Rumours began circulating in October that other artisanal producers here in southern Tuscany weren’t picking the olives this year.
It seemed impossible, so I went to check every one of our 800 trees. All bad. Olives on the ground, others still on the tree but withered. Not even a few olives to make an oil for our own use. For the first time in fourteen years, we would not bring out the nets.
We can blame the weather: no winter temperatures that killed off pests. There was no summer, just rain. We can also blame the Bactrocera oleae (also known as Dacus oleae), a fly that took advantage of the bad weather and proliferated to an astounding degree in a large area of central Italy.
A puncture by the fly to deposit her egg is enough to start the degeneration of the olive, and, of course, after the worm hatches, the olive is ruined.
Some diehards picked anyway. Many olive mills turned them away. The only chance was for the few olives that were still green and may have missed the fly’s egg-laying season, or were not affected due to the high phenols in a green olive that deter the fly.
Those who did pick tried to filter and reprocess, but ended up with an oil deprived of flavour and nutrition. The oleic acids are too high to be considered an extra-virgin olive oil, and the flavour and shelf life will be less due to high peroxide levels. The taste of this oil is called "grubby", as in grubs, and has a distinctive rancid taste like stale nuts or rancid butter.
Meanwhile, in Puglia's Salento, a region that produces a third of Italy’s oil, trees have been hit with a bacteria called Xylella fastidiosa,which causes leaves to wither and die. Some sources say that over 70,000 acres have been affected.
According to Coldiretti, the national agricultural association, 8,000 hectares have been quarantined and a mile-wide strip from east to west will be burned to keep the problem from spreading, a heartbreaking consideration, given that many of those trees are hundreds of years old.
Interestingly, this problem was previously contained in the Americas, infecting a hundred different host plants including oleander, grapes, citrus, and almonds, but has somehow now arrived in southern Italy and victimized the olive tree.
The leaf-hopping insects that carry it from plant to plant may be moving via the oleanders that border many roads.
In an already bad economic year for Italy, this has had a trickle-down effect, with losses for the olive mills, the suppliers of tins and bottles, the printers of labels, and we tiny producers who labour all year for the crowning moment. However, this year the olive has abdicated.
Spain, which produces nearly half the world’s supply of olive oil, has suffered losses as well with the drought this year. The overall prediction for Italy is 35 percent less oil than normal.
Prices will continue to go up as supply diminishes. Your best bet is to buy up what remains of the 2013 harvest, which will still be great if it has been stored in a cool, dark place.
Let’s be optimistic. We in Tuscany are preparing ourselves to combat the reproduction of the fly. In my case, I'm studying organic options, such as pheromone attractants, which won’t harm the beneficial insect population and other preemptive treatments allowed by our certifying agency.
We’re also hoping for a normal winter with temperatures low enough to interupt the cycle. As farmers for many generations know, it comes down to weather, and over that we have little control.
By Pamela Sheldon Johns
Pamela Sheldon Johns is a Professional EVOO Sommelier, certified by Irvea International Olive Oil Experts (www.oliveoilexperts.org), the author of 17 books specialized in traditional and regional Italian foods, Italian culinary expert for more than 20 years (www. FoodArtisans.com), and organic olive oil producer/owner of Poggio Etrusco, an agriturismo and cooking school in Montepulciano (www.Poggio-Etrusco.com).