The magical olive tree

We had just returned from a week away the night before and had all manner of clean laundry hanging to dry all over the apartment. I didn’t really want to leave early the next morning on another adventure because — truly, I was weary.

Plus, it was supposed to be one hundred percent chance of rain — all weekend.

I expressed this to R and we agreed to stay home that weekend.
Then we discovered we couldn’t cancel the reservations.

So, I perfunctorily packed.
We got up early, caught our taxi to the car rental across town.
I argued with the driver about the route he was taking — which is uncharacteristic for me.
Look how Italy has changed me, eh?

We rented a tiny car and began driving South.
Yes it was raining.
By the time we had almost hit the sea the clouds cleared.
And we kept driving.
The pointed Appenines on our left were green but spiky and snowy in parts.

Still we drove.
It seemed so suddenly that we passed a sign telling us that we were entering the “state” of Toscana.

Need and curiosity caused us to stop in Pisa —but no, we didn’t see the iconic Torre. We walked a bit, noted that the River Arno was higher than we expected it to be. Walked some more. Got back into the car.

When we finally arrived at our destination in Volterra, we had driven through green fields and bright green vineyards and shiny silver olive groves. We had a little trouble locating our place, which made us question even more if this was a good idea…but the hills — and the tall cypress…they were beginning to change our mind.

We found the house. Not knowing what to expect we walked up to it. We were ushered in by the owner, Anna Maria Barbieri, with a smile. “But we expected you at 13.00,” she said. “Mangiamo insieme qua’”.
We eat all together here, she had said.

Non sapevo,” I responded. I didn’t know. I had no idea that she would be cooking us lunch.
Actually — I hadn’t really understood any of our situation.

She showed us to our ‘apartment’…made of stone, cool…probably so very ‘comodo’ (comfortable) in the summer heat…which, judging by the number of cacti, is probably abundant. Terra-cotta floor, stone fireplace, wood doors. Everything wood and stone. Lovely.

Allora, quando vorrete il vostro pranzo?”, she asks us. “Siete a Toscana adesso”, she says, smiling.
(When would you like your lunch? You are in Toscana now) — meaning that here, there is hospitality.

She hugs me. I am surprised.

Una mezz’ora, I tell her. Thirty minutes.

When we enter the reception/dining area of this place, the table is set for us two.

I tell her my dietary restrictions. She brings us food, freshly made. Root vegetables, shaved, marinated. Braised artichokes in pieces. Tomatoes, fresh bread for R with farro soup. Local pecorino cheese.
And more.

We decide to head into town. “Town”, of course, is an ancient Etruscan city (the Etruscans, i tusci, were in this region from 800 BCE until 400 CE when the Romans finally annexed their last city-state. Thus, the area is called “toscana”, Tuscany — for i tusci)

And yes, you have to walk up. It was, of course, beautiful. We window-shopped. Enjoyed the fact that it was only drizzling. Headed back.

Dinner was at an agriturismo nearby. All windows. All around us, while eating a simple dinner…we watched the clouds, the iconic tall cypresses, the hills, the apricot-colored roses. Alas, it was not a dream.

And yet it was.

I felt so ashamed that we had missed the lunch yesterday we didn’t know about — that I certainly didn’t want to be late for breakfast. Our host greeted us with fresh bread, cheese — a full spread, actually.
R enjoyed a torta made from hazelnuts, blueberries and apples. There was fresh juice in the table — apple carrots and lemon. Meats for those who like them. Another Casa volaterra guest was there, conversing with the owner. He was asking her about the land. The juice. He offered that he likes to add finocchio (fennel) to his apple and carrot, or pear and celery juice. They discussed natural sugars, the way to get little children to eat real food. I translated for R.

Rain was threatening — but not until almost lunch — so we headed out anew.

This time we drove the thirty minutes to San Gimignano…another walled city super high in the sky. We had limited time and other limits…so we saved our steps.

I bought a tablecloth. We sat for a quick macchiato and te’. The sun was beautiful.
Turisti began to arrive.

This is usually my cue to leave.

Driving back in fields and olive groves and vineyards again, I realized how magical the olive groves are. I realized that olive trees mean Life. They grow in harsh conditions and give oil, sustainance, nourishment.

I remember learning a few years ago that the holy oil with which one is annointed — and was annointed so many centuries ago was just from these very kind of trees. It was considered the holiest of oils when it was pressed not by man — but by the weight of the other olives.

By gravity. By G-d. D-o

Similar to the idea that a diamond is created when carbon is put under pressure…something so pure and beautiful can be created by intrinsic pressure.

Like holy oil.

Here, we make our own oil, the owner tells me. Who helps you, I ask? I contadini, she answered. The farmers, they come and help. She shows me a video of their process. The oil is green, bright green like spring grass.

O, capisco, I say. I understand now why really good oil tastes grassy. Because…that is the way it is.

Perché, la vita è così. Such is life.

We arrive at the dining table for lunch — just on time. There is an artichoke frittata, pesto for R, a dish of gnocchi for me — with local tomatoes, basil from just outside, onions… (con pomodori, cipolli col basilico).

And wine. A San Genovese. Delicious, even for me.

The other guest is asking our host about food again. She has served him a farro soup, maybe a tripe. You need a blog, he tells her. A blog of your recipes, of life here.

Scriverò qualcosa”, I add, from the other side of the table. (I will write something.)


She tells of the tall iconic cypress.  She says, the roots, they go very deep into the earth.  So the tree, although it is tall, cannot fall over.

Oh, I say, “come, la gente di Toscana”. (Like the Tuscan people).

She smiles at me, and nods, appreciating that I understand.

It is a good thing, I am thinking, that we came. That we could be here, in this land of abundance. Of birds singing, of walled ancient cities on hills. Of the wild boars right behind the house that are moaning — close by.

(Even as I write this I can hear them calling — i cinghali)

This place — a place of stories and poetry and art — no wonder it has inspired so many.

I need another olive tree in my house, I think.
I need apricot roses.
Could I grow a cypress?

Could years of pressure one day turn me into a diamond?

Am I like the olive tree? They are twisted with time, wind, conditions of life. Leaves silver in the sun, despite all odds, producing a fruit which sustains. And with a bit of additional pressure becomes another thing entirely…? Something green. Something golden. Something holy.

On the hill the olive trees seem like ancient soldiers. Like me, I am twisted with time and challenge and life. In the sun, on the very top of me you can find some silver. Will what I have produced sustain?

Is some part of it even golden — or a little bit holy?

We have to move inside because the storm finally arrives. The dark clouds in arrivo, growling, over the hills.
It is dark inside the stone walls — our cave, R says.

But even inside I am dreaming of the trees. And the birds.
And the boars.

Yes, it is a good thing we came.

Go there!


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