Francesco Piattelli swapped his New York lifestyle to work on his family’s olive farm in Tuscany. What’s that like? Katie McKnoulty joins him during olive oil harvest season to find out.
We’re picking olives in a sun-drenched field overlooking the Tuscan countryside, a classic view of centuries-old hilltop towns and church spires. This view has barely changed in generations.
Although other things may have… Francesco gets out his portable Bluetooth speaker and plays a track you might hear in a Brooklyn coffee shop. Noticing this paradoxical moment too, he turns to me and says, “People sometimes look down on agricultural work but I mean, look how much fun we’re having!”
It’s October and olive harvest time in Monte San Savino. I’ve been invited to stay with 37-year-old Italian-American Francesco Piattelli and his partner, Francesca Gambato to experience and document the harvest of their 4.5 hectares of olive trees in the heart of the Toscano IGP denomination. They’ve spent the last two years nurturing these olives to produce their organic, sustainable olive oil, Agricola Maraviglia, and they lead harvesting retreats on the side. They grow and harvest their olives using traditional Tuscan techniques—small batch, hands-on and organic. With over 85 per cent of production coming from their restoration of local family-owned groves, they’re helping to regenerate the local environment and keep the Tuscan olive oil economy and legacy alive.
But Francesco didn’t always work with the land. Growing up in small-town Tuscany with an American mother and Italian father, he moved to New York City at 26 in search of bigger challenges. But seven years later, stressed out and unsatisfied, he left his life and his advertising agency to return to his homeland.
With his mother living in an apartment nearby and his father on a small sailboat in the Mediterranean, Francesco was able to transform his childhood home into Maraviglia Conscious Living, a retreat center where yogis and meditators could reconnect with nature and themselves.
This also gave him a chance to reconnect with his homeland and figure out his next steps. “Living here, you see every season,” he says. “You see the trees. They bloom and they fall and the energy is just so palpable and so strong. The love for olives and nature came after. It’s something that surprised me.”
On my first morning, we head out early to the olive groves. Francesco has gathered six friends and family—serial harvesters—to help pick olives eight hours a day for the five weeks of the harvest.
There are even strategy meetings to decide how best to divest the trees of their bounty, as efficiently as possible, to get those early-harvest green olives that make the best-tasting olive oil.
One friend, Magali, lives and works on a natural winery in the south of France with her partner, and travels for various harvests. Italian-American Sam lives locally with his family and helped set up the ‘forest kindergarten’ that sees his little boy spend every day in nature.
I’m equally awed and intimidated by these people living by values so at odds with the consumerist values rampant in cities that I’ve known.
It’s my first harvest. If I’m honest, I’d imagined picking every olive one by one from each silvery-green branch and placing it in a woven basket slung over my arm. But that’s not how it’s done.
It’s not so much picking the olives as it is shaking and combing the trees, and catching the falling olives on meters-long nets laid out below. There are even strategy meetings to decide how best to divest the trees of their bounty, as efficiently as possible, to get those early-harvest green olives that make the best-tasting olive oil. And we’ve got 800 trees to cover.
Of these 800 trees, only 100 are Francesco’s; the rest are on loan from local families. Generations past felt connected to these olive trees, seeing them as their duty, not to mention an extra income. But today, with the sorry price the oil commands and younger generations no longer maintaining the trees or simply moving away, many groves around Monte San Savino sit abandoned.
“In the supermarkets and even in gourmet stores, it’s really rare to find olive oil from one single farm.”
“They were wonderfully taken care of up to five years ago. Now, they’re just full of thorns,” Francesco tells me. “I take over and restore them. Either by paying these families, if they know how to do it, or I take care of them myself. I prune them, I clean them, I pick them, I press them, and I give them a percentage.”
Lunchtime arrives quickly. Francesco has parked his bright green Piaggio Ape in the middle of the field and folded down the tray to make a buffet table. Francesca piles it high with fresh bread, salad and tomatoes from their garden, and, of course, olive oil. Someone gets a fire going and the next minute, Francesco is grilling fat, juicy sausages over the flames and lunch al fresco begins.
We spend all afternoon working in the fields until the light has faded over the landscape and it’s time to rush today’s olives to the mill to be cold-pressed while they’re fresh.
Francesco breaks it to me gently that the ‘Italian’ olive oil we see en masse in supermarkets actually comes from disparate farms all over Europe via these mills. “In the supermarkets and even in gourmet stores, it’s really rare to find olive oil from one single farm.”
During the drive, with crates of olives stacked up behind us, I ask Francesco something I’d been dying to ask someone under retirement age who had, like me, swapped the city for the country. Was this a cool, new thing to do or were we just getting old before our time?
“I don’t think we’re getting old!” he says. “It’s definitely not a mass phenomenon, but it’s a phenomenon that’s becoming noticeable. We are the first generation that grew up with the values and the teachings and the expectations of the ‘90s…. You make a lot of money, you have a career, the dream. And our parents, with that dream, destroyed the world.”
“Then as soon as you get out of high school, you bang your head against the wall,” he adds. “You go to university then you study finance and you become a doctor, a lawyer. You do all of that and then you don’t find a job and it doesn’t work.”
The absence of a big-ticket job combined with a growing urge to connect with nature and ourselves, city life can lose some of its pull. “Maybe you make less money than you would living in Manhattan and working for a big bank,” says Francesco. “But you spend way less money to have the same thing. I’m not a kamikaze… I’m doing this because I love it and it’s fun, but also because I can live off of it comfortably. There is a business, there just has to be a new model.”
We queue at the mill to weigh our bounty, alongside family cars and large trucks. Some of these people will use their oil at home to last the whole next year. Others will sell it to the mill for a tiny price, who will sell it to big brands for a slightly less tiny price.
As a result, when we buy this big brand oil, we inadvertently perpetuate a cycle of diminishing food quality and dismal pay for the people laboring at the bottom of the chain.
The next day, we eat lunch together around a long table at the farmhouse. Francesca cuts the radicchio and goat’s cheese quiche fresh out of the oven and dresses the fresh green salad with lashings of olive oil. It’s all made by her hand, using ingredients taken just hours ago from their bountiful garden, a hundred meters from where we sit.
I have a new appreciation for this amber liquid sitting on the table. It’s not just the delicious oil itself. It’s everything it represents. It’s a way of living, working, consuming that works with the planet and the people, not against them.
It may be just a bottle of olive oil made by one man, on a small farm in a tiny corner of the world, but it’s pointing us in the right direction.
Katie McKnoulty is an Australian travel writer, photographer and branding consultant, working remotely from Le Marche, Italy, and documenting her experiences at The Travelling Light. She’s interested in stories about people living and working in new ways. Her stories and photos have appeared in Lonely Planet, Forbes, Hostelworld, Broadsheet, and Tiny Atlas Quarterly.