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Maurizio Pescari: «There is a lack of respect for olive trees, they are disappearing. Without it there is no oil”

Interview with the oil and food and wine expert journalist and author of the book “Oil and the other ingredients of our life”.

Maurizio Pescari, journalist and writer, native of Città di Castello, has thirty years of experience in the oil, food and wine and wine tourism sectors and is an authoritative source of information dedicated to olive growing. But above all he is the author of Oil and the other ingredients of our life (published by Rubettino), a book dedicated to oil, but which does not talk about oil. Pescari follows an ideal thread along which he builds a complete and complex, almost fictionalized story, touching on the most varied topics: from the value of time to sharecropping, from traditions to customs, from shopping to the daily table, from the evaluation of the past to the construction of future. The story is interspersed with stories of people and territories, which end with a breakfast, with the oil as the protagonist and the resulting recipe.
During our chat, all the passion in talking about this product emerged, especially about olive trees: «We shouldn’t talk about oil, but about olive trees. We are losing the olive trees and without them the oil cannot be made.”

 

Maurizio Pescari

Maurizio, the first question is a ritual one: what is your relationship with Umbria?

I was born in Città di Castello, on the left of the Tiber. I have a relationship with Umbria that leads me to respect diversity, not only in dialect, but also in character. From a character point of view, the Umbrians have a lot to learn, their closure is a form of self-defense. We have always been submissive and this has often led us to mind our own business. I have lived in Perugia for 50 years and the thing I miss most is improvising: in Perugia if you do improvisations you risk family feuds and shootings (laughs). In Perugia the impromptu event must be brought forward by a week… then perhaps it can be done! While in Città di Castello it is much more common, it is a different cultural form. Having said that, I believe there is no more beautiful place to live.

 

You are considered one of the greatest experts in olive growing: how and when did this passion arise?

My passion was born about 27 years ago when Marco Caprai and I started organizing events to enhance and promote Umbrian products around the world. Marco Caprai invented Frantoi Aperti (I was also there with him) and we were the first to bring Cantine Aperte to Umbria in 1995. My interest in this world is also linked to meeting a person: Alfredo Mancianti (he had an oil mill in San Feliciano sul Trasimeno, but lived on Lake Maggiore), with his stories that revolved around oil, but which never talked about oil, he fascinated me more about the culture of the olive tree than that of the oil itself. Then chance wanted me to start collaborating with Corriere della Sera, where I wrote a column on this product. From here it all started.

 

How important is the oil economy, particularly in Umbria? How can it improve?

The turnover in the oil world is not made by nature, but by people’s minds. It is necessary to use the territory and characterize it; you need to communicate and create an identity profile to make the product unique. Oil is oil for everyone. You don’t just have to sell the bottle, but you have to involve the buyer by telling the story, it’s beneficial to be friendly and well-disposed, and create a brand: in this way the product becomes unique and the price can be established. Then it is the producer’s job to go and look for those who are willing to pay that price, you cannot stand at the door of the mill and wait for someone to pass by. Olive growers must understand that they cannot just be farmers, they must become entrepreneurs, as happened with wine. Winemakers have evolved. Except in very rare cases, in the world of oil we only talk about farmers: they want to sell the product as soon as possible, while the entrepreneur wraps it, takes care of it, embellishes it and creates an identity. We all buy a wine because we want that wine (Sagrantino di Caprai or Sangiovese di Lungarotti) with oil, this often doesn’t happen.

 

“Oil and the other ingredients of our life” (published by Rubettino) is the title of your book released in 2021: what are the ingredients of your life?

The family, the dog, the cat and obviously the oil.

 

It is a book dedicated to oil where you never talk about oil: explain better.

It is a book dedicated to oil, but there is no written variety or extraction system, I don’t mention a name, nor a perfume. We must not talk about oil, but about olive trees. We are losing olive trees and without them oil cannot be made. In Umbria, 50% of these trees are abandoned because the owners do not know how to make their production profitable, they do not know how to be entrepreneurs and therefore, given that management is expensive, they prefer to buy oil from elsewhere and then bottle it. In this way the plants die and with them our landscape also dies. Umbria is covered in olive trees, they are a beauty that goes beyond the food product and for this reason it is essential to preserve and enhance them. I repeat: what is missing is respect for the olive tree.

 

Why does this happen?

Because it costs expensive to maintain these plants and often those who own them are not capable of being entrepreneurs. First of all we must say that the olive tree does not produce oil, because if it did, the apricot would make jam. The olive tree provides us with fruits, which if they end up in capable hands, give a good product.

 

Do you still think there is a lack of oil culture?

In Italy there is a lack of teaching of olive growing and olive oil technology; even in specialized high schools and agricultural universities these courses are very rare or completely absent. There is no oil culture despite this being a very present product: in Umbria you just need to open a window to see an olive tree. I bet she sees one from her house too! Furthermore, the oil, which is produced at home, is often made according to the customs of sharecropping, present in Italy up to 60 years ago. Our fathers and grandfathers harvested olives in November or December because they aimed for high yields, the priority was profit, which unfortunately remains today. It made sense at the time, but it doesn’t today. This is to the detriment of quality.

 

Is this why in your opinion good oil occupies only 3% of the market in Italy today?

That’s not entirely true. We all have a bottle of oil at home, but 90% of us buy the one that costs the least, only 10% look for the basic characteristics. Not all oil is the same, each price corresponds to a quality. The product you buy at the supermarket is cheaper, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad: I challenge anyone to make a better oil and charge it at that price.

 

What rating do you give to Umbrian production?

Good.

 

 

 

Give some suggestions to us mere mortals to recognize a good oil.

The smell. A good oil smells good. It should be specified, however, that each oil is different: in Italy there are 538 varieties of olives and each one gives life to a different product. I’m not saying that you have to be able to recognize which is the best or the least good, but you have to understand that they are different from each other. Then personal taste comes into play which directs us towards the one best suited to our palate. I always say: when you go around the world, instead of bringing home a magnet to attach to the refrigerator, bring back a bottle of oil.

 

After all, it is a very present companion in the lives of Italians…

Absolutely. There is no house where there is not a bottle of oil. I get angry when I hear people say on television: “Use too little oil.” Use a little cheap oil… use the good one.

 

To conclude our chat: what is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Umbria? Don’t tell me the olive tree…

Piazza di Sopra in Città di Castello, but also Assisi: everyone thinks it is beautiful admired from below – and it’s true – but have you ever looked at Umbria from Assisi? It’s gorgeous!