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Expired · 14th February 2012
Francesca Gesualdi
This article leads to the review of a book titled Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, written by Tom Mueller, reviewed by Alex Renton and published in The Guardian Weekly, February 3, 2012. The picture above is credited to David Silverman/ Getty.

I have not read the book. However, I really wanted to share this picture, and a story about my trip to some olive groves some time ago.

Several years ago I made a pilgrimage back to the place of my birth, a modern-day exile returning to a vague, heartsick notion of home, a country I had not seen in 30 years. As our pilot announced we were landing in Rome, I wondered what there was left of me that was truly Italian.

I still spoke Italian, as my mother refused to speak to me and my sister in English, even after my sister was born on Canadian soil. My passport was Italian, as was my appetite, for even after all these decades, I still ate like a girl from the old country. Nobody could accuse this Signora of being a mangiacake. This was to be my saving grace on this journey, for to be a mangiacake is to return home in disgrace.

A polite but derogatory term, a mangiacake, literally a cake eater, is someone who has caved in to eating denatured food. Italians use it mostly as an educational term, a gentle, nuturing encouragement, as in, “Don’t eat that, don’t be a mangiacake.”
Or “Don’t buy that olive oil, only mangiacakes buy that olive oil.”

From Fiumicino Airport I found my way to a clean and lively hostel merely steps from the Vatican. The historic building housed a convent in the 1600’s, then a women’s prison in the early 1900’s.
Now there was an honest-to-goodness dining establishment on the ground floor, a vegan canteen that was only open sporadically, a conference center that hosted an endless fervor of intellectual academic activity from all across Europe and beyond, a "libreria delle donne" bookstore / art gallery run mostly by volunteers, and a women’s hostel on the top floor.

On the first morning I stayed there, I stood at the cash register of the bookstore, conversing heartily with a 70 year old volunteer who helped found the bookstore, thinking I should probably get a good dictionary to go with the books I was purchasing. Slightly to the left of us, a woman who pretended to be browsing, kept leaning one ear closer to the words dancing in midair between us, until she reminded me of the leaning Tower of Pisa. Just when I was sure she was going down, she sidled up next to me, took one of the books I’d paid for out of my hand, and introduced herself as its author.
“This,” she said, scribbling joyfully on the inside cover, “is our address and phone number. If your travels take you anywhere near Perugia, call us. We’ll pick you up at the train station.”

It was long after dinner when the old passenger train rattled into a bright, tiny station perched on the edge of darkness. The shops and establishments that we passed were all boarded up safely against the threat of the approaching rainstorm, which by all accounts promised to be short but ferocious.
“Are you sure this is your stop, Signora?,” asked a well meaning fellow passenger who had tried in vain to flirt with me since getting on at the previous station. I nodded bravely as the train door opened and threw myself into the storm’s embrace.

From the end of the street I watched a silvery curtain of hard falling rain approach me, but Rosanna, the author, found me first. She was suddenly once again beside me, ushering me into the passenger’s seat of an enormous jeep, her partner in the back seat, and two large black dogs in the rear compartment.

“They are sisters,” she said of the dogs. “Born on the property just before we purchased it and refused to leave with the previous owner. They are very happy dogs, excellent at reading intention. Pretty good at warning us about road hazards, too.”

Before long we were snaking a sharp incline up a dirt road on the side of a mountain.
I had the best view of the storm, wet, leafy branches howling and gesturing madly all around me in the glare of the headlights, slapping the side of the vehicle, the dogs on calm alert in the back. What lay beyond the myopic view afforded by the headlights, however, was a dark mass, up to my imagination to conjure.

I awoke the next morning and stepped out onto the broad head of a pin on the top of the world. Sloping down gently in all directions of the valley below me, as I sipped a perfect espresso, were lush fields of olive groves, interspersed with the occasional vineyard. It was a museum painting of pastoral grandeur (perhaps by Van Gogh), but the quiet air was deceptive. It did not betray that this had in fact been a war zone over the last several decades, was still a war zone to homesteaders like my hosts.
The traditional farming practices of the region had been losing ground to mangiacake agri-business, who now owned the lion’s share of what I was looking at.

The pure, honest, extra-virgin olive oil, so delicious and life sustaining, served at the dinner table that evening came from olives grown on trees I could see from the villa’s kitchen window, with no chemical fertilizers, in a natural eco-system. The olives had been pressed on a traditional press just a few miles down the road that served the remaining small farmers.

“But the press is closing next year,” offered Rosanna. The next olive harvest, in November, ( I regretted I was leaving at the beginning of October), might be the last they were able to press according to ancient practices. After that, the olives outside the window might not have anywhere to go for pressing that would not denature them.

The day Rosanna drove me back to the train station we passed another live Van Gogh painting. In one of the olive fields dotting the road I spotted an old Italian peasant woman holding tight to bottom of an old ladder, on top of which was perched her even older husband , head buried in a tree, collecting early olives. My first thought was of all the stories in the city about seniors falling down stairs and breaking their hips. I thought I should go help them, at least tell them to get down from there before they got hurt. Then I realized that if anybody was likely to get hurt doing that work it might be me.

This article is dedicated to them and their ladder, on which I know they will one day climb to the stars, beyond all harm.

© Francesca Gesualdi, 2012