There is a scene in Under The Tuscan Sun when the characters are bringing in the olive harvest, it is a joyous calliope of work, laughter, friendships and (bound by blood and circumstances) family which is followed by a groaning table, wine and conversation. The truth is I never expected to be in my own version of this favourite movie of mine. As with Frances saying “well, um, I can’t go back to San Francisco” I have uttered similar words this week about the United States.
I met Nicoletta late in July, when her olive fruits were young. I have been invited back to Fažana to experience the harvest and the milling of her olives. I am humbled to witness the end of the season, the continuation of 3000 years of cultivation here in Istria. Istra, how those living here refer to it, and the Lombardy region of Italy are the two most northerly locations able to support olive trees and yet cycles of weather have periodically threatened and destroyed this connection to human history (most recently in the 1960s). The oldest olive tree in Istra is on Brijuni, a remnant of a Roman settlement and it is 1700 years old. In contrast Nicoletta’s trees are young, but she knows precisely how old each is, their temperament, their yields.
By education and trade Nicoletta is a truly talented linguist. At the age of 25 her beloved father died suddenly; amongst his legacy to her was this grove. Now 500 trees. Three varieties of olives. She doing what has traditionally been a man’s work. This woman with the same minerals of Istra’s red earth coursing through her veins that nourishes her olive trees honouring the history of Istra and her father. Nicoletta and her olives. Her keen intellect taking what has always been done here and doing something much more.
I wander through the grove. Taking pictures of the olives, of the trees, of the men and women gathered here who comb the ripe fruit with their fingers unto the soft mesh nets below. It is timeless. Rhythms of life. The nets will be gathered (also by hand) as fishermen would to fill green and red crates. The crates are loaded into Nicoletta’s mom’s chartreuse green Mercedes minivan, the colour of some of the olives are in sunlight. The stainless containers for the oil follow the olives, then us. The Balija olives, some of which still hung heavy on spindly branches less than fifteen minutes ago, will be pressed within the hour. I will taste this green gold fresh from their trees a half an hour later. I will weep. I will weep for the connection to history, to the land that Romans made their summer residence, for the blessing of this experience. I weep to know precisely where this olive oil came from, to see it pressed, to feel its silkiness coat my teeth and tongue and fill my mouth with Istrian sunlight. I weep to stand in the Grubić family mill in Bale amidst ancient stone wheels and a museum of rescued relics of the past which make up half of the facility and the modern cold-pressed technology that carries Nicoletta’s legacy to become assigned status Product of Designated Origin, PDO, Istrian olive oil.
So many of our larders are full of seemingly precious (by its price point) EVO and small batch Balsamic vinegars, beautiful cookware and expensive knives. None of you reading this have ever been so intimate with what comes from the earth as I have been these last months, in this moment standing in the night air dense with the scents of lavender and the crush of ripe olives or tomorrow when Nicoletta will pour this bright grass green liquid gold over tomatoes fresh from the vine for our lunch.
At the end of Under the Tuscan Sun there is a line spoken by ‘Frances’ that all her wishes came true, the wedding and the family in the too big house that so often threatened to swamp her with despair. We create the life we wish, sometimes without even realising that we are doing so in the process. It’s said if you sit at someone’s table and eat with them they give you their heart. Nicoletta was emotionally and physically present at a moment of incredible sadness, stress and overwhelming aloneness for me. She has shared extraordinary cuisine with me, and she and her mom have both invited me to dine at their tables. In my heart that makes Nicoletta the truest kind of family, the one we choose and that chooses us.
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