"Listen to the silence", says Michael.
As we lean against the railing of the terrace of the Villa Ombrone, our eyes are lost in the vast panorama illuminated by the setting sun. The eyes follow the green meanders of the trees that run along the river, then get lost in the multicolored puzzle of the fields, and then follow the rows of olive groves that go up the already blue hills.
"This silence" he says again.
Summer in Tuscany comes with long, warm days that surround the Villa Ambretta in a soft slumber.
From the early hours of the morning, the blinds open onto a strong sun that no cloud in the blue sky will be able to hide. In the shade, the terrace smells of coffee and dry, hot grass. Another hot summer day; soon, the morning birdsongs will be replaced by the repetitive chirping of the cicadas.
When people see Tuscany for the first time, they are immediately struck by the beauty of the landscape, which has been sculpted by its inhabitants for centuries.
Then, as they get to know the region, the diversity of the lines becomes more apparent. The empty and colour-changing slopes of the San Gimignano region, the orderly Chianti vines, the soft, bronze-coloured hills of the Senese, the cypress alleys of the Val d'Orcia, and the pines along the coast are only some examples of this Tuscan diversity.
Spring tends to creep up on city dwellers from Northern Europe. One day, they notice an avenue whose trees are suddenly covered in leaves. The next day, the prunus trees on the squares are wrapped up in pink flowers. As they leave the city, they start to see small colourful spring flowers sprinkled on the hills.
At the beginning of May, sitting at the terrace of a cafe, it hits them – spring is here, in all its might, like the earthy rhythms of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.
The word "Tuscany" immediately makes people think of sunny fields, with lined-up cypress trees contrasting against the blue skies, soft green hills, sometimes yellow after the harvest, and beautiful beaches surrounded by elegant pine trees.
All of this is, however, only made possible thanks to the rain.
As the fear of nightly frosts fades, the olive fields start buzzing with people, equipped with pruning shears and saws. Ladders appear on the trees. Tractors gather twigs and branches in a pile. Here and there, fires are lit up, and their smoke rises towards the sky. It is time to trim the olive trees.
But why do we need to trim the trees?
The months of January and February are the coldest season on the coastal side of Tuscany. It is, however, a relatively pleasant cold, as it is often dry and comes with bright blue skies. During cloudless nights, the thermometer often goes below zero - but during the day, it can reach about 15 degrees.
Frost is dangerous for the olives; temperatures below -5 to -10 are usually a threat to the harvest, depending on the variety of olive trees. But low temperatures, especially during the night, remain important for the farming of olive trees and the production of a high quality olive oil.
Every morning, when we open the blinds, our eyes naturally wonder towards the Monte Amiata, made more visible in the winter by its snowy silhouette that contrasts with the blue of the sky.
My wife, Muriel, often tells me that it reminds her of Hokusai’s painting of the Mount Fuji.
December is the first month of winter, but in Maremma it is full of wonders and surprises.
At night, the thermometre can drop below zero, and we sometimes wake up to beautiful white patterns of frost in the fields. But as soon as the first rays of the sun light up the vally, the fog dissipates and the air warms up. The temperature often reaches above 15 degrees, and towards the end of the morning it is more than warm enough to enjoy a coffee at the terrace of one of the Corso Carducci cafés in Grosseto. Even on Christmas day, we are usually able to have lunch outside!
Few people are aware of this, but olive oil makers value the taste of their oil just as much as winemakers value the flavour of their wine. Similarly to wine, olive oil also has its own sommeliers.
We can taste oil the same way we taste wine… every time with renewed interest.
The quality of olive oil depends on a number of different variables. The most central one is, of course, the olives, as each variety produces an oil with a distinct flavour profile. In our olive fields, we cultivate five different varieties of olive trees, which all have the "PGI - Tuscany" certification.
It is then time for the harvest. It is carried out when the green olives start to darken and take on a lovely brownish-purple colour. Olive oils that have been harvested at the right time will be flavourful and have a slight spicy aftertaste, and can have a delicately bitter finish.
This summer, we obtained the "IGP - Tuscany" certification, the protected geographical indication for Tuscany, for all 6 of our olive tree fields.
The inspection focused on the 2744 trees that we cultivate, and it certified that they belonged to typical Tuscan varieties, such as Moraiolo, Leccino, Frantoio, Pentollino and Rosselino.
The certification also looked at the way we prune our olive trees, which had to comply with the traditional olive oil making practices of Tuscany. This specific method gives our olive tree fields the classical postcard-like aspect of Tuscan landscapes.
The August heat wraps around the Tuscan countryside. The machines have gone back to their barn. The tractors have stopped trying to work the ground, hardened by the sun. At dawn, the cool, crisp air is sometimes broken by a farmer stacking dry hay.
Nature is all about calm and rest.
However, in this heavy heat, a little bug is very busy: the olive fruit fly, trying to lay its eggs in the young olives. The fruits, weakened by the larvae, will fall to the ground before they reach maturity.
700 years ago, on 13th of September 1321, Dante Aleghieri, the main architect of modern standard Italian, died. During the whole year, but particularly this summer, Tuscany will celebrate its emblematic author with a number of exhibitions and conferences.
The Divine Comedy, initiatory story that takes the reader through Hell, Heaven and the Purgatory, was the first book written in standard Italian, or rather in Tuscan. This work, both historical through its description of existing figures, but also moral and philosophical, is all about the quest for salvation. Arguably, the Divine Comedy can be considered as the first novel of our Western civilisation.
With the beginning of spring, it is now common to encounter, trotting along roads and tracks, some baby boars briefly away from their mother.
After a gestation period of about three months, the sow (female boar) gives birth to three to ten babies at the end of the winter. Often, mother boars stay together to protect their offspring, and it is frequent to see flocks of twenty to thirty baby boars. Although it might be tempting to get closer, one should stay at a reasonable distance: the mothers are probably not far and carefully watching over them.
Like most regions, Tuscany is has many proverbs in relation to nature. Usually formulated poetically, they are a testimony to the experience accumulated along the seasons and transmitted generation after generation.
Here is one that olive oil farmers know well, and that rings very true.
"The blossoms of the olive flowers in April are for the barrel, those of May only for tasting, and those of June are for punching" (*)
Living in Maremma, at the Villa Ambretta, allows us to enjoy the beauty of everyday events and things – this blog seeks to share this renewed joy with you.