Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Green Gold: Olive Oil From Below

Orvieto, Italy provides intriguing insight into how the ancient citizens of Tuscany provided food for the masses.  Orvieto is situated on a volcanic plateau, so of course land is at a premium.  In order to save room for city walls and residential space, the Middle Age citizens used ingenuity to fulfill their needs. 
The plateau that Orvieto resides upon is made of volcanic ash and tuft.  An eruption one million years ago covered the valley in which Orvieto resides in a deep layer of ash and rock.  Over the ensuing eons, the river and other weathering effects in the valley eroded away the majority of the rock; however a plateau in the middle of the valley was spared. 
The Etruscans first used the rise as a means of protection and built a modest village.  Seeing as how the volcanic rock is quite soft, the Etruscans went about digging out caves for storage and religious purposes.  After the Romans conquered the city on their way to Mediterranean domination, the plateau was abandoned. 
In the Middle Ages, the valley residents once again inhabited the plateau as a means of protection.  They set about laying the foundation for the modern city of Orvieto and in doing so, discovered and expanded upon the set of Etruscan caves.  Due to the lack of real estate on the plateau, space could not be wasted on food production facilities, therefore these processes were moved underground.  One such example is an olive oil factory dug out of the cliff face of the plateau. 
The space in which the factory sits, used to be an Etruscan temple as evidenced by the shape of a portion of the space and the ceiling pattern of the cave.  Having no religious intent, the owners of the cave, most likely a wealthy family at the time, set about widening and lengthening the cave.  Two large stone mills and presses were carved out along with storage room for the oil and a large fireplace with a chimney which extends to the surface for temperature regulation. 
For production, the ripe olives would be brought inside and laid in a vat where a large stone roller, operated by donkey power, would turn around and around crushing the olives.  The crushed olive paste was then spread on reed mats and stacked in a vertical press where stones would be placed atop the mats in order to squeeze the olive oil out.  The oil would be collected in jars and stored in carved out rooms nearby.
Being a cave, the temperature remains cool and near constant year round which is perfect for the production of olive oil.  It can be assumed as well that the rich owners stored their wine in these caves too. 
Provided with limited space to use, both the Etruscans and the Middle Age residents of Orvieto used ingenuity and genius to literally carve out a new life for themselves.  This example of ingenuity and proper land management is a case study for our society to examine as our population grows and food demand increases.

-         - John Langford

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