"Olive oil 'bottled' in Italy doesn't mean it's harvested in Italy"


Giulio Figarolo di Gropello attributes his CENTO X CENTO CARMA olive oil empire to simply, patience


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Dining February 27th, 2018

“Everybody wants it because if it is real, it is good. And it is healthy. It is easy to digest, it is very good for the stomach, and it is very good for the heart,” says Giulio Figarolo di Gropello.

An avid contemporary art collector and owner of several acclaimed vineyards and farms in Italy, Giulio, as he prefers to be called, is speaking about the benefits of high quality olive oil. As a supplier to international hotels such as Bulgari, the founder and owner of the award-winning CENTO X CENTO CARMA olive oil certainly has the right to speak.

Possessing an impressive knowledge of this Mediterranean staple and of organic farming, he lists studies by several renowned universities, which all conclude that consuming a diet rich in olive oil is the key to not just physical wellness, but also luscious hair and gleaming skin.

Their methods of using what nature gave them is what he calls organic farming, and is something he practises across all his farms today with the help of permaculture.

Growing up on his grandfather’s farm before the introduction of pesticides and chemicals taught Giulio about olive trees and the land around it. His face lights up as he talks about his time spent on that farm in Val di Chiana, Tuscany as a young child, surrounded by farmers who passed on their belief of respecting the land. Their methods of using what nature gave them is what he calls organic farming, and is something he practises across all his farms today with the help of permaculture.

Giulio spent on the farm in Val di Chiana in Tuscany as a young child, surrounded by farmers who passed on their belief of respecting the land. Photo by CENTO X CENTO CARMA

Seated now at The Ritz-Carlton Millenia Singapore while togged in a casual polo T-shirt, Giulio speaks passionately about olive oil. Even with the eye-catching Singapore skyline as a backdrop, it is difficult to not to be seduced by his romantic descriptions of olives and his farm, to drift away to a beauteous land of undulating hills and rustling olive groves.

It is intriguing that such a humble fruit holds such complexity and power. Giulio stresses how difficult it is to produce something that is now a staple in the kitchens of all Bulgari hotels around the world. Time and money are just part of the investment pumped into the process. He has proven to be a very patient man who has spent years, literally, waiting to see the fruits of his labour.

“It’s actually very expensive to produce olive oil because it needs between 15 to 20 years for the plant to grow and start producing. Then obviously the maintenance and the nurturing is very expensive because you have to prune every year in order for the plants to be in good shape,” he explains.

“You are subjected to the destiny of the weather so you may have a lot of troubles. In 2017 we had five months without rain which resulted in 35 per cent less production than the year before.”

Giulio Figarolo di Gropello, founder and owner of CENTO X CENTO CARMA

He began his venture in 1982 with just 50 olive trees, and today owns nearly 7,000 trees across a 400-hectare land area. While his goal is to produce 1,000 litres annually in the years to come, Giulio admits it will be a challenge in terms of actually controlling harvest.

Giulio began his venture in 1982 with just 50 olive trees, and today owns nearly 7,000 trees across a 400-hectare land area

Giulio began his venture in 1982 with just 50 olive trees, and today owns nearly 7,000 trees across a 400-hectare land area Photo by CENTO X CENTO CARMA

“You are subjected to the destiny of the weather so you may have a lot of troubles. In 2017, for instance, we had five months without rain which resulted in 35 per cent less production than the year before,” he says.

He adds that 2015, on the contrary, saw a lot of rain which resulted in the quality of the olives being extremely poor, such that most of the production had to be thrown away. “So, if you take all this into consideration, you can understand it is very expensive to produce,” he surmises.

Despite the complexity of cultivating this sturdy fruit and the unpredictability of harvest yields, Giulio reveals that Italy has steadfastly remained a major international supplier of olive oil.

This is despite the fact that the country only produces half of the necessary amount that is consumed locally. “Italians are big consumers. They consume roughly 900,000 tonnes a year, because as you know, the basis of Italian cuisine is olive oil,” he says.

Giulio's goal is to produce 1,000 litres annually in the years to come

Giulio’s goal is to produce 1,000 litres annually in the years to come Photo by Sarment

However, he points out that Italians produce locally only 400,000 tonnes of olive oil annually. “So we don’t know how 600,000 tonnes of olive oil are exported out of Italy. This means that there are 900,000 tonnes of Italian oil, or oil sold as Italian oil, that is not Italian oil,” he adds.

This unorthodox practice stems from a loophole that many companies take advantage of. By simply bottling the oil in Italy, companies are able to lay claim to the “Made in Italy” label without the olive oil actually being harvested in Italy.

“The most important thing is that the trees are healthier. If they’re healthy, they’re happy. If they’re happy, they produce more, and with much better quality.”

Wanting to minimize the need for machinery on his land, Giulio ensures that the trees receive the utmost care. Rather than employing workers to trim the grass and ensure that the land is safe during the harvest season, he has seven donkeys whose duties are simply to graze.

“The most important thing is that the trees are healthier. If they’re healthy, they’re happy. If they’re happy, they produce more, and with much better quality.”

Giulio's 11-year-old was seven when he helped to colour the olive oil bottle’s label design, which ended up being used as the final artwork

Giulio’s 11-year-old was seven when he helped to colour the olive oil bottle’s label design, which ended up being used as the final artwork Photo by Nicky Loh

Just ask he was asked about the legacy he would like to leave behind, Giulio’s young son pops out of the bedroom and sidles up next to his father. The 11-year-old was seven when he helped to colour the olive oil bottle’s label design, which ended up being used as the final artwork. Ruffling his hair, Giulio muses that he is but a ‘garden-keeper’.

“To plant olive trees and actually make a business out of something that is so traditional and old-fashioned is probably the best legacy, and message, to leave behind for the generations to come.”

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