Getting the Good Oil

It’s one of my favourite times of year – picking olives and more importantly savouring the new extra virgin olive oil. A time to catch up with old friends and share our aches and pains as the days pass and the garage fills with crates of olives.

Besides I am lucky enough to be picking olives in Pienza in Val d’Orcia which in any season boasts fabulous views, rolling hills and cypress lanes, and towers guarding valleys filled with fluffy clouds and evocative morning mist.

Picking olives - Aleardo Paolucci designStaying with my artist friend – Enrico Paolucci, is always a pleasure and despite his father’s passing in 2013, Aleardo’s presence is still strong. From the muraled garage wall denoting country life, and the house filled with Aleardo’s works of art, to Isabella’s fond memories recounted as we pick olives together.Aleardo Paolucci - painting

We have been lucky with the weather, unlike some areas in Italy still battling flood levels and muddy landslides. A few brief showers gave us reprieve over lunchtime and the light breeze dried the trees and olives quickly so we could continue the picking.Picking with battery operated rake

An ingenious local, Giuliano, developed a home made version of ‘leaf and olive separator’ (seen in action here), in recycled material, even including the fan. A true Maker! Since we are not all hand picking, the battery powered raking system pulls more leaves and twigs with olives still attached and the less leaves in the pressing the better. The Olive mill also has their own similar separator system but in the meantime we are doing our best to send them to the mill in the best condition possible.
Separator - leaves from olivesOlives ready for the mill





Blessed with some sunshine, and spreading even larger olive nets under the trees meant we were soon down to T shirts only…..and my beloved overalls! The garage quickly filled with crates of Olives ready for the Mill – Frantoio Simonelli Santi in the nearby town of San Quirico d’Orcia. 

Surprisingly the mill is in the historic centre of the town using the traditional method of pressing – stone grinders pressing olives, pips and all, automated machines spreading the olive paste on mats, mats stacked into the presser which is raised, pressing out the liquid – oil and water and finally the centrifuge to separate the water from liquid gold extra virgin olive oil. Strictly cold press and bio!


Extra virgin oilive oilThe air is filled with a buzz of the various rake and shake systems as batteries power along until sunset, and our backs say they need a rest. Gloves are worn thin between the thumb and forefinger as we strip the branches of their produce.

In a week we picked 761 kilos of olives and came home from the Olive Mill with 125 litres of fabulous liquid gold. What could be more satisfying!


Spring fever in beautiful Pienza

View of PienzaAs Pablo Neruda said “You can cut all the flowers but you cannot keep Spring from coming”. I have just spent a few days at my artist friend in Pienza bathed in glorious Spring weather and fields of wild tulips and cherry blossoms. The gently rolling hills of Tuscany can not get any better than this area of Val D’Orcia and I am always pleased to be back.

The area has UNESCO World Heritage status: as it is an exceptional reflection of the way the landscape was re-written in Renaissance times to reflect the ideals of good Val d'Orciagovernance and to create an aesthetically pleasing pictures. The landscape of the Val d’Orcia was celebrated by painters from the Siennese School, which flourished during the Renaissance. Images of the Val d’Orcia, and particularly depictions of landscapes where people are depicted as living in harmony with nature, have come to be seen as icons of the Renaissance and have profoundly influenced the development of landscape thinking.

PienzaThat sense of harmony prevails and I could spend hours along the walls of Pienza absorbing these views in the changing sunlight. Or, as we did, take a stroll to the ancient Church of Corsignano with its decorative monsters above the doorway from the 12th Century, although parts of the church date back even to the 7th Century!

Complete harmony in nature. Pienza too is an absolute delight with its elegant Renaissance square and harmonious buildings, as Pope Pius Piccolomini had the money and power to transform his birthplace (Corsignano) into a Utopian dream city.

But that’s not all as the strong scent of the local food speciality, namely the pecorino cheese, wafts along the street and the delicatessens display other tempting delicacies like pici pasta, dry porcini mushrooms, salamis, local honey and extra virgin olive oil.

The quaintness of the place continues with unique shops selling exquisite linen ware, and the kitchenware shop is full of copper pots and pans, basket ware, handmade knives and unusual olive oil servers.

My artist friend Enrico Paolucci is hard at work on a special ‘owl’ commissioned for a birthday surprise so I am left to wander the studio taking photos of his new work ( a homage to his father, Aleardo) and make the most of his hospitality.

After work, dinner in a quiet spot in Pienza and a late night stroll to catch the magic of the moment. Pienza never loses its charm nor the Val d’Orcia, Tuscany, its harmony with Nature.


Paolucci’s Papier-Mache Art

Yet another art exhibition opening this time by a friend of mine, Enrico Paolucci, inEnrico Paolucci exhibition Pienza. The name may ring a bell with some of you as his father was also an artist – Aleardo Paolucci and I took many of my tour groups to their farm property just outside of Pienza (Southern Tuscany). Unlike most artists however Enrico works with papier-mâché creating painted fish, owls, wild boar together with scenic panels of his home area – Val d’Orcia and the Cinque Terre.

