25 years ago, when Lorenzo Piccione was still a designer and musician living in Milan, his parents were considering selling the 50-hectare family estate in the foothills of the Iblea mountains in south east Sicily. Lorenzo persuaded them not to and set about creating the Pianogrillo estate, one of Sicily’s first organic farmers and one that has become an icon of the new breed of quality-led Sicilian producers of oil and wine.
Having re-trained as a professional olive oil taster and immersed himself in modern production techniques, Lorenzo now oversees around 9,000 olive trees. The majority of these are the native tonda iblea variety with a small selection of moresca, nocellara and carolea cultivars. The tonda iblea olive tends to give very balanced, highly aromatic oils, characteristics that find expression in Pianogrillo’s oils. Although the estate is, in places, 650mt above sea level, this is still warm, dry land; lemons, capers, almonds and cypress trees abound.
Harvesting of the olives takes place from mid-October and is all carried out by hand. That the Pianogrillo approach is not wilfully nostalgic though can be seen in the mill itself – the latest centrifuges and other modern kit long ago replaced the old stone grinders.
Although the Pianogrillo estate has been completely organic for many years, helped by the altitude of its groves which discourages insects, Lorenzo is refreshingly contrarian on the subject. He doesn’t believe in calling his oils ‘organic’ and expresses cynicism about the value of labels, saying that supermarkets are full of ‘crap that is still labelled organic’. Similarly, although his oils have won many international prizes, he no longer enters competitions, suspicious of the commercial relationship between producers and organisers.