Night had fallen, and the rain, which began as drizzle soon into our 90-mile journey north from Rome, was teeming by the time we reached Paciano. We exited our van and hurried through a few yards of rural darkness into the sanctuary of Il Campodonico, a farmhouse converted into a pair of charming vacation apartments — the lower of which contained an expansive dining table on which several plates awaited our arrival.
It took only moments before wine was flowing and the empty plates were heaped with freshly made pasta — which, in the Italian fashion, was but the first of several seemingly never-ending courses that ultimately prompted a collective, satiated plea for mercy.
Just as it began to feel as if the combination of wine, carbohydrates and jet lag was bringing the evening to a relaxed conclusion, the door swung open and a rain-soaked Englishman entered with a plastic bottle in his hand. The sight of both Englishman and bottle elicited a cry of recognition, welcoming and anticipation, for both were among the reasons we were in Paciano. The Englishman was George Holt, and the bottle he held contained some of the first batch of that season’s freshly milled olive oil.
“This is what you’re here for, I believe,” he said. But in the bottle, the oil looked unremarkable — even unappetizing. Green and opaque — a temporary consequence of sediment and leaves that had found their way into the milling process — it looked like pond water.
But then George poured some of the oil onto a plate with pieces of bread. “Watch this,” he said, and sure enough, what appeared green in the bottle emerged as a bright, shining gold that seemed to light up the room like the mysterious briefcase contents in “Pulp Fiction.” Re-energized, we dipped bread in the nectar, marveled at the strength of the flavor, opened more wine and talked late into the night.
I had been brought to Paciano by whales. There are, of course, no marine mammals in the central Italian region of Umbria, but in my younger years I had resolved to spend my life writing about and campaigning for the protection of wildlife, with whales at the top of the list. That led me to Sidney Holt, fisheries biologist and the gray eminence of what might be called the “Save the Whales” movement; he had been one of the first scientists to argue in the 1960s for massive reductions in commercial whaling and, in the mid-1980s, continued to be a leading voice for conservation within the International Whaling Commission. In 1989, when I was 21, I got my chance in the whale-saving major leagues when I got a job at Greenpeace.
I was hired by a 32-year-old Texan named Leslie Busby; she worked on the whaling issue closely with Sidney Holt and with David McTaggart, a Canadian who had once sailed a protest boat into the French nuclear test zone in the South Pacific and who at that time was the chairman of Greenpeace International. All three lived in Italy, and when we spent time together at International Whaling Commission meetings, David would invite me and other colleagues to pick olives at the farm he had bought outside a village called Paciano.
I declined every time, partly because of a sense that it would be more work than vacation, and partly because olive oil held little interest for me.
David died in 2001 in a car accident, and I found myself regretting the fact that I had never taken him up on his offer. But Sidney and Leslie had both moved to Paciano, where Sidney is joined year-round by his son Tim and for several weeks each fall by another son, George, who organizes friends to pick his father’s farm of olive trees. In 2013, Sidney, then 87, asked if I would help edit his memoirs, and the prospect of a trip to Paciano to discuss the book soon gathered momentum and colleagues. Which is how a small group of whale scientists and activists came to visit Sidney as he recuperated from a persistent illness in nearby Perugia and to help Tim and George pick the year’s olive harvest.
I took one look at Paciano in the morning light, as the fog rolled in off the nearby lake and through the wooded valleys, and my first thought was that this was exactly how a Hollywood set designer would re-create an archetypal medieval Italian village. Built in its present location in the early 1300s (for the previous couple of hundred years, Paciano sat farther up a nearby hill), and notwithstanding a few alterations and obvious modernizations over time, its fundamental structure and appearance remain much the same: three parallel streets crisscrossed by narrow alleyways, encircled by a thick stone outer wall with eight towers and three arched gateway entrances. The ensemble, and the surrounding countryside, has earned it an official sobriquet as one of “The Most Beautiful Villages in Italy.”
The focal point of life inside the walls is the small town square, the Piazza della Repubblica, dominated by a clock tower and the village hall, across from which is a bar/coffee shop. Paciano’s other bar, just outside the walls, looks out toward Lake Trasimeno — Italy’s fourth-largest and the site of Hannibal’s famous victory over the Romans in 217 B.C. — and southern Tuscany, across sweeping vistas of wheat, corn and sunflowers in summer, and the masses of olive trees that are such an intrinsic aspect of the life in Paciano that branches are featured on the town’s coat of arms.
In the bar just outside the village walls — named Bar Boldrini, after its owner, Franco Boldrini, whose father was the mayor from 1954 to 1980 — I spent an hour one morning learning about olives, olive oil and life from 94-year-old Aldo Serafini, who had been an olive expert for the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.
“All of the land around here is rich in potassium,” he explained as Leslie interpreted. “That’s good for olives, because it helps the fruits grow. Even so, the trees around here are quite small, because olive trees prefer a warmer climate; the Mediterranean is ideal. In the south of Italy, you can get 200 kilos of olives off one tree.”
