Burton Anderson: Beyond Vino

Burton Anderson: Beyond Vino
Life is a fiasco


Tuscany’s Olives—Another Fatal Freeze?

Tuscany is under siege from the coldest weather since 1985, when a major share of the region’s olive trees froze and had to be cut to the ground. Northerly winds of more than 60 kilometers an hour have heaped snow into drifts, leaving me stranded in my half-built house in the Maremma with no running water (the pipes froze overnight) and a compact woodstove the lone source of heat. The current wind chill is -18°C (-4°F). Tomorrow, hot damn, it’s supposed to be windier and colder.

Maybe I should worry more about my own health and safety than the well-being of those 85 olive trees out there bowed forlornly under icy snow. But I don’t. I could always phone someone to plow clear the road so I could escape with my car. Nobody I know of could intervene on behalf of my poor, dear olives, whose Mediterranean dispositions prepare them for almost any exigency short of Siberian blizzards.

Damage seems certain, though there’s hope that it won’t be as drastic as 27 years ago. Back then, in early January soon after the harvest, trees retained sap that froze at the core and destroyed the trunks above ground. The millennial resilience of olives permits roots to put out shoots that can be nurtured into new trees, though it takes a decade or more for a grove to return to normal.

This time, after a long drought, trees were dry and dormant so freezing might not be so severe. At best we might get by amputating some branches. Whatever the case, production—always iffy from olives picked by hand—seems certain to suffer.

So, once again it turns out that sunny Italy isn’t Florida. Popular images of Tuscany focus on the summery aspects of a region that in truth endures flip-flops between cold, rainy, and blustery through much of the year. I find myself grumbling more about the weather here than I did as a boy on the ice-packed lakes of Minnesota, where the foremost gauges of the wind-chill factor were flash-frozen fingers and toes. A sign of getting old, I suppose, aggravated by built-in Scandinavian melancholy.

Extremes of weather have a way of bringing out a defiant nature that I trace to my Viking heritage. I knew damned well what was coming when on Monday I stocked up at the market on the makings of a monumental minestrone, which, thickened with wood-oven bread late in the week, transmogrified into a resplendent ribollita. Throw in some salame, cheese, fruit, lots of good red wine, and enough milk for my morning cappuccino, and what’s to worry? As for water, nothing's finer than boiled snow. Like those guys who go out into the wilderness with nothing but a sharp knife and a stout constitution, just another challenge to overcome. No big deal.

Well, okay, it’s pretty damned cold here at Sassofortino, even inside my mini-fortress with the woodstove blasting. Tomorrow I have to decide whether to trudge a half-mile uphill through packed snow to stock up on groceries for another day or two or call in a plow and get the hell out of here. My olive trees, like my little red robin buddy who pecks away at the crumbs I throw out into the snow, seem to be telling me to stick it out. I guess they mean friends who freeze together, squeeze together, or something like that. How could I say no?


  1. I had been wondering about the olives freezing as well. Thanks for explaining the difference between now and '85. We spent eight winters in Toscana and before the first one we had asked our neighbors if it ever snowed there(Casole d'Elsa)and they replied, "maybe once every ten years". It snowed that first winter...

  2. Burton:

    Paola Golder at Poggio Antico just emailed me and said she was told the last time it snowed like this in Montalcino was in the '50s!

    Combine that with your situation and it sounds like a disaster area. I'm heading there in 12 days- should be an adventure.