Just getting to the small Madonna dell’Olivo chapel opposite Antonino Mennella’s 2,000 or so olive trees was a relief. After turning off from the road to Salerno we had wound through a series of tight, dusty roads in the brilliant January sun before getting to the village of Serre where Antonino was waiting for us. The road through the village was one of the steepest descents and ascents I’ve ever done and nearly finished our puny Fiat Panda off.
It was worth it though. The chapel, which gives its name to Antonino’s oil label, is named after a vision, several centuries ago, of the madonna that came to a worker during the olive harvest. We’re not sure it was one of Antonino’s ancestors but, in any case, the label on his oil evokes a sense of place like few others.
In common with so many other quality-led olive growers and farmers of his generation, Antonino, a geologist by trade, took on the family trees when his parents were considering selling the land. In the shadow of the Alburni mountains, not far from the Greek temples of Paestum, and, beyond, the Cilento coastline, this land has always been fertile. At around 300m, and sheltered from excessive wind, Antonino told us of the neighbouring farms that produce an incredible variety of tomatoes, beans and other crops unique to this part of Campania.
The olives that go into his oils are all indigenous varieties, namely ravece, rotondella, itrana, carolea and carpellese. Harvesting takes place from October into November and is all carried out by hand according to the relative ripeness of each cultivar. The small mill where the olives are taken as soon as they are picked is testament to Antonino’s thirst for innovation; very uniquely, all his olives are de-pitted before being pressed through a hammer crusher that he helped to design. Listening to Antonino, he brings alive the idea that great oils are made in equal measure on the trees and in the mill. During harvest, he hardly sleeps and is constantly adjusting the temperature, speed and flow of the crushing and extraction process.
When we tasted his oils, we were bowled over. De-pitting the olives (most oils are made with pits and all) gives really high levels of polyphenols – almost as high as fresh olives on the trees – but Antonino’s work in the mill means the balance is outstanding. All his oils have excellent levels of bitterness and pungency but are tempered by the characteristics of the olive varietals – green tomatoes, some almonds, herbs and leaves – that recall the land where his trees are planted.