Alfonso Rossi is desperate for some fresh, extra-virgin olive oil. The retired Alfa Romeo worker co-owns 14 acres of olive trees not far from the village of Diacceto, 12 miles east of Florence. He said: ‘We used to produce an average of 300 kilograms of olive oil per year. Now I’m desperate to find some, just for my own personal use – Tuscany’s oil has just been wiped away.’
Blame Bactrocera oleae, a fruit fly with the nasty habit of injecting their eggs in olives where, eventually, the larvae will eat their way out. But first blame climate change. Last winter was the warmest one on record in Tuscany. ‘My olive trees are at an altitude of 600 metres above sea level, nearly the maximum for those plants to survive. But last winter, they didn’t have one night of frost,’ Rossi says. Add a record-breaking warm spring and a record-breaking wet summer, and you’ve got the ideal condition for olive fruit flies to thrive.
In Tuscany, where some of the world’s best extra-virgin olive oil is produced, the 2014 harvest will be long remembered as a nightmare. While Tuscany has suffered the most, the harvest from bordering Umbria down to Sicily has been hit by the pest. Different sources guess a drop in production between 45 and 95 per cent across Italy, the latter being nearer to the expected damage to Tuscany’s harvest.
To make matters worse, the little surviving oil is likely to have been made from olives that were treated with dimethoate, an insecticide used to kill insects by blocking their central nervous system. Not one or two treatments, but four. ‘I medicated my plants twice, but it wasn’t enough,’ Roberto Dardi, another olivicultura, says.
While Italy continues to experience abnormal weather – with a recent chain of floods in Liguria and northern Tuscany – both small and industrial-scale olive growers hope for a back-to-normal cold winter. Nobody harvested the infested olives. And with so many larvae left in the wild, another warm winter would be a disaster.