His work is quite unusual and his technique original, surprising most people when they first come across it. His bas-relief panels have been placed in hotel lobbies, on cruise papier-mâché panelships and decorate the walls of many restaurants from Sicily to Milan. Even the new restaurant/ food chain ‘Eataly’ in Milan has his work and asked him to make 100 mini fish as table decorations….which was quite a feat! papier-mâché fish

He had always dabbled with clay and then experimented with papier-mâché which became his favourite medium. When we first met  in 1997 he had only just started, initially making lots of fish having been captivated by those he had seen snorkelling in the dead sea.papier-mâché fish





His fish have been particularly successful and even some of my tour members have taken one or two home to Australia and New Zealand. His home territory of Val d’Orcia is twin territory with the Cinque Terre and his fish are also in various galleries there and other seaside resorts in Liguria. A very appropriate home for them and no beach house should be without one so I am lucky to have some in my little haven at the Cinque Terre as well!

papier-mâché fishYears ago he was commissioned to make an enormous ‘Barramundi’ for a club called by the same name as the owner had been to Australia and fallen in love with the Barramundi fish legend . Having seen the Barramundi when I was in Darwin I can understand that, as they are an amazing fish, starting life as males then changing gender when they are mature around 4-5 years old! The ones I saw were huge and no papier-mâché barramundiwonder the Aborigines consider them a magical fish. Enrico poured over Australian photos, sketches and Aboriginal art books and made a prototype which proudly hangs in my lounge, a little faded and dusty but just as magic.

At the current exhibition his art panels and animals and fish are much more sophisticated,

Enrico Paolucciand still delighting the onlookers. Wild boars, owls, roosters, and the sweet rolling hills of the Val d’ Orcia show his devotion to this beautiful area of Tuscany.papier-mâché panel



Enrico Paolucci exhibition




papier-mâché panelEnrico Paolucci papier-mache panel



He has often done bas relief panels associated with the legend ‘The Odyssey’ in particular ‘Circe and her animals’.




And we were all rather touched to see the special  tribute to his father who had passedAleardo Paolucci away in 2013. A memorial exhibition for his father in May 2015 had used this painting by Aleardo on the poster.


Enrico’s tribute ‘Conversation’ with nature below


Enrico Paolucci


So follow me now as I take you on a guided tour of the opening of the exhibition.

Sue Jane Enrico Paolucci




You can see more of Enrico Paolucci ‘s work here or better still drop by Pienza as his work and his father’s decorate most of the cafes and restaurants in town!



Spring has rolled out her green carpet

Wildflowers, olivesVal d'Orcia







Spring has finally arrived and the months of rain seem to be behind usSpring carpet now…until the Spring rain! It’s such a beautiful time of year and the views are stunning. Soon we will come out of our winter tunnel when we wind the clocks forward an hour and the days become  longer.
The past few weeks I have been gallivanting about, and the Spring landscapes in Tuscany and the Cinque Terre are stunning.
The green carpet on the hills of Tuscany around Montepulciano and SpringtimePienza is breathtaking in its simplicity. Nature is an evocative master.






Locals are busy pruning their olives and council workers are hard at work lopping the trees along the avenue. As my gardening tour leaders used to say “give a man a chain saw and he can be positively dangerous – boy pruning they called it when the tree looks more like a stump!Olive pruning

Council pruning






Almond and cherry trees in full bloom, lead the way on our hike around the Chianti hills.

And even my little garden has a show of daffodils and jonquils and my banksia rose is now lusciously green on the archway.

Wildflowers Spring Cinque Terre






Yellow and white wildflowers enhance the trails at the Cinque Terre, violets peek out between the moss, and irises and delicate snapdragons create an instant garden. Buttercups burst out of the old and new dry stone walls, or cover the scars of an old ruin.

Buttercups CornigliaButtercups









The sea is calm and people lazily fish enjoying the sunshine as the early tourists strip and soak up the sun on the beach at Monterosso.
Monterosso, Cinque Terre






Fishing nets

Serious fishing hasn’t started yet as can be seen  by the nets stacked up at Monterosso.

While tourists laze around or sport T shirts and shorts along the trail, locals tend the vines, tying them up with fronds of ginestra (broom).Tying vines

Vegie patches are dug over leaving a few black cabbage plants still going strong while some early lettuce varieties are already sprouting.vegetable garden






And when hunger strikes, the “Siamo Fritti’  ( We’re doomed!) the fried seafood takeaway at Riomaggiore has hardly a queue, and I’m next after the cat!Takeaway Riomaggiore


Ps And Spring is in the air even downtown as a Spanish visitor to the Uffizi Gallery stripped in front of  Botticelli’s “Venus” yesterday!