The peace and quiet of Autumn

Cinque Terre fishing boatsThe off season in the Cinque Terre is always a favourite time for me. Residents linger on the streets; enjoying the quiet and a catch up on the gossip, and the towns become “ours” again. Even the small number of tourists still enjoying the trails, the views and the villages feel like locals. A certain calm and balance has come back into place, and a little sunshine peeks from behind the clouds.

The recent rains have caused flooding in various areas in Liguria and Tuscany, and while the emergency warning has reigned on several days in the Cinque Terre, luckily enough for now there has been no flooding.Cinque Terre

I saunter down the trail from San Bernardino to Vernazza and come across only a French couple going in the opposite direction to Corniglia. I gaze down on my favourite beach and there is not a soul about, if only it was a smidge warmer I may even go and sit there for a while.

The train offloads some tourists but they spread out quickly and in the main square kids play “hide and seek’ amongst the fishing boats now pulled up for the season.Cinque Terre

A lone painter is capturing the atmosphere from afar, undisturbed by onlookers and a few locals’ fish, with some success by the look of their bucket.FishFishermen








A few closed umbrellas of the cafes are in sight, although most of the outdoor seating has been packed away for another year. And some of the shops have already put up their protective flood barriers. Cinque terre view





The same scene is repeated in the other villages. On the trail down to Manarola through the woods I only hear the scrunching of leaves underfoot, not even a cricket stirs. Manarola Cinque TerreManarola’s main street is lined with fishing boats and no one is splayed out sunbaking on the rocks around the harbour.
Washing flaps in the breeze as if to say “we’re back home now” as many residents dislodge themselves to La Spezia during the season while they rent out their apartments.Monterosso washing




There’s a laziness in the air as life takes on a slower pace, locals chat on the doorstop, shopkeepers seem less stressed and the old men reclaim their favourite bench in the piazza..Corniglia main square



Corniglia’s plane trees are the only inhabitants in their piazza these days as residents gather inside the cafés. Although all it needs is a ray of sunshine to bring clients to one of my favourite haunts in Corniglia whose lovely creeper flaunts Autumn colours, offering the last shade that will be needed until next year.

Tuscan vineyards

On the home front near Florence I am immersed in golden vineyards and flaming walnut trees.Autumn vineyardsWalnut trees




Mourning the Good Oil

Olive Grindstone

Giacomo Budini Gattai at the medieval grindstone that would have been pulled by bullocks

It’s time for the new extra virgin olive oil…..but there is none, or hardly any this year. It has been such a weird year weather wise, a mild Winter, cool and wet SumGrindstonemer.

The  general dampness in the air has tragically affected the olives so they have produced very few and many have been infected by the dreaded bug. I went back last week to Villa I Bonsi to buy my yearly quota and walked into an eerie silence in the mill. Looks of despair amongst the staff  and Bernadette could only say “siamo in lutto!” (we are in mourning). Normally the olive mill would be working 24 hours a day until the end of November and sometimes even into December crushing their olives as well as those from the surrounding farm properties. It was dead quiet and spick and span now. They had harvested very early and selected out what olives could be saved from their 200+ hectares of olive groves. Naturally this has put the price up, but I was not going to quibble over that as their extra virgin olive oil is exquisite.

So beware of any new oil this year, and only buy from trusted sources as there is sure to be a lot of poor quality oil for sale from imported olives. And while I went to the Paolucci’s in Pienza there was no picking to be done this year.

For info I reposted my blog from last year. 12/11/2013

Yes it’s that time of year again when Tuscany begins to create “Liquid Gold” olio extra vergine di olive and we love the first tasting of the oil drizzled onto lightly toasted unsalted bread, the fettunta, or bruschetta when rubbed with garlic.  It’s the only time of year we munch into it as such, as I see many disappointed tourists looking to do the same on simple bread in restaurants during the year and they can’t find any butter plate or even oil!?

Villa i Bonsi

Toast for Fettunta

Villa I Bonsi

Villa I Bonsi







Just as the days start to get colder and shorter and the mornings crisp and fresh, perhaps even too fresh, pickers go out to the olive groves, spread their circular cloths around the trunks to catch the olives as they fall.

Olives are resilient trees, their beautiful twisted and craggy trunks have seen history pass before them, think of the stories they could tell! And making olive oil has been a process largely unchanged for centuries. Some modernization has introduced new machinery to grind and press which has increased the purity and quality of the oil, so now those old grindstones are more likely to be seen as decorative pieces in the garden than in the Frantoio – Olive mill.

Olive Oil press

Old press

Olive oil grindstones

Old grindstones


What you may not know is that the olives are small, (not big juicy eating olives) pressed; pip and all…picked just before they are fully mature…ground at a controlled speed to not heat the paste and spoil the flavour and more importantly that… extra virgin olive oil will keep you healthy. The best extra virgin oil is Tuscan…followed by Umbrian, although I must admit after my time in the Cinque Terre that Ligurian oil is best with their local sea food dishes as it is lighter in flavour.

We know it’s good for the heart, the arteries, is a powerful anti ageing agent for our bodies and even linked to the prevention of cancer!  Whatever it is we love it, live on it and slurp it over everything.

There are at least 4 varieties of olives typical to Tuscany –

  • Moraiolo the most representative, still green in colour at harvest time, creates an oil with an intense, slightly bitter taste and a pungent after taste,
  • Frantoia produce a mix of green and black olives and  has an intense fruity fragrance followed by a deep peppery sensation, while
  • Leccino is black when mature and has a vivid fruity flavour with just a hint of bitterness and
  • Pendolino has the smell of almonds and is a mix of green and black at harvest time.

The tradition has been to mix the varieties together although some new growers are now producing mono varietal oils. I’m a traditionalist when it comes to my oil.

Most of the picking is done by hand, some use a wide toothed comb (even battery operated) so the more people the merrier…as they say. Where new groves have been planted they may use the tree shaker, although a wise old farmer was critical of the method as “that shakes the soul out of the tree” and not surprisingly since it needs to Olive Pickers

shake hard as the olives are not completely ripe.

During the picking there’s time to chatter and catch up on the local news or relate old stories as we clamber from tree to tree dragging the nets behind us.

Inside Villa with Tommy Budini Gattai

Inside Villa with Tommy Budini Gattai

Even my local postman takes time off work to go and pick. And why? Because the tradition has been to pay locals in oil not cash, which is like gold here – each getting a percentage of what they pick and hoping to pick enough to supply their family with oil for the year.

So next time you slurp some extra virgin olive oil, relish it even more now you know all the love and hard work that has gone into making it. Tenuta I Bonsi oil

Photos are from the Frantoio at Villa i Bonsi, owned by the family Budini Gattai, which many of my tour clients will recognise. It is 29kms outside of Florence in Reggello, a very pretty and less touristy area, offering apartments for rent or the Grand rooms for wedding receptions and conferences.

I’m off to pick at Paolucci’s in Pienza, he’s running late with the picking so we’ll be working hard!