Olive oil might not be the first thing you think of when you consider Sardinian agriculture. But there are areas which are perfectly-suited for olive cultivation among the island’s diverse bioclimates.
One of these is around the north-western coastal town of Alghero, also known as “the small Barcelona”. That’s not a coincidence: it’s the only place in Italy where the Catalan language is spoken and officially-recognized. It’s also home to the Accademia Olearia, a family-run business that offers high-quality, eco-sustainable Sardinian olive oil.
“My family has deep roots in these fields, in agriculture,” as Antonello Fois, Sales Manager and son of founder Giuseppe, explains. “I can’t tell you the exact year that my family began farming here. It was sometime around the middle of the 19th century. In this first period it was a more typical family farm with a variety of crops. Olives, yes, but also tomatoes, grapes and other fruits and vegetables according to the period of the year.”
Over time, the family became more and more specialized in olive cultivation and the production of olive oil. They were still selling it on tap, by the liter, until relatively recently. That was until Giuseppe Fois took over the reins from his father. “My father began a process of transformation in the 1990s,” Antonello says. “He wanted to modernize the business, to introduce some degree of automation where possible. These were difficult years for the olive oil industry. Lower-quality products destined for export, particularly from Spain, dominated the market. But my father wanted his oil to stand out for its quality. So together with me and my brother Alessandro we began a journey of transformation, eventually founding the Accademia Olearia in the year 2000.”
Quality and sustainability
At that time, there were basically two types of olive oil available in Italy, representing opposite ends of the spectrum. “There was mass-market oil whose production process generally precludes the highest level of quality, and there micro-businesses whose price tag reflected the small output and high costs of production, making them niche. Our aim was to create a high-level product that was widely accessible, to provide an accessible luxury.”
A general evolution in the dialog around olive oil in Italy was happening at the same time. This was led in part by Slow Food itself, whose first annual guide to Italian extra virgin olive oils was published in 1999. “The beginning of this new way of looking at olive oil was a great help for our business. We were establishing ourselves as a leader in the sector at the same time as the market was refocusing on quality. So guides like that of Slow Food Editore and others which followed were a great help in gaining recognition.”
The founding of Academy represented a shift not just towards higher-quality olive oil, but a green revolution of another kind. “Our heating systems are powered by one of our waste products, the pits of the olives, which are transformed into biogas. Our other electrical needs are supplied for by our on-site solar panels which generate 60kW, and we don’t use any external water resources during the process of transformation, turning the olives into oil.”
“There were two further revolutions which changed the game for us,” Antonello continues. “The first came around 2008 when the law changed, thereafter obliging producers to include the country of origin of the olives on the label. So it became easy for the ever-more discerning consumers to see which oils were using olives from Italy, or other European countries, or indeed countries beyond Europe. And of course businesses like ours which are using 100% homegrown and organic olives benefit from that.”
“The second revolution came shortly afterwards, with the recognition of a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) for Sardinian olive oil. We were the very first business to be classified as part of this PDO, and we’re the main producer on the island that belongs to the PDO. The precise figure changes from year to year with every harvest, of course, but in general the Accademia Olearia produces around 50% of the total quantity of olives that belong to the PDO.”
In order to belong to the PDO, at least 80% of a producer’s groves must be made up of olives belonging to four native varieties: the Bosana, the Tonda di Cagliari, the Semidana and the Nera. They grow all four at the Accademia Olearia, and all four are available in mono-varietal bottles. “They’re four olive varieties that reflect the four regions of the island,” as Antonello puts it. “The Bosana is the typical olive of this region, the north, and naturally it’s the olive we grow the most of here. It’s also the spiciest of the four, with notes of artichoke.”
The popularity of the Bosana has grown as the market has evolved. Once upon a time the producers tended to “round out” their oils and reduce their level of spiciness. Nowadays, consumes appreciate a wider variety of tastes, including the spiciness that the Bosana offers. “The Semidana, on the other hand, is typical of the central region of Sardinia. It has a less bitter taste. The Tonda di Cagliari is of course from the south of the island. It too has a more delicate taste, as does the Nera, which comes from the east of Sardinia. Though the Nera has a strong aromatic profile, it’s still more delicate to taste than the Bosana”. These varieties also form part of the Slow Food Presidium for Italian Extra Virgin Olive Oil.
Despite the difficulties of recent times, the Accademia Olearia has its sights fixed firmly on the future. “Our exports have continued to grow, so we’re looking to expand too, and not just in olive oil. In 2006 we planted 11 hectares of Vermentino grapes in the area of Porticiollo, right by the sea. At first we just sold the grapes to other winemakers, but since 2011 we’ve been producing wine ourselves. Our capacity is still small, just 6000 bottles a year, but we’re already enjoying success with customers and critics.”
There’s another new product on the horizon too, a rare double-PDO. “We’re about to launch, this month, a line of PDO Sardinian artichokes bottles in our own PDO Sardinian olive oil. And so we’re going to need more oil! In fact our goal is to plant 100 hectares of olive groves, all of them of native Sardinian varieties, and to expand the vineyard to 50 hectares. This may be an old, family-run artisan business, but it’s a new venture too, and there’s plenty of room to grow.”
by Jack Coulton, firstname.lastname@example.org
THE ACCADEMIA OLEARIA IS PRESENT AMONG THE EXHIBITOR SHOWCASES OF TERRA MADRE SALONE DEL GUSTO, TOGETHER WITH OVER 500 OTHER PRODUCERS! YOU CAN FIND A SELECTION OF PRODUCTS TO BUY (DELIVERY WITHIN THE SCHENGEN AREA ONLY), AT OUR ONLINE MARKETPLACE.
 Sardinia is also the only region in southern Italy where olive oil production has grown over the last year, as they’re less affected by the diseases which have affected production on the mainland and in Sicily.