The Fattoria di Poggiopiano was selected by a commission of Florence’s Chamber of Commerce to represent Tuscany at some of the most important trade shows. The Galardis are further part of the renowned register Oli d’Italia—i migliori extravergine.

The family has been producing olive oil and wine for generations, although it used to be only for their own use. When there was the risk of losing the land thirty years ago, as there was no successor, Mauro decided to tackle the project—and expand it. “It was clear that I would only be successful if the quality was right,” he explains. “And we didn’t let setbacks deter us.”

 

Giving up was not an option

He tells of 1985, when he began working the land. A catastrophic frost of minus 23 degrees Celsius destroyed countless olive groves all over Tuscany. At the Fattoria di Poggiopiano, of the original 2,500 trees, barely 200 survived. Since olive trees are very slow growers, it took six years before olive oil production could start up again. Mauro Galardi sold the wood from the frozen trees to help the family survive. And there’s a certain pride in his voice as he tells the story: it took time, but he never gave up and eventually built everything back up again. He would do it again, he says, absolutely, without a doubt.

Mauro and Martina head to a side entrance of the family home, into the cellar, where they store their olive oil. Ten glazed ceramic jars, two steel containers and innumerable oil bottles in various sizes, from small 0.25-liter bottles to canisters, are all arrayed inside the entrance. The Galardis need the space since they fill up to ten thousand half-liter bottles annually. And from this cellar the oil heads out into the world: to Italy, France, Belgium, Germany, Spain and even Japan. Using an apparatus that looks like a tiny beer tap, the two of them quickly fill four bottles—for their own use. “As a family we use a half-liter bottle every two days, so about 170 to 180 for the year,” notes Mauro.

They pull two bottles of olive oil out of a cupboard. One label reads Galardi Plenum, the premium oil they produce. The label of the other, industrially produced oil has been covered. Mauro pours each of the two oils into a different glass and then turns each glass to the side so that the oils form a film on the sides of the glasses. “The aroma,” he offers, “smell it.” The industrial oil scratches in the nose; it smells rancid. In contrast, the Galardi oil is softer, with many more subtle fragrances. “That is the juice of the olive,” he explains. “The other one is just fat. Calories. Nothing more.”

 

His daughter is watching the scene like a hawk—her father’s passion fascinates her every single time. Her father, in turn, appreciates that his daughter is thinking of the future of the fattoria. Martina considers such tastings as a pathway to the future: in supermarkets, Galardi oil, like other quality products, gets lost among the cheaper competition to extra-virgin olive oils. “That’s why we have to win over the people who can appreciate our quality, we have to go to them,” she says. The Galardis work in organically cultivated groves, an attribute they wish to more strongly emphasize. That means more work, of course. “But it’s the only possibility that remains for us,” Martina says.

As day slowly moves toward evening once again, the two drive for a quick check of their grapevines and guest apartments. The car drives past steep slopes and olive groves. Martina talks about how much passion she has for bringing the fattoria’s olive production into the next era. She feels that the understanding of wine culture is modern and attractive, but that in comparison, the understanding of olive oil is still stuck in the Middle Ages, at least at the moment. It may suit her well that the global appreciation of quality and healthy food is becoming more pronounced. “It’s the trend of the times,” Martina says. “Soon people will once again recognize the value of really good olive oil.”

A total of 25,000 grapevines hang stoically in the evening sun. Several cars are parked a bit further away, a Ferrari next to a station wagon with license plates from Hamburg next to an SUV from Austria. Beside the recently renovated apartment house, the couple from Hamburg are enjoying the sunset from the pool’s pleasantly temperate waters. “Wine and tourism, that’s the future, that’s what she should focus on,” says Mauro. He’s been telling his daughter this for a while now, concerned about the increasing cheap competition. She looks askance at him. Papa has always been a bit more pessimistic, she says. Wine may be her passion, but the oil has awakened her ambition. She looks deeply into her father’s eyes and says: “You know I love challenges.”


 

 

 

 

Interview

“Pasta and olive oil are in high demand throughout the world”

Around four years ago, Italian laboratory pH became a member of the TÜV SÜD Group. Amidst the Tuscan hills near Tuscany's capital of Florence, around 130 staff are busy analysing food products such as wine and olive oil. We interviewed the Managing Director of pH, Attilio Durantini, and asked him the following three questions.

 


Photo: private

Attilio Durantini


 

pH dates back to 1982. Since the laboratory's foundation, consumer demands for high-quality and safe food products and environmental awareness have increased steadily.

And at pH, we have accompanied this development. In 1986 we found methanol in some wines, which was one of the milestones of our laboratory. The first service we provided – analysis of food products for pesticide residues – is still one of our core products today. However, pH now also offers environmental monitoring services, e.g. of noise, water quality of natural bodies of water, soil quality and factory emissions, as well as testing medical gases. We provide these services in two laboratories with a floor space of over 3000 sqm plus a total of six mobile laboratories, which enable us to provide on-site testing and analysis across Italy. So as you can see, we have indeed accompanied the rise in environmental awareness in our society over the last three-and-a-half decades, and grown alongside its development.

 

Who are your customers?

In the food sector, our customers are companies of all sizes – from farms, agricultural cooperatives and consortia of fruit and vegetable producers to manufacturers of convenience products, mills, canning companies, confectionery manufacturers and the edible oil and wine industry. Dairy factories, producers of cheese and sausage products and the fish industry also trust us with the analysis of their products. In other words, we support the entire food chain – from farm to fork. 


And we ensure that food products are safe at every step of the process. In this frame also the attention for the Food Contact and Food Packaging has grown and attracted the focus of pH development. We do not forget environmental protection as we support engineering and planning companies, refineries, building contractors, water treatment plants and similar facilities. For ending, we also offer quality-control services for medical gases, our customers also include the major public and private hospitals in Northern Italy.

 

In early 2013 pH became a member of the TÜV SÜD Group, thus joining a global network of food laboratories. At the same time, consumer demand for local food is growing. Is this a contradiction?

No, pH will continue to ensure the safety of regional food products. I myself am a big fan of short distances and local products, and I love Tuscan wine! Many small- and medium-sized enterprises in our region have their products tested in our laboratory. And yet the food industry is going increasingly global. Italian pasta, olive oil and antipasti are in high demand all over the world, while Italians love Asian food and exotic fruits. Given this, the acquisition of our company by TÜV SÜD and our integration into the group's global laboratory network was imperative. In 2015 alone, Italy exported food products to the value of over 35 billion euros, primarily to other EU countries, but also to Asia, the US and other parts of the world. Exporters and importers need a large number of certifications according to ISO, HACCP, IFS and other standards to enable them to access various markets. Together the TÜV SÜD Group can offer their customers all these certificates from a single source. I would really say that pH has fully married the Corporate mission “Protect environment, people and property from the side effects of technology”

 

In the video: food safety

TÜV SÜD tests the quality of the food along the entire food production chain.