Pre-Christian Tree Still Bearing Fruit

29 Sep

Señor Corrado Rodio leaned gently against the olive tree. Its trunk was gnarled and twisted, its boughs heavy with unripened fruit.  It would have taken three grown men, arms outstretched, to hug its bulging girth.  The tree, according to experts who know such things, was more than 2500 years old.

An olive tree, almost 2,500 years old.

 And it wasn’t alone.  The groves surrounding Rodio’s Masseria Brancati, a traditional fortified farmhouse, near the city of Ostuni in the Puglia region of southern Italy, is a veritable assisted living facility.  His family farm nourishes more than 1,000 thousand-year-old trees.  The rest of the region is home to about 50 million olive trees: half of these are over 100 years old; 4 million are 300 years old; and a few, like the one Señor Rodio was leaning against, have been around since well before Christ crawled from the manger.  As Rodio said,  “Lucius Columella, the most well-known agronomist and agricultural writer in Roman times, left a chronicle of his travels through this region. And we are pretty sure he wrote about this very grove.”

Masseria Brancati's ancient grove

 The trees may be ancient, but they are still producing olives, which is why, Rodio explained, Athena bested Poseidon in the contest over who would be the patron deity of Athens.  In that contest, held on the slopes of the Acropolis, Poseidon struck his trident in the ground, bringing forth a salt-water spring, which he offered to the Athenians. Then Athena stepped forward and brought forth an olive tree.

“One of the olive’s wondrous traits is its ability to regenerate itself,” Rodio said.  “If the tree is attacked by a fungus or bacteria, that part of the tree will die. But then new bark will soon grow in its place.  Even if we try to kill this tree by burning it to the ground, new shoots will generate from its roots.  So Athena’s offering was not only life-sustaining, it was immortal.”

For the citizens of Athens, the choice was easy. Poseidon, furious at being rejected, flooded the region with salt water.  Fortunately, as the waters receded, so did his anger.  In the end, the forgiving Athenians built a temple, the Erectheion, on the contest’s sacred site, dedicating it to Athena AND Poseidon. You can visit it along with Athena’s magnificent temple, the Parthenon, when you go to Athens.

And, if you hop an overnight ferry from Greece to Italy, you can visit Señor Rodio’s Masseria, lean against his ancient olive trees, and perhaps spend the night in the modest but beautiful bed and breakfast that he and his wife run in the farmhouse, which has been little altered since Rodio’s great grandfather first bought the property in the early 1880s.

One of the entrances to the Masseria Brancati

 That was when Don Dominic Rodio decided to go into the olive business, taking over the Masseria from the Piscopo family who had in turn acquired it  from the Brancatis, an old family that had arrived from Veneto in the 4th century to buy olive groves and trade oil on the Genovese and Venetian markets.  They used a Roman olive mill that they had found on the premises, and then over the years, built their living quarters, stables and barns, and high walls with gun ports and a look- out tower to fortify the site.

 The Brancati’s prospered – as did Don Dominic hundreds of years later.  This time, the markets were provided not by Genoa and Venice, but by England and France.  “The French and the English needed olive oil to light their growing cities,” Rodio said. “My great-grandfather couldn’t produce oil fast enough.”

One of the Masseria’s old presses. In Roman times, the wheel was turned by slaves. It was known as the “blood wheel” because if the slaves slowed their pace, they were whipped. Later, slaves were replaced by donkeys. Today, machines produce in an hour what it took humans and donkeys 24 hours and profound misery to produce.

 Since then, for six generations, the Rodio family has been in the business, producing olive oil first for lighting and, more recently, for cooking and sprinkling on tomatoes.  Today, Rodio produces three major varieties, one light and fruity, one spicy, and the one that is my favorite, simply because it comes from the fruit of one of the most ancient trees.

Corrado Rodio, showing an old filter used in pressing oil from olives

 Rodio hopes that his son, 9, and daughter, 13,  will take over the masseria when the time comes, adding a 7th and perhaps 8th generation to the family business, of which he is deeply honored to be a part.

 “These trees are a national and a human treasure,” he said. “I am their steward, not their owner.  They will outlast me and my children by hundreds, maybe thousands of years.  In contrast, we are here for only a very short time.”

 Since my visit, I have planted my own little olive tree that I ordered from a local nursery.  It grows, slowly, in a small ceramic pot, surviving on the weak Wisconsin light coming in from my window.  It’s humbling to think that this little tree, if circumstances allowed, could still be here a thousand years from now, long after I, and perhaps even Wisconsin, have gone.

My little olive, growing in Wisconsin

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2 Responses to “Pre-Christian Tree Still Bearing Fruit”

  1. Vigla November 23, 2011 at 1:15 pm #

    Wonder if there are any trees in Greece that old or older since the Greek golden age predates Roman times.

    • KuZina November 25, 2011 at 4:42 pm #

      That’s a very good question . . . I will see if I can find out!

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