ELLY McCAUSLAND reports from the frontline of the olive harvest in Italy

THE olive branch may traditionally be associated with peace, but in a small corner of Abruzzo, Italy, this noble crop is also the harbinger of warmth, vitamin C and a hearty dose of antioxidants.

I’ve come to the outskirts of Casoli, a beautiful rustic area in one of Italy’s most unexplored regions, where the centuries-old cultivation of olives has taken on a new and exciting twist, in the form of tea.

Perched precariously on a sheer cliff overlooking a rugged valley and flanked by slate-grey mountains sporting a year-round dusting of snow, the ‘headquarters’ of Mirabilia Olive Leaf Tea is a rustic Abruzzan house nestled amid thousands of olive trees, encircled by creeping kiwi vines and sprays of fragrant wild herbs. Here, organic olive leaves, traditionally used in antibacterial and antimalarial remedies, are hand-picked, dried and crushed to form a sweet, coppery brew that is high in antioxidants and vitamin C, free from caffeine and tannin, and subtly fragrant.

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A breathtaking landscape in Abruzzo, Italy. Photograph: Jeremy Meyer

Women from the local community gather regularly to transform this ancient tree into a warming, healthy liquor by meticulously stripping the branches of their leaves, sometimes combining them with the fat, glowing pomegranates that grow wild by the roadside, or fragrant shards of organic lemon peel and furls of local wild mint.

This revival of tradition makes perfect sense in a region where the olive has been cultivated for more than 2000 years and is still integral to the local economy. During late October, all energy is devoted to the harvest, a physically demanding endeavour that, predictably, is accomplished with apparent ease by the sprightly local women with their special gloves and baskets but which leaves foreigners sweating in the sun. Olives are raked from the trees using giant combs, or shaken from the branches on to huge green nets, which are then gathered up and taken to the local co-operative for pressing into a piquant extra-virgin oil to be drizzled liberally over the local cuisine.

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Workers prepare the crop during the olive harvest in Abruzzo, Italy. Photograph: Jeremy Meyer

No Italian working day is complete without a four-hour gap in the middle, and the relaxed pace of life in Abruzzo leaves time for the kind of leisurely European lunch you can only dream about in England while bolting a hasty sandwich at your desk. I never fully understood the Italian tradition of having just a cappuccino and pastry for breakfast until I came here.

In fact, I ended up abandoning breakfast altogether (save for a cup of olive leaf tea, of course), to leave more space for the inevitable daily feast that begins around 12.30 and continues late into the afternoon, where everyone seems to know everyone else, the wine flows like water and you must remember that the pasta is only one-fifth of the meal.

Forget TripAdvisor: here, the best restaurants rely upon word of mouth, and make no concessions to fancy décor or pretention. Take La Villetta, just up the road from what can only be termed Italy’s answer to Petra: San Martino, a magnificent gigantic stone gorge in the mountains, the narrow passage of which leads cavernously and dramatically to a ruined tenth-century Benedictine monastery.

Here, we gorged (sorry) on a rustic but delicious array of uncomplicated dishes: ravioli with butter and chestnuts, rigatoni with olive oil, ricotta and fresh vegetables, braised lamb with potatoes, black olives and tomatoes, seared steak tagliata with parmesan and rocket.

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Painstaking work during the olive harvest in Abruzzo. Photograph: Jeremy Meyer

By far our best meal, though, was a picturesque lunch in the olive groves cooked by the local ladies: succulent lamb chops from the butcher down the road grilled over an open fire, huge vats of homemade tagliatelle with ragu, and a crumbly, buttery cherry crostata were piled on the table alongside plates of local smoked cheese and baskets of bread, to be enjoyed against the backdrop of the olive groves. You don’t get much more quintessentially Italian than that.

Abruzzo gives you time to slow the pace a little: to try a new cheese, learn about different varieties of olive tree, wander the cobbled streets of a sleepy town or hike in the foothills of the Maiella mountain, said to have healing powers.

The coastal road, which links the city of Pescara with the picturesque towns of Ortona, Francavilla and San Vito Chietino, offers gorgeous views of the turquoise sea before leading you to more adventurous opportunities in the region’s national parks, frequented by bears and wolves and prime hunting ground for wild boar (delicious, by the way, braised in a rich tomato sauce at Agnello D’Oro restaurant in Casoli).

The beautiful hilltop towns of Casoli and Guardiagrele offer splendid vistas of the surrounding mountains, and their maze-like streets provide picturesque opportunities for wandering, sampling the local meats and cheeses, and lingering over a glass of wine or a gelato.

Combining beautiful seaside towns with opportunities for hiking and skiing, and offering the sort of real, rustic, unaffected Italian food that we try so desperately to recreate in the UK, Abruzzo is the place to reconsider what you think you know about Italy – and, perhaps, about tea too.