I am writing this letter from Rome, not from the Olive Farm. A visit to Rome just before Christmas is my idea of joy. Fortunately, thanks to the schedule for The Olive Route films, I have been given the perfect opportunity to indulge my pleasure this month.
I arrived two days ago. Once installed at my hotel in a residential district known as Prati, which is equidistant between the Vatican and the Spanish Steps, I set off walking. Like Paris, Rome is a wonderful city to discover on foot. I usually head directly for the Piazza del Popolo, which is five minutes across the River Tiber from where I am staying.
It is a vast square and always very lively with buskers, tourists and vendors of everything you could possibly never want. There is a spectacular view from the terrace of the Pincio or Pincion Hill, which is reached by climbing a few steps alongside one of the fountains. From here, you can stand and look out across the Eternal City. It is a panorama that never fails to thrill me, particularly if I happen to arrive close to sunset. On Monday, I stood gazing out across the skyline and whispered to myself , ‘Well done, you are back.’ Rome is a city I will always want to return to. I lived here for a short while in my twenties, in the days when I dreamed of becoming the next Sophia Loren, and part of me has never left.
This year, down around the Via dei Condotti, one of the most elegant shopping districts in the world, the Christmas lights are simply breathtaking. Berlusconi may have exited stage left (for the time being, at least), but there is not a hint of austerity in this district. It is probably the only place where I will squander time window-shopping because the clothes and jewellery and gifts are way beyond my purse – but the windows are a delight to behold. Alongside the Spanish Steps in the Piazza di Spagna, looking out towards the Fontana della Barcaccia, there is a very famous tea house, Babingtons. Back in my younger days, this was where I and a group of Italian friends all working in the Italian film industry ate our Sunday brunch. I am usually up at the crack of dawn and don’t think I had ever eaten brunch till I went to live in Rome!
Babingtons is still very much in business and from time to time I pop in, order a pot of green tea and silently reminisce.
The first mass of the day at St Peter’s Basilica commences at seven in the morning. At this time of year it is dark when I set off before breakfast from the hotel, wrapped in scarves and wearing my Italian leather boots. It is the only time of day that Rome is silent and I love the walk; my own footfall on streets lined with oleander and orange trees. If I arrive early, I stand outside the locked doors of the church and watch the sun rise above St Peter’s Square. The Christmas tree has already been installed in the square, but not yet decorated. That will be happening over the next few days and I look forward to seeing it in its full splendour next week.
There are never more than a handful of us attending the first mass, or masses, I should say, because there are always at least three being celebrated at once. St Peter’s boasts the largest church interior in the Christian world, but I don’t know the number of altars there are within it. This morning, there were cardinals and young priests and novices, fully robed, walking from one altar to the next, carrying chalices, Bibles, strolling about the place as though this was something very ordinary. Behind me, a handful of workmen were busy constructing the crib, known here as Il Presepe. The Nativity Scene is being placed on the same spot as last year and will be about the size of a cramped bedsit. There were hewn rocks and wooden wheels arriving to dress it as I left this morning. Christmas within the Vatican City is an epic show.
We have been filming in Rome for The Olive Route, down at Monte Testaccio in the southern part of the city. Monte Testaccio literally means ‘hill of broken jars’. It is a fascinating place because it is a man-made hill formed out of the broken pieces of ancient clay jars, amphorae. These amphorae were used for freighting foodstuffs and liquids from various parts of the Roman Empire across the Mediterranean to the city of Rome. Most of the activity was the transportation of olive oil. There are the remains of as many as fifty-three million olive oil containers on this hill and a vast percentage of these came from Spain. The clay jars were fired in southern Spain (Andalucia) at sites bordering the Guadalquivir River. The finished and numbered jars were filled with locally produced olive oil and then shipped to Ostia, a beach town outside Rome. From there, the jars were transferred by stevedores to smaller boats that carried them up the Tiber River and into the city. It is believed that the area of Testaccio was rather like a customs hall, from where the oil was unpacked and delivered elsewhere. The clay jars were tossed aside on a mound that grew and grew until this hill, with a circumference of one kilometre, came into being.
For historians, Testaccio has proved to be a fascinating testimony to the administrative workings of the ancient city. It is also one of the largest spoil heaps remaining from the ancient world.
Several years ago, when UNESCO first invited me to become involved in their plans to set up an Olive Heritage Trail around the Mediterranean, I was introduced to a marvellous historian, a professor from Barcelona, Catalonia. I emailed him when I began to write this particular episode and we invited him to fly to Rome and shoot with us. Fragments from the Olive Oil War, one might call it today. Today, Spain produces more oil than Italy. Until now, Italy has always been the leading country, the dominant power in the olive oil stakes. Now, the balance has shifted and Spain dominates the marketplace. With this particular story, I wanted to show that this commercial war is not simply a twenty-first-century situation. It goes back, at least, to the time of the Roman Empire.
By the way, the oil transported into ancient Rome from Spain and north Africa was used for lighting the city rather than for food. Any olive oil used in their kitchens would probably have been sourced from Tuscany or from private producers rather than farms of mass production. It is a fascinating angle to the Olive Story and very relevant to today’s markets.
Compiling this story has offered me the opportunity to return to Rome regularly, so I have nothing to complain about.
Coincidentally, one of that group who ate brunch in Babingtons all those years ago, an actress as well, has also turned her hand to documentary film-making and we have found that we have a subject in common amongst all these films. It is a small world and gives me yet another reason to visit Rome, to be in touch with past.
I will be returning to the farm, of course, before Christmas laden with kilos of Parmesan cheese and several Panetonnes, to enhance our Christmas table, give it an Italian touch. I have travelled so much and so far this year, as has Michel, that we are both enormously looking forward to log fires and quiet days.
If you are looking for stocking fillers, please do think of buying your friends copies of my Olive series of books. If you are going to be in London after Christmas, I will be talking each day at the France Show in Earls Court from 13 to 15 January inclusive. Please check with their website for the times of my events and please stay on afterwards to say hello and have a book signed and dedicated.
If you are on my OLIVE FARM Facebook page, you will know that there is to be a lunch on Saturday 14 January, for those attending the France Show. It will be held at a modestly-priced restaurant in Earls Court and is open to any Friend of OLIVE FARM, but you need to let us know well in advance. If you are not yet on the page, please do join us. It’s a growing group and very lively. I really recommend it.
Here’s the link :
I would like to take this opportunity to wish you all a very happy Christmas and may 2012 bring health and blessings to you all. I think this year has been very difficult for many people – personally, I lost a relative I love deeply this year. Many are going through tough times. Thank you for all your letters and messages. I wish us all peace, good health and companionship.
Thanks for dropping by here and for reading the books. I really appreciate it
Love to all and happy holidays,