Twenty-five years ago, David McTaggart had wanted to hire Serafini as his agricultural consultant, but, Serafini said: “I was retired. I didn’t want to take on any new responsibilities. But I had been taking care of his trees before he bought his property, so I agreed to help a little.”
And it was at Bar Boldrini that George and Tim Holt found me, and my fellow lollygagging whale-savers, to drag us away from the warmth and company and out to get our taste of life as olive pickers.
Whatever regrets I may have had over not previously taking up David on his offer, part of the reason for my initial hesitation was correct: Picking olives is hard work.
When we arrived at Sidney’s property, George and Tim immediately pointed sternly to a basket containing various pieces of clothing and equipment.
“Safety goggles,” George barked. “I know it sounds strange, but everyone who isn’t already wearing glasses needs safety goggles.” Safety goggles? What kind of crazy, full-contact hard labor did this involve?
The reasoning, though, was sound enough. Olive trees sport bushy masses of thin branches, and given that the best way to pick olives by hand is simply to wade into the morass, it would be all too easy to walk into the end of one of those branches and lose an eye. Once I was suitably protected, I selected a tree and dived in face-first, working my way from the outside in, taking hold of a branch full of olives in one hand and then pulling along it with the other, the olives and their stems popping off without protest and falling on to the nets that had been laid on the ground.
After a while, I found myself getting into the groove and somewhat territorial toward “my” tree: I’d started it, and I wanted to finish it. I harrumphed internally when one of my friends joined in. Initially, the branches, heavy with olives, disgorged their wares with only the most minimal of protest; but ultimately the process became an exercise in patiently and thoroughly scanning a seemingly denuded tree for any final pockets of resistance. On more than one occasion, I allowed myself to take a half step back from my conquest, a smile of satisfaction taking root at a job well done, only for Tim to appear from out of my peripheral vision.
“You missed a bit,” he’d chide cheerfully, and immediately busy himself with a branch that had remained heavily laden and yet had stayed hidden from my view amid its naked neighbors.
After every olive had been removed from one patch of trees, we grabbed the edges of the nets and lifted them up, walking them forward and rolling the olives along the ground until they had accumulated in a long pile; then we knelt down and started picking through them, removing twigs and similar detritus that could damage the milling equipment and spoil the taste of the oil; then Tim packed the haul into crates and drove it off to one of the two local mills for immediate processing.
While Italy is the second-largest olive oil producer after Spain, most of the country’s output comes from the warmer, more southerly regions — although, increasingly, olive oil producers throughout the Mediterranean are competing with Australia and the United States, which are producing their own olive oil for domestic consumption. But although the central regions of Italy, such as Umbria, lag behind their more southerly compatriots in quantity, plenty of people from those areas insist that they have a distinct advantage in quality.
I had no comprehension of what olive oil could be until George appeared at Il Campodonico that first night. Even then I didn’t fully appreciate it until I returned to Paciano a few weeks later and experienced a taste test with Alina Pinelli. Alina is an olive oil sommelier — a profession of whose existence I had also previously been unaware — as is her mother, Lucia; together, they run a vacation estate just outside the village in which visitors not only partake of local organic food but also, to as great an extent as they wish, participate in its cultivation and preparation. One evening, Alina awaited Leslie and me in the kitchen.
“Before a taste test, you must first warm the oil,” she explained as she cupped her hands around two glasses: one containing a standard commercial olive oil, the other organic oil grown on the property. My palate is what one might call poorly educated, and I was worried I would embarrass myself. But I sniffed one glass and then the other, and it was clear which was which. The commercial oil was bland; the organic oil had a bouquet like — I struggled for the analogy. “Artichokes,” offered Alina. Yes, artichokes. That was it.
And the taste, when applied to fresh bread, was incomparable. This was unlike any store-bought olive oil I had ever experienced; it was sharp, potent, almost bitter. Olive oil’s enemies are light, oxygen, time and temperature, which increase its acidity and attack its flavor. Many commercial oils use olives that have been stored and transported long distances, and the oils themselves undergo lengthy journeys and tarry in storerooms and on shelves. But the olives in this oil had been milled within hours, even minutes of being on their trees, and the oil that was now caressing my senses had been freshly bottled.
“Many people don’t like good olive oil,” Alina said. “It is too strong and bitter for them. They’re not used to it.” I had no idea how anybody could not like this, or indeed how I could use any other kind of olive oil ever again.
There are, in a sense, two Pacianos: the ancient village bordered by stone walls, and the life that exists on its periphery. Each has its own particular charm: When I stayed at Il Campodonico, I enjoyed few things more than stepping outside early into the morning onto the dew-dappled grass and drinking in the view of nearby fields, Lake Trasimeno in the distance and the neighboring village of Panicale silhouetted on a hilltop. But when I stayed at Tim’s apartment within the old village, I loved to stroll each evening among the narrow, dimly lighted streets, breathing in the ancient history that inhabited the stone walls.
Today, just 68 people live inside the village proper, but it was not always this way. “I remember when I was young, all the apartments were full, and we used to play in the streets,” local historian Oriano Spadoni told me over coffee at Il Baretto, the bar in the village square. “We never left town. There used to be a bakery. The village was full of shops. One thing I remember: If you walked around at 1, everyone was home for lunch. There was the smell of cooking and the sound of people talking — and no TV. I wish more people would come back and live inside town.”
But the walled village has been in place for 700 years and seen generations come and go; it would take a lot for it to be counted out. And as I patrolled the streets one chilly mid-December evening, there were plenty of signs of life in the old town yet.
On this one night the Piazza della Repubblica filled with light-adorned stalls of oil and bread, where giant loaves were sliced up and toasted, drizzled with oil and served as jumbo bruschetta. The aroma of bread, the warmth of wood-burning heaters and the sound of chatter filtered through the air, and a steady flow of people trooped into the small bar to warm up with coffee or other beverages, as the villagers celebrated the annual olive oil festa, Paciano’s final festival of the year and an opportunity to mark the end of the harvest and welcome the new batch of oil.
I sat on a table outside Il Baretto, doing battle with a bruschetta that could have satiated a horse, sought warmth at another table inside the bar, and chatted with a parade of villagers.
“People who live here, we are here for each other,” said Luigo Buitoni, scion of the family that owns the food company of the same name (and a castle on the boundary of the village walls). “If you need help, I don’t give you money, I give you chicken. I cook for you; you mow my lawn.”
Paciano is “a community, like a family,” concurred Franco Boldrini, of the other village bar. The recent global economic crisis, plus the challenges faced by any small village in modern times, had ushered in a decline in Paciano’s population since its peak in the 1960s, he admitted, “but I’m hoping that things like the Palazzo Baldeschi can bring back some life.”
Situated just off the square and built in the 1600s as the summer residence for relatives of an important cardinal, the Palazzo had lain fallow for many years, but the buzz that weekend was the imminence of its renewal. It now hosts the tourist information office, meeting rooms, a public library, an environmental education and outreach center set up in honor of David, and the TrasiMemo, an interactive museum celebrating the region’s traditional arts and crafts — the kind of investment that would be welcomed in a small town in Prince George’s County but had the potential to be a major adrenalin shot to a community where just 68 souls live inside the perimeter walls.
Added to the sense of optimism was the fact that that weekend, on one of the side streets in the village, a new store had opened — a rare example of a business opening up inside the walls. Established by a local family who had returned after years living in Florence, it showcased local, organic wares, including wine and, of course, olive oil, as well as ceramics and other local fare. “The store is just the first step,” said Claudio Bittoni, one of the owners. “I hope it can be a good start.” Step two in the family’s business plan is the tours of the village, in Italian and English, which Claudio now offers. But the ultimate dream of the family is to convert an old convent, at the time of my visit inhabited primarily by pigeons, into a theater and restaurant. “It is hard to see right now,” Claudio said as he showed us round the decayed building, “but in my mind, I already see the plans.”
That night, pretty much the entire village took shifts to sit together and dine at long tables in a taverna, located in a cellar and open only during the festa. I sat with Suzie Behrens and her partner, Paddy Scott, who run a small English-language school inside the village. Tiny Paciano seems an unusual place to find a pair of ex-pats teaching English, and Suzie admitted that when they settled here after time spent wandering Italy, “people in London thought we were crazy. There’s no disco. There are no movie theaters. But we loved it. When we arrived, the old women embraced us, because they were so happy to have younger people moving to the village.”
The three of us left the taverna, and as we stood outside, preparing to wander to the square for a nightcap at Il Baretto, the sound of students singing Christmas hymns in the Church of Santa Maria Assunta echoed off the walls and filtered out into the night sky.
The following morning, Leslie, Tim and I set out for David’s property, clambering among the olive trees and up a hill until we eventually came across his grave, marked by a marble plinth topped with a globe encircled by a whale. The root of Paciano is “pax,” or peace; after a restless life spent traveling the world, that had been what David had found here, and what he would have forever, on a sheltered hillside, standing guard over his beloved olive trees.
Kieran Mulvaney is a writer living in Alexandria.
Related: The Best in Class winners from the 2014 New York International Olive Oil Competition.
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A celebration of the new season’s batch of olive oil, and an opportunity to sample fresh oil from the area, the Festa dell’Olio is normally held Dec. 8 — Immaculate Conception Day, which in Italy is a public holiday — or on the weekend closest to that date. The festa in the piazza lasts one afternoon and evening but is accompanied by dinners in a local taverna, which run for several nights, and the Bussi col Carburo, in which locals make their way through the village detonating homemade pyrotechnics in honor of the festival of Our Lady of Loreto. In the weeks before festa weekend, the area olive mills open their doors so visitors can sample oil and see how it’s made.
For more information on Paciano, its festivals, and where to stay and eat, visit