GUARDIANS OF THE OLIVE OIL
About a South African couple who lovingly tend to an Italian olive farm
Photography : Jan-Hendrik van der Westhuizen
Production assistant : Inemari Rabie
Copy editor : Anna-Bet Stemmet
There are few things as gratifying as running into likeminded fellow countrymen across the pond. Dominic & Rene Mitchell, a Durbanite couple who now spends 3 months out of every year tending a beautiful olive farm in Italy, recently invited me to lunch to share their story and some incredibly tasty rustic Italian fare.
How the Mitchells came to Italy
In 2010 Dominic (an economist) and Rene (an architect with a love of all things Italian) visited a colleague who owns the farm next to the one they subsequently purchased. They woke up early after arriving the evening before and the valley was shrouded in mist and the sea was visible in the distance. They took a walk and saw the ancient trees, the rustic building next to the natural forest and immediately fell in love. The rest was effortless effort as the Buddhists say - they simply allowed destiny to take its course!
Although both their careers revolve around tight deadlines and lots of travelling, they now spend three months a year in Italy where Dominic indulges his inner farm-boy and Rene, her love of nature and natural foods. This lifestyle has provided the couple with a profound sense of sanctuary after the death of their daughter Rosa in 2013.
ALL ABOUT THE FARM
The Mitchells' farm is in the Liguria, a region known for the Taggiasca olive that was established there by monks hundreds of year ago. The trees transformed the local diet and the local economy and gave Liguria a more diversified economic base. Liguria is where the Maritime Alps plunge into the sea and the diversity in the landscape is sometimes breath-taking with oceans and mountains and cliffs sharing the same space.
The Mitchells’ home was built on the footprint of a “rustico” - an abandoned shed previously inhabited by shepherds and seasonal olive harvesters. The house was built with the help of local artisans using stone from the old rustic building, and other stones they found on the farm itself. The Mitchells often had to put their faith in the Almighty and let the local artisans get on with the job, with one or two unexpected results. The style is traditional Ligurian architecture with substantial engineering because the farm is situated in a seismic area. It also boasts very modern heating and insulation, and communications so the family can keep in touch with our family, friends and colleagues.
THE MITCHELLS’ OIl
Says Dominic: “We only use organic nutrients and avoid pesticides completely. We do all the tending of the trees and the land ourselves; it is a labour of love. Each tree has its own character, and we are actually merely the custodians of these ancient trees (up to 800 years old) and not really the owners, so we also respect the trees.
“The olive variety is the Taggiasca and this is known throughout Italy and throughout the world as the prime olive for gourmet oil. We use an olive mill that completely separates each farmer’s production and the equipment is cleaned after every use. We harvest the olives and get them to the mill within 30 hours to produce oil with very low acidity. We pick out any damaged olives and make sure we have serious fun times while harvesting. The oil is happy and full of good vibes.”
Did you know?
Contrary to popular belief naturally filtered olive oil is ideal for frying. In proper temperature conditions, without over-heating, it undergoes no substantial structural change and keeps its nutritional value better than other oils, not only because of the antioxidants but also due to its high levels of oleic acid. Its high smoking point (210ºC) is substantially higher than the ideal temperature for frying food (180ºC). Those fats with lower critical points, such as corn and butter, break down at this temperature and form toxic products
Rene and Dominic both adore cooking and entertaining. They describe their ideal harvest lunch as follows: "During the months of November and December the days can be quite chilly, so we will warm up with a freshly baked sourdough ciabatta and hearty soup prepared from borlotti beans, mixed vegetables and chicken. If the weather is fair we have a huge range of cheeses, cold meats, ciabatta, and salads. We take our main meal in the evening during harvest time often traditional meals from the area like seafood risotto, or a creative pasta prepared from produce taken from the garden."
They were also kind enough to share the recipes for the dishes they served when we visited the farm so you can try it at home.
Dominic is not overly fond of restrictions like measuring cups and recommends that all dishes are prepared according to taste, so use the recipes below as a general guideline.
For the dough
2 cups (300g) "O" flour
1 cup (250ml) grated parmesan
- 1/4 tsp (1ml) salt
- 3/4 cup (180ml) olive oil
- 1/4 cup (60ml) water
For the filling
about 500gr chopped spinach but the quantity will depend on the size of the baking dish you will use.
- 1 cup (250ml) grated parmesan or pecorino
- 2 shallots, chopped
- 2 1/2 tbsp (37 ml) dry arborio rice
- salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 2 tbsp (30 ml) milk
- Preheat the oven to 180°C.
- For the dough, place the "O"flour, grated parmesan, salt and olive oil in a food processor and blend until it resembles breadcrumbs.
- Add the water and blend until the dough comes together and has a little bit of elasticity.
- Roll the dough out very thin on a clean floured surface.
- For the filling, the spinach mix must really fill the baking dish until overflowing. Combine the spinach, eggs, cheese, shallots and rice in a bowl and season well. Place the filling in the shallow baking dish and pat down firmly.
- Cover with the dough, brush with the milk and make 6 small incisions on the dough. Bake for 30-40 minutes or until the pastry is cooked and golden.
Salsiccia ai rosmarino is a local salted pork sausages with a stick of fresh rosemary pushed through the center, cook it on the grill or in the oven until golden brown. Simple as that!
PATATE ALLA SALVIA E BURRO (POTATOES WITH SAGE AND BUTTER)
- 500gr baby new potatoes (about 3/person)
- small handful of fresh sage, chopped
- salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 3 tbsp (45 ml) olive oil
- 50gr butter
- 1/2 cup (125 ml) grated parmesan or pecorino
- Preheat the oven to 180°C.
- Cut the potatoes in half lengthwise and place, cut side up, in a baking tray.
- Sprinkle with sage, salt and pepper.
- Drizzle over the olive oil and place a small piece of butter on each potato.
- Bake until potatoes are cooked and golden brown and the sage leaves are crispy.
- Turn the oven to the grill setting and sprinkle the parmesan over.
- Grill until to the cheese is melted and caramelised.
300gr strawberries, hulled and halved
- 1/2 cup (125 ml) condensed milk
- 2 cups (500 ml) cream
- Blend the strawberries and condensed milk together.
- Whip the cream to soft peaks and gently fold into the strawberry mixture.
- Pour into a container and place in the freezer. Break up the ice crystals with a fork every 60 minutes, repeat 3 times or until frozen.
- Remove the parfait from freezer about 80 minutes before serving to ensure smooth consistency.
If you would like to do an olive oil tasting please contact Rene on firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Originally published 24 May 2016