I met Marco Bettini more than 20 years ago in an online discussion group about olive oil. The Bettini family has produced extra virgin olive oil for more than 50 years, and they were the first in Umbria to advocate for earlier harvesting back in the 1990s, a practice now common across Italy since it produces much better olive oil. When Marco posted that their olive groves had just been certified organic (biologico in Italian, and the standards are much higher than here in the US), I knew I had to try the oil. So on our next trip we drove to Umbria, the green heart of Italy, to the small village of Montefalco.
When we arrived at the farm just outside the hill town’s walls, Marco’s father was grilling lamb and toasting bread for bruschetta. His mother cooked us pasta with the region’s black truffles, teasing her husband about his preference for what she called overcooked spaghetti. Everything we ate was anointed with the family’s pungent green oil, and we drank the Bettini wine made from sagrantino, an ancient grape praised by Pliny the Elder and grown only around Montefalco.
These days Marco’s brother Paolo manages the groves, and the Frantoio, Moraiolo, and Leccino olives flourish in the tenari bianchi, the region’s lime-rich “white soils.” Warm summer sun and the Tramontana, the dry wind blowing out of the north, produce olives rich with the phenolic compounds that provide the distinctive fruity taste and high pungency of Umbrian olive oil. When the fruit is ready to harvest in the autumn, Marco takes time off from his day job as a cardiologist to press the oil.
Bettini is our smallest producer, and we only get a few hundred liters of oil each year. Climate change impacts every harvest, and both unusual cold and a lack of rain reduced the harvest dramatically. Marco tells us that many Umbrian producers bought olives from further south to supplement their own crop, but he and Paolo only press the fruit they grow to ensure the quality of the oil. We won’t get much, but Marco says, “the oil is really fantastic.”
All photos courtesy of Jim and Judith’s 2003 trip to Umbria.