The little-known region of Molise, Italy is home to award-winning Extra Virgin Olive Oil producer Marina Colonna
“No one comes to this region, the tourists go to Tuscany,“ says Princepessa Marina Colonna. “The good thing about Molise is that you always eat well because the Mama is in the kitchen, it's that kind of food.“ Molise is bordered by the regions of Lazio (Rome) and Puglia, and sandwiched between Abruzzi and Campania.
Colonna has been making the drive from Rome to Molise, since she was a child. In those days the trip took eight hours. Today it is a three-and-a-half-hour drive along the superhighway south east of Rome. Colonna has made the journey every week since taking over the reins of Masseria Bosco Ponti, the family farm, in 1993.
“In those days my son was at school in Rome, so I would work on the farm during the week, and drive home every weekend,“ she says. Colonna's son, Eugenio Barcelloni is now 26 years and has not yet followed his mother into the olive oil business. Rather, he is an accomplished surfer and surf videographer and recently worked in Australia for Simon Johnson selling his mother's olive oil, in between chasing waves up and down the east coast.
Eugenio's free spirit was inherited from his mother. Before becoming an olive farmer, and leading oil producer, Colonna made documentaries. Her first films were shot during long stints in Afghanistan. In the years following she worked on films in Ethiopia and in Sicily (where she and her partner, filmmaker Gianni Barcelloni, a colleague of Pasolini's, were asked to leave the island!). Colonna returned to Rome and carved out a career as a television presenter.
“If you'd told me 30 years ago that I would live here, I would have laughed at you,“ says Colonna. “I'm a city girl, I knew nothing about farming.“ Colonna grew up in central Rome, a member of one of Rome's oldest noble families. Her family lineage stretches to the Century 12th and includes Pope, Cardinals, Senators and Governors. The family is now stretched across Italy, including a niece, and pyjama designer, Maria Vittoria Colonna.
As Marina's father grew old, Colonna started to seriously consider the idea of taking over the family farm. “I said to my father, 'you make beautiful oil, the best, why are you just selling it to bulk buyers?'“ she recalls. “So he said to me, 'ok you design a bottle, you make it look special, and people will understand how special it is.'“ Taking up the challenge Colonna headed to London and worked with designers to create Colonna Olive Oil's unique bottle, made from opaque glass it features two pouring spouts, a wooden stopper and a wax seal imprinted with the Colonna family's 900-year-old coat of arms.
Marina began selling the oil as 'estate' oil, the first farm in the region to do so. Each bottle is filled by hand in the bottling and packing room behind Marina's small villa on the farm. Built-in the 1930s, the house is surrounded by gardens that boast Mirto, orange and lemon trees, wild olives, hedges of rosemary and a caper bush, in addition to a rose garden.
The bottom floor of the villa has been converted into guest apartments and a teaching kitchen, where Marina teaches guests how to cook with olive oil. Some classes focus on baking, including olive oil cakes and biscuits using Colonna's lemon and mandarin oils; or pasta - using cavatelli and fusilli, the pasta shapes particular to the area.
“In this region the food is all about sheep, goat and pig,“ says Colonna. Torcinelli is a local specialty served particularly at Easter - chopped lamb's liver and lungs are mixed with garlic, parsley, basil and chilli, and stuffed into sausage casings made from lamb's intestines. They are then barbecued.
La Pampanella is the most popular local pork dish, which sees small cuts of pork marinated in garlic and paprika overnight before being cooked in the oven for several hours in a covered water bath. As the pork cools it is dressed with white wine and vinegar.
At Christmas, Lasagne in Brodo, is served. A lasagne is made using small meatballs, in place of Ragú as a filling, and is cooked in the oven in a vegetable or chicken broth.
Beyond the villa sits the olive mill, and the company's headquarters. The walls of Marina's office hold ancient maps of the farm, and more recent lithographs from the 1920s, when much of the property was an oak forest. Staking out 'Eredi Principe don Piero Colonna,' the map shows the land then owned by Marina's grandfather, Piero Colonna who had inherited it from his father - Prospero. Propsero Colonna was three times elected Mayor of Rome, and a Senator. Piero followed in his father's civic footsteps and was made Governor of Rome. During this time, the farm was managed by locals in service to Prince Piero.
“No one in the family spent time here until my father,“ says Marina. “Everyone was too busy in Rome,“ she says. “I thought none of my ancestors, except Daddy, cared less about the property, until a few years ago when I found a pile of letters. They show correspondence between the farm managers of the time, and my grandfather, and great grandfather, and they illustrate that the family has always had the same struggle,“ she says. “The issue that every farmer has, the need to invest more and more money in a property over time.“
Being a princess and a farmer has had its challenges. “There has always been something of a class struggle, and some attitude that with my background I couldn't be a successful farmer,“ says Colonna, who as a Princess, requires more security than the average farmer. “I have a burglar alarm in the mill,“ she says. “No one wants my stuff, our computers or iPads, they come to steal oil, especially the new oil at harvest time.“
During harvest, pickers work in groups of six. Together they move up and down the rows of trees, four people operate harvesting combs which gently work to remove the fruit from the branches, while the remaining two hold nets to ensure that the olives are collected below.
Colonna produces between 40,000 and 50,000 litres of oil each year from her 18,000 trees. In addition to oil, she grows tomatoes, which she makes into sugo, and chick peas, planted between tomato seasons, to regenerate the soil. A kitchen in nearby Puglia turns the olives into pates which are sold beside her oils across the world from Dean & DeLuca in New York to Simon Johnson in Sydney.
Driving through the grove in her beaten up Land Rover, Colonna points to a new grove of 1,500 trees. “Bushy, bushy, bushy, they are starting to look like olive trees,“ she says proudly. “When I arrived we had 450-hectares it was too large for one person to manage,“ she says. Over the years, Colonna has sold small parcels of land. “I now have 180-hectares,“ she says. “It is still too big.“
Colonna grows 24 cultivars, native and introduced, including Ascolana from the Marche region, Kalamata, Peranzana from northern Puglia, Gaeta from south of Rome, and a Tuscan varietal, Frantorio, planted by her father in1991. The Leccio del Corno produces her favourite oil. “If I had my time over, I'd only plant these,“ she says.
We pull up beside a much older tree, it resembles a willow, its branches straining desperately under the weight of olives waiting to be picked. “This tree is a really good one, it is very happy,“ she says. “It produced 100 kilograms of olives all by itself last year.“
Marina' Colonna's oils are available through Simon Johnson stores nationally: