In Molise, a small and picturesque region of Italy, an agricultural jewel stands out for its dedication to tradition and authenticity: the Agriturismo Colle Bianco in Mafalda, a municipality in the province of Campobasso. Here, where the past is intertwined with the present, we were given the privilege of interviewing Margherita Savini and Nicola Clissa, the custodians of this precious heritage, discovering the deep roots of the agricultural practices on which the work of the fields and Italian hospitality are based: the olive harvest and the constant commitment to offering unique experiences to visitors.
Margherita and Nicola, what is the history and tradition of olive harvesting in Molise and how is your farm part of it?
Olive harvesting has always been an important activity in Molise, as in all regions that have olive trees. This is an activity that has not only been carried out at an agricultural/professional level but also and above all at a family level since time immemorial. In the past it meant an important economic income for each family: all members helped and then moved from one field to another to help relatives with their harvest, which in the past was manual, carried out with plastic rakes. Only in the last twenty years – and I am speaking for our family – has there been a switch to mechanical means.
For Colle Bianco, there has been no break between family and professional activity. Not least because the extra virgin olive oil we sell is the same oil we have on our table.
So, is the harvesting process more linked to tradition or technological innovation?
As a farm, it was necessary to use mechanical means to harvest the olives. We use machines that speed up the harvest to ensure the quality of the final product. A few years ago, we introduced the olive shaker, a mechanical arm that hugs the olive branch and shakes it with micro-vibrations to make the fruit fall from the tree. This harvesting method allows more olives to be picked in less time.
The transport of the olives has shifted from the jute sacks used more than twenty years ago to open plastic crates or bins where the olives are poured while waiting for pressing.
All these changes and the use of mechanical tools have made it possible to obtain a better-quality extra virgin olive oil from olives harvested on the same day and immediately sent for milling.
The milling of the olives is entrusted to two mills in our town, which operate in a clean, temperature-controlled environment with modern equipment.
Let’s talk about oil quality: what are the key elements to pay attention to as buyers?
When tasting a quality extra virgin olive oil, two important characteristics are referred to: bitterness and spiciness, which must be clearly and well balanced. These two characteristics are a sign of the quality of extra virgin olive oil. We also prefer to filter the oil during storage so that it is clearer and free of impurities from milling. These impurities could, over time, lower the quality of the oil.
Is it possible for tourists to participate in the olive harvest at your farm? What other experiences do you offer?
At the farm we always have our doors open! Every time of year is an opportunity to see us at work. In October and November, it is always possible to take part in the olive harvest. We go out into the field, spread the nets, and then begin the harvest, either manually with plastic rakes or with a harvester. There will of course be a more convivial moment: a snack out in the field or ‘sdijuno’ as we call it in Molise and Abruzzo. This is a savoury breakfast, with bread, sausage, omelette, peppers in oil, cold cuts, and cheese. It used to be the meal between breakfast, eaten at sunrise, and lunch. A real ‘ritual’. We enjoy this moment too; we would rather skip lunch but not the snack!
In winter, when the temperatures drop, it is possible to assist and participate in the preparation of typical cold cuts. The ‘ventricina’ is a cured meat whose recipe is handed down from family to family. This is a particular cold cut, typical only of the Trigno Valley, the river that separates Molise and Abruzzo. In Abruzzo, ventricina is only produced in the Alto Vastese area, while in Molise the tradition is handed down in just a few municipalities, including Mafalda, our very own. Only the noble parts of the pork are used, the meat is cut with the tip of the knife, pancetta is added, and it is flavoured with wild fennel and chopped sweet pepper (grown on the farm) salt and hot chilli pepper. For convenience of serving, we serve the ventricina in slices but it should be enjoyed in ‘chunks’, removing the pieces from the outer casing with a fork.
In spring, visitors can take part in transplanting vegetables in the field, harvesting wild asparagus, broad beans and artichokes and turning them into pantry produce.
In summer, visitors can participate in the harvesting of tomatoes and their processing into purée and sauces, the harvesting of seasonal vegetables and their processing into pantry produce.
