The Restoration of Tuscany’s Most Historically Significant Olive Groves: Monna Giovannella
Two years ago I signed up to take an olive oil tasting course here in Florence. Initially I was simply curious to learn more about this healthy oil that had become a staple part of my diet since moving to Italy. The course, however, opened up a new world for me that I thought, after living in Tuscany for 10 years, I knew something about but actually knew next to nothing . The sad truth is that a very large part of the olive oil industry is a messy and scandalous business rampant with fraud and outrageous mis-labeling of extra virgin olive oil on the grocery store shelves. You can read more about this problem here.
My class instructor, Sonia Donati, one of Tuscany’s leading olive oil tasters and official panel judge for Slow Food in Tuscany, ignited a passion in me to learn as much as I can about this incredible oil. I am currently in the process of becoming a professional olive oil taster and my goal is to spotlight the great efforts that are being made by some exceptional olive oil producers here in Tuscany to educate the public about the mis-information regarding olive oil and improve the truth in labeling. Monna Giovannella is one of these producers. It was Sonia who put me in contact with the owners of Monna Giovannella organic olive oil farm and just recently I had the opportunity to spend the day with the owners learning about the farm’s history, its extensive restoration, and of course tasting their olive oil. As an olive oil taster in training I found their oil to be very delicate and fresh with olfactive notes of freshly cut grass and green olives and just the right amount of pungency and spice. It didn’t take me long realize Tuscany was truly blessed the day that the owners of Monna Giovannella bought and started restoring this centuries old olive grove. I am honored to share their story and interview with you.
Monna Giovannella has quite a unique and interesting history; please tell me more about its origins.
The history of the estate is quite fascinating. Not many other olive groves in Tuscany can claim such a unique and diverse history as Monna Giovannella. It is one of the main reasons we were so drawn to purchasing the estate. Monna Giovannella which is located just outside Florence near the small village Antella, has its origin in the 1500’s when it was owned and managed by the Peruzzi family. The Peruzzis were an extremely powerful and wealthy family of traders and bankers who date back to the 13th century (before the rise of the Medici). To give you an idea of how powerful a family they were: Dante Alighieri mentions their importance in a section of his Divine Comedy (Cantica XVI of Paradise). The oldest historical evidence of this family’s presence on the farm is a tabernacle inscribed with the year 1583 which is still present there today. The Peruzzis owned the farm until 1877 when it was bought by Ernesto Nathan, an important political figure at the time who was also the mayor of Rome from 1907 to 1913. In 1931 the estate was purchased by the Regio Istituto Agrario e Forestale (Royal Institute of Agriculture and Forestry) which eventually became the Agriculture faculty of the University of Florence. From then until the late 1990’s, Monna Giovannella was the seat of an important national scientific research center. One of the projects during that period was the collection of various different olive tree varieties from all over the Mediterranean; today there are over 50 different varieties in a small part of the property. The only other collection of this nature in Italy, that we are aware of, is located in Sicily. We feel so fortunate to have such a unique collection of trees and we went to great lengths to restore them back to healthy fruit producing trees. In 1994 the estate was taken over by Florence’s chamber of commerce until 2007 when we purchased it.
I understand that none of you have agricultural or farming backgrounds. Why then did you want to purchase the land and how did you know where to begin?
Being native Tuscans, we have always felt very connected to its history and land so when the opportunity arose to purchase Monna Giovannella, we thought it would be a great opportunity for us to give back to the region and land. The entire farm had been abandoned for a little over a decade when we purchased it and as owners we felt it our duty, considering the farm’s historical and scientific significance, to restore it back to its original state. The purchase of the estate included a large acreage of farming land as well as an extensive olive grove of about 5,500 olive trees, several abandoned farm houses and nurseries, and the original Monna Giovannella villa.
