Guardians of the Olive Oil

On my recent food tour of Italy, I’m reminded of the bond I’ve forged with this beautiful country over the years. One particular moment that resonated very deeply with me was when I visited a South African couple at their olive oil farm in the northwest of Italy.

In the Autumn of 2010, when Dominic and René Mitchell visited friends at their olive farm in Liguria, they had no inkling of the life-changing experience before them. Wide awake at daybreak on the morning after they had arrived, they went for a walk, encountering a valley shrouded in mist. As they meandered through the ancient olive grove, the mist began to clear, and on the horizon, they could just glimpse the blue of the Mediterranean. They fell in love.

After a lifetime of chasing deadlines (Dominic is an economist and René an architect), they decided to scale down – to spend three months of the year doing what makes them most happy. For Dominic, it was being outdoors tending the land, while René wanted nothing more than to indulge in nature and to cook with natural ingredients. And so it was that they purchased the neighbouring farm. Three years later, the life they had adopted became their sanctuary after the death of their daughter, Rosa, in 2013.

The Italian region of Liguria, home to the Mitchells’ farm, is famous for its breathtaking landscapes where the Maritime Alps plunge into the sea, and for being home to the Taggiasca olive. “Taggiasca olives are known throughout Italy and the world as the prime olive for gourmet oil,” says Dominic. “We use an olive mill that completely separates each farmer’s production, and the equipment is cleaned after every use. When we harvest, we get the olives to the mill within thirty hours to produce an oil with very low acidity. After that, we pick out the damaged olives. But we also make sure that we have some serious fun while harvesting,” Dominic laughs. “The oil is happy and full of good vibes.”

Contrary to popular belief, naturally filtered olive oil is ideal for frying. It’s only when overheated that the oil loses its structure and nutritional value. At 210°C, olive oil has a high smoking point, which is substantially higher than the ideal frying temperature of 185°C. Butter, for instance, begins to break down at this temperature and turns toxic.

The Mitchells have embraced la vita Italiana wholeheartedly. On wintry, November days, they will warm up a freshly baked sourdough ciabatta and a rustic soup made from borlotti beans, mixed vegetables and chicken. On balmier days, they feast on cheese, cold meats, more ciabatta and fresh salads. As is traditional after the harvest, these two Durbanites need no excuse to dine on seafood risotto, while dinner often involves getting creative with a pasta dish made from produce foraged from their garden.

Living here, the Mitchells have garnered an even deeper respect for nature – particularly for the trees. “Every tree has its own character,” says Dominic. “Some of them are almost eight hundred years old. So, what I’ve come to realise is that we’re actually just custodians of these trees. We don’t own them.”

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