All year round, visitors can take courses in traditional Molise cooking (pasta in the typical shapes and matching sauces, bread and pizza baked in the wood-fired oven, pantry recipes).
Our farm is very versatile, and we can truly make our guests experience a day with us, always.
Does your farm also host a restaurant: what are the typical dishes you offer and prepare with your products?
Extra virgin olive oil accompanies all the cooking preparations. We only cook with our oil, and use it raw on bruschetta (just a pinch of our oregano is enough to provide a simple but tasty product), in sauces and gravies, raw on pasta and on our meats. The oil is also served at the table, in bottles with a non-release cork as required by Italian law so that people can taste the oil, especially the freshly pressed oil, on our bread.
Our cuisine reflects the seasonality of the products and follows tradition.
Unmissable on our menu are cavatelli with ventricina sauce: handmade pasta with a sauce prepared by lightly sautéing extra virgin olive oil and onion, ventricina cut into small chunks, tomato purée or fresh tomatoes when available.
Another traditional dish is meat under the ‘coppa’ or ‘coppo’. The meat is placed in a round pan with potatoes, rosemary, and a drizzle of oil. The pan is covered with an iron lid and placed in a wood-fired oven, with coals all around. The cooking is delicate, slightly smoky, the meat remains soft while the potatoes absorb all the flavours of the meat.
For dessert, try what is known here as pizza dolce, sweet pizza: a sponge cake, cut into 2 layers, soaked in alchermes liqueur, and filled with vanilla and chocolate cream. Tradition dictates that the top layer is moistened with alchermes and sprinkled with caster sugar (no cream).
What other products from the Colle Bianco farm are available for purchase?
The farm produces vegetables and fruit and turns them into pantry products: tomato purée, chopped tomatoes with basil, vegetable creams (aubergines, broccoli, artichokes, courgettes, peppers…) to be used on bruschettas, in sandwiches, but also to top pasta when it is being blended before serving. And then plenty of pickles (artichokes, cauliflowers, Savoy cabbage, aubergines, courgettes…), even if production is mainly for the farm’s restaurant.
We also have jams and marmalades. The most popular jams and marmalades with our guests are those used with cheese: red onion jam, red pepper jam, pumpkin and orange jam, fig jam…
We also sell bread baked in a wood-fired oven to order. Our cold cuts, vacuum-packed, are also available for sale: ventricina, capocollo, lonzino, sweet red sausage (with chopped sweet pepper), liver sausage. Of course, our extra virgin olive oil is a must on the list.
The bond with the land is a strong one: how does the company manage sustainability?
Being a small, family-run business allows us to manage our farming in a slow way, following nature’s cycles without forcing them. We do not farm intensively, we grow what is sufficient for our needs, for our restaurant and a little for sale. We do not work for quantity but to obtain a quality product. What we offer our customers and guests is what we eat ourselves. So, we use few plant protection treatments, only those that are absolutely necessary, respecting shortage times. We limit waste. We do separate waste collection.
Our farm is also equipped with photovoltaic panels to produce electricity from the sun, and a solar thermal panel to produce hot water in the kitchen. We also have a charging station for electric cars.
Is Agriturismo Colle Bianco actively involved in and supports the local community?
Our agritourism has always offered its availability for local events, especially gastronomic ones. Communities with an agricultural vocation always attach great importance to promoting their products, and offering food and traditional recipes in convivial and sharing events is something that comes naturally.
What does the future hold?
Our aim, both in the past and in the future, has always been to enhance the territory: our village Mafalda and our region, Molise. We do this by participating in fairs and markets where we offer our food products, but also by promoting our agritourism as a place to enjoy experiences. We are not just talking about an agricultural or gastronomic experience. Our agritourism also aspires to be a meeting place for people who want to enrich their personal baggage. We would like to be a starting point for ‘explorers’ of taste, of the land and the various treasures this region has to offer. We have so many exciting plans for the new year, we just can’t stop!
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