The clang of cowbells from distant pastures carries on the blazing air, competing with an earsplitting cacophony from cicadas hiding in tree branches overhead.
God, it’s hot. Roasting hot. My thin sundress is sticking to my body, my floppy hat weighty with sweat. To counter the heat, I ate mounds of creamy gelato drizzled with Acacia honey for breakfast but it helped only temporarily… The owner of the Masseria where we’re staying in the southern Italian region of Puglia explained it’s unseasonable weather, but that’s of no cooling comfort. The Masseria, a 19th century working farm producing organic fruits, vegetables and extra virgin olive oil, is surrounded by thousands of olive trees, many nearly 2,000 years of age. I ventured into the olive grove this late morning seeking shade and breeze and found both underneath an enormous olive tree, its ancient limbs twisted from nature’s ferocity.
Olive trees are most productive between 400 and 800 years of age. During World War II, many of Puglia’s trees were felled for wood, severely altering the area’s landscape. Referred to as ulivi secolari (literally centuries-old olive trees), it takes many generations for an olive tree to become productive. A ban on the destruction of Puglia’s more than 50 million olive trees was instituted, even if they are too old to produce much, if any, fruit. While Puglia produces nearly half of the country’s olive oil, the trees are prized for an additional reason: Italian President Berlusconi, host of the infamous ‘bunga-bunga’ parties, and his rich cronies would send their henchmen in the dark of night to dig up these venerable trees and cart them to their gardens in country’s north, lending their grand digs an air of the historic. The Pugliese were so outraged that now the older trees are numbered and tagged and monitored by satellite!
I shuffled slowly back to the patio of the farmhouse and sat in the shade of a gigantic fig tree, its perfume almost overwhelming in the heat. I plucked a fat fig from the heavy branches, its seams bursting with ripeness. Splitting it in half with my fingers, I dunk the luscious, ruby fruit into a puddle of rich, green oil from the bottle on the table, allowing the sweet and savory to whisper their historic secrets to my awaiting senses.