Amassing a legacy
Nothing rivals the olive for its role in cultures through time. The olive tree is regarded as immortal, its branches a symbol of peace, its oil represents prosperity and purity. For Sam Cremona it symbolises a mission, as Joanna Ripard found out.
The Sicilians have a saying: "I plant almonds for myself, grapes for my children and olives for my grandchildren."
And if Sam Cremona has his way, not only will future generations be able to boast of an unprecedented abundance of the indigenous Maltese olive, but also of an internationally certified extra virgin olive oil derived from it that will rub shoulders with the best of the best.
Now, thanks to the support of Bank of Valletta, Mr Cremona's ambition has received an important boost. Earlier this month, the bank pledged its support for PRIMO, Mr Cremona's Project for the Revival of the Indigenous Maltese Olive, which aims to encourage landowners to cultivate the Bidnija olive. In the long term, the project's ultimate aim is to see that there are enough olive trees to allow an eventual co-operative to produce a certified, monocultivar oil. The co-operative will also market and develop (and one day even export) a number of by-products, like olive paste and traditional preserves.
BoV's assistance to PRIMO comes under its Lm250,000 Community Programme for this year, through which the bank aims to fulfil its corporate social responsibility in areas like the arts and culture, heritage, the environment, sports and education.
The bank has undertaken to help with the administrative side of the project's first phase. Landowners may collect an application form from any BoV branch and indicate the size and location of their land and the number of trees they would like to plant over the next two years.
Landowners will manage the trees, which should ideally be planted five metres apart - the trees will be the landowner's property. Landowners will then be invited to join a co-operative specifically set up to market the oil produced from the trees' fruit.
From the survey, co-ordinators will then calculate how many saplings, funded by the bank, need to be prepared for distribution. Applications may be submitted until February 17.
Mr Cremona is very upbeat about the initiative's progress. The response has already been very encouraging and he shows me application forms handed to him personally with requests for varying numbers of trees - six, 200, 1,000.
"And these haven't been handed to the bank yet, so there are others," he says, arranging them on top of a neat pile of documents and research papers in the conservatory at his Wardija home where the olive has truly taken over every aspect of Mr Cremona's family life. Everywhere you turn there is either an olive grove, vats with olive oil, empty bottles waiting to be filled and labelled, black olives in garlic, parsley and oil to snack on...
This is Sam Cremona's second calling. A jeweller and diamond expert by profession, Mr Cremona, in his mid-50s, has for the most part left urban life behind, although he does see to loyal clients' requests for particular pieces occasionally. He and his wife Matty, who wrote a book, Cooking with Maltese Olive Oil, in 2002, moved into the sprawling property in 1993/94 with their six-month-old daughter Lizzy. It is now also home to emus and chickens, there is a kitchen garden, orange trees...
"We were originally looking for a small house with a small garden!" he smiles, as his faithful dog, aptly named Oliver, sits quietly by his side. Olive oil is also a staple part of the four-year-old black Labrador's diet - there has to be a trickle of olive oil on his food or he won't touch it!
"I planted my first olive trees here in 1992 and started pressing my olives in 1998. In 1999 I started pressing other people's olives and four years later installed a professional, larger capacity olive press."
There are 200 trees at the Wardija property. In an effort to set up a genetic bank of the Bidnija olive, he has planted a total of 500 trees in various localities around the island. He says planting has boomed and hundreds of tonnes of olives are pressed now. He hopes that the next five years will see thousands of tonnes being pressed so that the ultimate goals will be reached.
"It is time to take this issue seriously," he explains. "I have pressed many types of olives but it is time to focus efforts on one olive, our very own. Let's go back to our roots and make a good oil. This is the only way we are going to get the prestigious DOP (Denominazione di Origine Protetta) certification from the EU."
So why the relatively small Bidnija olive specifically? Mr Cremona explains this particular species has incredibly advantageous characteristics that will even allow the production of an organic oil.
In a 1922 document entitled "Cultivation and diseases of fruit trees in the Maltese Islands", John Borg, a professor of natural history and Superintendent of Agriculture, sang the praises of the Bidnija olive. He described it as having a "strong constitution", with a small stone; the fruit is nearly moon-shaped, dark violet in colour, of a rich but not bitter flavour, able to produce an oil of excellent quality.
Small olives are able to fight off pests and are very resistant to disease, which eliminates the need to use pesticides to protect them.
Historically the first olive trees came from the Mediterranean region; today 90 per cent of the 15 million acres of olives planted worldwide are believed to border the Mediterranean.
"Scientific testing has shown that this particular olive tree dates to 1,800 to 2,200 years ago," Mr Cremona points out. "It is mostly found in the south of Malta, so if St Paul was served olive oil when he was here, he was most certainly served the oil of the Bidnija olive.
"Can you imagine how wonderful it would be to market our oil like this? This is why it is essential that we work to obtain certification. It is a way to recognise a top quality niche product that will change the outlook and development of our agriculture. We need to preserve and promote a typical Mediterranean agriculture."
Although Mr Cremona has carried out some groundwork and set up a genetic bank two years ago, the road to certification will take at least two years. There is a long, painstaking scientific process for the analysis of the olive oil's DNA, chemical characteristics, acidity levels, and so on. The testing will be carried out at an EU centre in Zaragoza, Spain.
Mr Cremona hopes landowners will share his enthusiasm to see this heritage flourish. Essentially, he explains, landowners who choose to plant Bidnija olive trees are making a sound investment. While increasing the value of their land, landowners will also be able to enjoy the fruits of a healthy and abundant crop that needs relatively little care once it matures - the olive tree is one of the longest living and hardiest trees on earth.
A tree will bear a decent amount of fruit after six years and will be at its peak from its 15th to 20th year, he explains. It will then bear fruit for the next 50 years. Most trees bear around 40 to 50 kilos of fruit a year - some up to 150 kilos in a good year. Two tonnes of olives, cultivated on 1,000 square metres, produce around 500 litres of oil. The olives are harvested in October/November when they are 'blushing', turning from green to black.
"You know, the trinity of the Mediterranean diet is olive oil, first, then wheat, and wine. And honey, to bind all three," Mr Cremona points out, as he pushes a clay pot of shiny black olives and a dish of Maltese bread and sun-dried tomatoes drizzled with this wonderfully aromatic (it has that typical seaside, hobz biz-zejt fragrance) towards me.
Not only does it smell heavenly, but olive oil is incredibly nutritious and beneficial, Mr Cremona explains. It has been found to reduce the risk of cancer, balance cholesterol levels and is very good for the skin. Olives are very low-calorie (fewer than seven calories) and low-fat.
The fatty acids in olives are highly monounsaturated - the monounsaturated fats in olive oil have been found to be devoid of LDL-cholesterol which damages arteries, while leaving the beneficial HDL-cholesterol level unaffected or sometimes boosted.
Mr Cremona is pleased that interest in this culture is increasing. The art of olive pressing has been the subject of school projects and the properties of olive oil and leaf extract have even been chosen as themes for theses at Bachelor's and Ph.D. levels.
He rubs his hands together, a gesture of genuine, heartfelt enthusiasm. (Some of it may be the cold - olive oil must not be subjected to heat, light and air - and it is cold up in Wardija in winter).
Why do you it? I ask him. "I want to leave more trees than I found," he shrugs with a smile, almost as if it were a duty.