At the entrance to Vicopisano, an olive farm
While vineyard tours are plentiful, fascinating and fun, after your third or tenth tour you might be looking for a different way to spend a day.
I would highly recommend visiting an olive farm that produces its own oil.
I discovered this while planning last year’s Book Club in Tuscany trip. One of the books we were reading was “Extra Virginity” about the olive industry and how to tell good oil from bad. I wanted to have a day trip focused on olive oil, but just a tasting at a shop in town wasn’t very “immersive.” Good thing the trusty interwebs pointed me to Il Frantoio di Vicopisano del Rio Grifone, an olive farm east of Pisa on the Rio (river) Grifone.
I contacted them, set up a tour, tasting and lunch, then crossed my fingers that the place was all it said it was on their website.
It was all that e molto di piu!
The day we went was cool-to-warm and sunny, which showcased the beautiful drive to the farm. Winding roads through the countryside, through small towns and past vineyards. We put the name of the farm into our navigation system and it took us right there. When we got close, we saw a medieval tower that sits just across from the farm (above). It was designed by Brunelleschi, the man who designed the famous Duomo in Florence.
Turning in at the sign, we drove up a road surrounded on each side by fields of fruit trees. On the hillside beyond those fields was row after row of mature frantoio olive trees.
At the end of the road were a few buildings and a two-story white stucco house with a covered porch. Waiting for us there was Marco, our tour guide for the day and the eventual crush of every woman in our group. Handsome, smart and charming.
The tour started with a refreshing glass of what tasted like a homemade sangria — various fruits in a chilled white wine. While enjoying that, we met a couple from London who had rented the apartment on the farm – yes you can do that – for a month. They said it was the ideal hub for their Tuscan sightseeing and on some days they just hung out at the farm, taking walks, reading, napping. They looked more relaxed than I do when I’m asleep.
It was time for our tour! Marco began by walking us back down the road we’d driven up. The fruit trees we saw were, surprisingly enough, kiwi trees. There were also peaches, pears, apricots and figs, along with organic vegetable and herb gardens. The kiwis are used to make “Kiwino” – a light liqueur — and gobbledy-good kiwi jam. More on that later.
When we got to the olive trees (all 2,500 of them organic), Marco explained why and how the trees are pruned along with how the workers gather the ripe olives. Instead of picking each individual olive, they put nets down under the tree and gently whack the branches with a long-but-lightweight paddle-looking tool. The ripe ones fall into the net.
At the top of the road was an old-fashioned grinder (right). In ancient times, the olives were put into this thing and the massive stone wheels were dragged (by an animal) or pushed (by humans) around and around the trough, crushing the olives until the oil came out. Much the same method was used to crush wine grapes back then as well.
When we got inside the mill where the oil is made, Marco showed us another old way of squishing the olives to get the oil. Flat woven baskets were filled with olives and stacked on top of each other beneath what looked like a big plunger. The plunger was screwed down and down until it mashed all the baskets together and the oil dripped down. This was an advancement over the stone wheel because all the pits and leaves stayed in the basket.
Today, it’s all done by space-age machines – a defoliator, decanter and centrifuge among others — that basically annihilate the olives until they give up their delicious green oil.
The Rio Grifone mill has all these machines, so during “the season” – which can span the October/November time frame depending on weather – several of the farmers in the area bring their olives there for processing. It’s a busy time, said Marco, but also fun as the whole community is working together to help each other and make the harvest a success.
By that time, we knew all about how the olive oil got into the bottle, so we went for the tasting.
At Vicopisano, they not only make a scrumptious regular olive oil, they also have different-flavored oils that are great for cooking and enhancing certain foods. Lemon, rosemary, basil, pepper and garlic – each of these fruits or herbs is thrown in with the olives to be crushed and processed from the very beginning. The result is not just “infused” oils but buttery delicious, mouthwatering flavor sensations. In other words, really, really yummy. The basil is great on salads, the rosemary on steak or chicken, I use the lemon on seafood, and the garlic in some pasta dishes.
To taste all of these, we were asked to put five little mounds of white rice on our plates and the different oils were dribbled atop each one. The rice was bland enough to let the flavor of the oil come through. Along with the oil tastings we had bottles of the estate’s red wine, Ceppato, a sangiovese that was exquisitely smooth and drinkable. We also got to taste the Grappa they make there, as well as the aforementioned kiwi jam and Kiwino.
Lunch was a vegetable-filled ribollita (soup/stew) with fresh bread ideal for dipping into the oils. After the meal, we went shopping. The store at Rio Grifone had everything for sale, and they can ship purchases to the U.S. when you — like me — buy more than you can cram into your suitcase.
As you can see, I loved this experience. We bookended it with a morning at the Leaning Tower, and a late afternoon nap. And I took two other groups while I was there last summer. I gave the flavored oils as Christmas gifts and now all the recipients want to order more. I still have a little of what I bought for myself, but it’s going fast. Details about what and how to order are on the website.