Rita Licastro lives and works in one of the most beautiful places I've seen: a green hill with gentle slopes in the Aspromonte National Park in Calabria. With sea view! Of course.
The trees spoke
It was not obvious that Rita is here now, because it was not love at first sight, she says herself.
"I was five years old when my father took me by the hand. In his other hand he had two slices of bread. He took me to the oil mill in Santa Tecla. His grandfather's mill was in full swing. He dipped the bread in the fresh oil and gave it to me. I remember it so well and thought it was fantastic, on the road with my father. But the taste of the olive oil also made an impression. So intense".
They used to spend holidays in this place, but for the rest of her time she was in the city. And that city kept pulling on her. Because of her studies and later her work as a lawyer, it didn't seem logical to ever leave the city. She was on her way to becoming a successful lawyer and never dreamed of becoming an olive oil producer like her father. In fact, she didn't want that. But after her father's death, that changed.
The trees spoke
It was about that time that the olive trees miraculously started talking to her, Rita recalls. “I started listening to these trees as I took walks through this grove. They spoke to me about a family tradition that had lasted for two centuries, and they delicately reminded me of the 'duty' not to interrupt this tradition." As we walk there I feel that her dream has begun here; the dream of making a high quality extra virgin olive oil called Santa Tecla. Slowly, Rita fell in love with the idea of following in her father's footsteps.
The olive grove is beautiful and can be found among forests of holm oaks, oaks and chestnut trees and is approximately 15 hectares in size. The centuries-old trees of the native olive tree species Sinopolese and Ottobratico are interspersed with young trees of the olive tree species Leccino and Nocellara del Belice. Santa Tecla has an extraordinary terroir. A winding road of a few kilometers connects the gaard with the main road and this makes it even more unique as you really have to make an effort to find it. The grove is about 440 meters above sea level and has been described as the "forest of olive trees". Since time immemorial, this place has been particularly suitable for olive cultivation due to the optimal soil and climate conditions.
Turn things around
When Rita decided to change course and fully focus on olive oil production, the first step was a restructuring or rather a "complete restoration" of all the old trees. Their canopy had to be thinned out to make harvesting easier.
There was a lot of setback due to, among other things, the changing climate. It took a lot of energy and there were many trials, but when she talks about it, I still see a smile on her face as she utters the following words: "That's how great loves are born, loves that never end".
The entire restoration process took at least a decade and resulted in a significant drop in production. But thanks to this radical intervention, it is now possible to do the harvest with the help of machines. This not only ensures a higher yield, but also a higher quality. Within 4 hours, the olives that have been harvested are already processed into olive oil.
A face of your own
Even though many generations of her family had worked on the orchard, the olive oil was always sold to buyers and there was no proprietary brand. And with that, her trees and the olive oil basically remained anonymous. She proudly says: "So I started thinking about giving this oil from the trees a face… and I did! For the greatness of these trees lies not only in their monumental beauty, but also in the resilience with which they respond to adversity.”
Rita sees herself first and foremost as a keeper of the trees and not as a businesswoman: "The production of olive oil is subject to many uncertainties, because nature is difficult to predict. Only with great enthusiasm can you keep it up and move forward. And you almost never have free time, because in addition to working in the field and in the mill, you also have to continue studying to make quality products. And you continue to delve into procedures and protocols. Then you have the packaging, distribution and sales. You don't just end up on a shelf in the store or on the counter of a star chef." But, she says, that way you don't have time to get bored. And it makes for beautiful friendships.
Only in the evening, in the silence of the Santa Tecla olive grove, do I think back to the hectic and inspiring day with Rita. I understand that she is happy and proud that her olive oil is shipped all over Italy and recently also abroad. She sees that as passing on her happiness. I see the fatigue melting. What a joy to be able to take this olive oil with you to the Netherlands.