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Italian olive oil bounces back after one of the worst years in history

The 2015 Italian olive harvest is looking good.

The 2015 Italian olive harvest is looking good.

(Kathy Parsons)

Touring their centuries-old olive orchard and state-of-the-art oil mill with just a month to go before harvest, Crudo’s Giuseppe Schiralli and Antonio Rutigliano are all smiles. At this time last year, no one could have blamed them if they’d been hiding in their offices curled up in a fetal position.

Yes, the season Italians are calling l’anno brutto or l’anno nero (the ugly year or the black year) is finished.

The 2014 olive harvest was one of the worst in Italian history. A trifecta of troubles — bad weather at the worst possible times, an infestation of olive fruit fly and a disease some called “olive Ebola” — had reduced the crop to the point that many mills didn’t even bother to pick their fruit.

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In Umbria in Central Italy, the production of olive oil fell by 95%. Neighboring Tuscany wasn’t much better. Even in Schiralli’s and Rutigliano’s southern home region of Puglia, which usually accounts for roughly 40% of Italy’s total olive oil production, the harvest was skimpy.

Olive oil lovers were advised to buy up their favorite bottles and hoard them.

The outlook is brighter for 2015, though production will probably still fall short of a boom year such as 2013.

“This year we will have very good production, but perhaps not as good as we first forecast in the springtime,” says Rutigliano, co-founder and sales manager of the award-winning oil. “It looks like we’ll have a very good year by quality, though maybe not as good by quantity.”

The improvement can be attributed mostly to the weather, which for a change wasn’t disastrous. The 2014 growing season was plagued by trouble at almost every step of the way.

Furthermore, a warm, wet winter preceding that one had created perfect conditions for the olive fruit fly, a tiny pest that burrows inside olives, where it lays its eggs. When the eggs hatch, the larvae eat their way out.

“The mosca (fly) is always a problem; it’s always there,” says Rutigliano. “We have tools to fight it, but not when the weather is as wet as it was last year.”

More controversial is the effect of a plant bacteria called Xylella fastidiosa, which some authorities say has infected as many as 74,000 acres in Puglia.

Called by some “olive Ebola,” the threat is so serious that the European Union has taken action, establishing a quarantine, calling for the destruction of all plants found within 100 meters of an outbreak and paying landowners to take out infected trees.

But some insiders say the threat really isn’t that serious, that economic motives have exaggerated the problem.

Puglia is dotted with ancient olive groves, some of them several centuries old. Those old trees are coveted by landscape designers who dug them out and transported them to wealthier parts of Italy. To stop that, any tree older than 100 years is now being catalogued and protected by law.

But those same regulations prevented landowners with old groves from doing anything else with their properties. As a result, frequently they were left to languish, which weakened the trees, creating the conditions that led to the outbreak.

“Italians with neglected groves who didn’t want to be in the olive business anyway found themselves in an especially great position,” emailed Catherine Faris, who with her husband Brian produces olive oil in Puglia under the Pascarosa label. They have led wine and food tours of the area for more than 20 years.

“Overly zealous news reports of the impending ‘devastation’ fanned the flames, so the EU decided to pay landowners 15,000 euros per hectare [approximately 2 1/2 acres] to uproot infected trees.

“These landowners were ecstatic. They hadn’t harvested their olives for years, so now they were able to collect more money per hectare than they could get by selling their parcels, without losing ownership of even a meter of land. Their pesky olives were gone, so they could plant something else instead if they chose.”

In fact, a group of young Italian olive growers is talking about suing the EU over the required olive tree removals, arguing that they have been able to bring many groves back just by careful farming.

All of that will be decided in the future, though. For now, Rutigliano, Schiralli and the rest of the Italian olive oil producers are simply thankful that l’anno brutto has passed.

Are you a food geek? Follow me on Twitter @russ_parsons1

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