Thursday, 25 September 2014

Olive Ants of Umbria. How olive oil is really made.

A guest blog by our foodie/travel writer Rusty McGlint. He ain't got a camera so there ain't no pictures.

Foodie vegetarians or Vegetarian foodies (if that is not an oxymoron) look away.

I have just spent three weeks high in the sun burnt Umbrian hills following the most noble of oils from its source on the branch to the drizzle on an artichokes heart.

My hosts, Pietro and Enid (her father was a Blyton fan) manage 15,000 olive trees on a hillside which runs down to hillside lower down the hill but not as steep and eventually to a level bit where Top Gear presenters race each other in flash cars and then it goes up again to another hill. Pietro's family has owned the land for generations and milked its trees for oil for longer still. 'Oil is in our blood'. He says. 'And our blood is in the oil'.

I spent my days on the hillside witnessing the virgin birth of oil and my evenings getting ratarsed on the Bulgarian 'Chianti' that the family buy in bulk and then re-label for the British market.

The food, provided by Pizza Hut, down in the village, was classical Umbrian fare.

But the oil. The oil.

As I mentioned before, Pietro has 15,000 olive trees. Each tree is the 'factory' for the ants nest which lies below.  The Umbrian olive tree is the life giving umbrella to the Olive ants of Italy and indeed gives its name to the region.

Olive ants (not to be confused with the Eleph ants of ancient Israel which have slightly larger bodies, thicker skins and trunks) build vast nests containing up to one million insects, each nest grows an olive tree from which oil, the life blood of the ants, can be harvested.  They say there are a Million olive trees in Umbria which means there are a million million olive ants. An old Umbrian saying has it that there are more olive ants in Umbria than there are stars in the heavens.


The ants build a nest and plant an olive tree. The ants then nurture the tree until it reaches fruition whereupon they, during the olive season, collect the oil from the fruit and take it down into their nest to provide succour for the embryonic olive ants through to maturity. They do say that over the millennia enough oil was spilled during this process to create reservoirs big enough to embarrass Saudi Arabia.

What Pietro, his forebears and his countrymen do is to catch the ants on their way down the tree- belly full of oil- throw them into a press whereby the oil is squeezed out of them. Using modern day techniques most of the ants die in this process which is causing disquiet among conservationists. Pietro insists that the ants reproduce at such a rate that this is not an issue.

In days past the ants were gently squeezed by pre-pubescent girls to extract the oil, allowing the ants to return to the trees. This oil was traditionally known as Virgin olive oil. The later, gentle but resented squeeze by a raddled old hag forced into going back to work in old age was known as the second pressing.

I'm geting bored with this. Can I just say you might not have ants in your pants but you certainly have ants in your pantry.

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