The beginning of this journey was not easy; we felt very much like fish out of water and it took us a lot of trial and error before we started to understand what to do. The land initially needed an incredible amount of work and we were committed to maintaining traditional and organic farming methods which tend to make the process much slower. Luckily we met some very knowledgeable people in the industry and have had very capable employees who have worked very hard in restoring the land. To be perfectly honest, the hardest and most difficult part of this project, as beginners, has been dealing with the Italian bureaucracy; there were so many documents, permits, and controls before we could become established! But as soon as all the documents were taken care of, our first priority was to restore the olive trees so we could begin producing oil. It has taken us about 7 years to restore 4500 of the 5500 trees on the farm. It wasn’t until 2011 before we began feeling confident as olive oil producers so we decided to take part in Prim’Olio (an event for local producers to sell their products as well as meet other producers in the area). This event was very influential for us because it was our first time to get feedback about our oil from people in the industry who were much more experienced than ourselves. We realized our olive oil was a good amateur olive oil, but far from the professional standards of excellence in the area. From that point on, with the help of Francesco Biagiotti, our good friend and owner of the oil mill where we press our olives, we developed a new strategy in order to produce top quality oil. Now our olives are pressed no later than 12 hours after they are picked and we filter our oil after pressing which allows it to keep its organoleptic properties (taste and smell), lowers the risk of oxidation, and allows you to preserve the oil for a longer period of time.
It seems all of your hard work and diligence paid off in 2014. Tell me about the numerous awards and recognition Monna Giovannella received.
Yes, 2014 was quite an eventful year for us. I guess you could say it was our official “launch” year. It was the first time we were recognized in the national and international market. We are so proud to say that in every competition we entered, Monna Giovannella was awarded and recognized in some way. Our public achievements thus far are:
- Silver Award New York International Olive Oil Competition (NYIOOC) 2014
- Gold Medal Los Angeles International Extra Virgin Olive Oil Competition 2014
- Miglior Olio Extravergine di Olive Biologico Liquor d’Ulivi 2014 by A.I.R.O. (Associazione Italiana Ristoranti dell’Olio)
- Winner of Gioco del Piacere 2014 Slow Food olive oil competition. This is a national competition where the consumers vote for their favorite oil of selected quality oils from around Italy.
- Chosen to be part of the 2014 and 2015 edition of Slow Food’s guide to Extra Virgin Olive Oils
- Merum Selezione Olio 2014/2015: Merum Selezione Olio is a top German guide for Italian Olive Oil, one of the most respected in the field.
In November 2014 Slow Food also awarded us for our efforts and commitment to restoring the farm. The article is in Italian, but you can read it here.
Tell me about the farm’s other activities and what you have planned for Monna Giovannella’s future.
After recuperating the fields we decided to start growing different varieties of wheat and grain to sell as feed for organic livestock in Tuscany. The first year we grew barley, conventional wheat, and field bean. We have since replaced the barley with farro, (spelt) as it is one of the traditional grains grown in the region. We also now grow an ancient variety of wheat called Senatore Cappelli which a very famous local pasta producer, Giovanni Fabbri, uses to make his artisanal pastas. Ancient wheat We continue to grow the field bean as we use it to fertilize the olive trees.
We are currently in the process of starting the Associazione Grani Antichi di Bagno a Ripoli which will be formed by a group ancient of wheat producers, bakers, and pasta makers. This project is in the very early stages but is the fist step to properly establish a community around ancient wheat in our area. We are very excited about this project because it represents our philosophy for how we carry out our farming activity: with and alongside the community.
And for the question everyone has been waiting on: Where can we purchase Monna Giovannella olive oil?
At the moment, the best way is to contact us directly so you can come and visit the farm and see, first hand, how we work. Our oil is currently sold at Il Fornaio di Bagno a Ripoli and if you are lucky enough to live in Cologne, Germany then you can find it at the Standa supermarket there in town. We are working on expanding our sales throughout Italy, and eventually in different parts of the world. You can follow us through Facebook to keep up with our news or contact us through our website: http://monnagiovannella.it