Olive Oil Estate Tours
Can anyone recommend a tour to an olive oil estate or farm in Italy? There's nothing about this in the guidebooks and I'm also wondering if it's worth going on a tour in April since harvest season ends in November.
Also interested in any other recommended foodie tours or experiences in Italy, though not into wine or restaurant crawls.
I'm pretty sure they do a lot of organized olive oil tours in Puglia, and perhaps Sicily as well, so you might try googling for that specifically. Around the Taggia/Imperia area of Liguria you can find agriturismi that are olive oil producing and you can even stay over as a guest, and they will certainly be happy to take you all through the production with tastings. They are actuallly happier if you don't come during the harvesting and pressing season, which is intensely busy for them. (In fact, some don't take guests then.) David Downie's book Food and Wine: Genoa and the Italian Riviera has a self-guided olive oil itinerary.
There are of course olive oil producing agriturismi in almost every part of Italy, and olive oil trails ("strada") including as far north as Lago di Garda. Umbria has many touristic opportunities for olive oil as does Tuscany. So if there is something else you want culturally out of your trip -- Renaissance art, Etruscan tombs, medieval castles, beautiful natural scenery -- you can find an olive oil producer not far away who welcomes visitors.
As for foodie tours that are not winery or restaurant crawls, Emilia-Romagna is perhaps the most popular and best organized destination for that -- cheese tours, cured meat tours, vinegar tours, pasta making classes -- and you can book one-day tours with drivers or go around on your own.
But in April you can also find food festivals all over Italy, including ones easy to get to from the major tourist destinations (like asparagus and strawberry festivals near Venice). In all the famous cities of Italy with maybe the exception of Milan you can find guides who do a half'day or full day tour of local markets and bakeries and cheesemongers, or pizzerie in Napoli or chocolate in Torino, and taste a zillion things without setting foot in a restaurant or doing wine tasting.
If you are interested in a food-loving approach to Italy, then Fred Plotkin's Italy for the Gourmet Traveler is a fantastic book to own because he is certainly devoted to Italy's food culture well beyond restaurant eating. In fact, he correctly puts the restaurant experience in the background, since it is misleading to put it at the forefront of a discussion of Italian food culture and eating beautifully in Italy.
There are many operators of guided tours. Just start googling, and you'll find folks like these:
The following are links to general olive oil sites that include directories of major growers and producers. The first is from Tom Mueller, olive oil expert and author of the book Extra Virgin. Both these sites will link to prize-winning estates used to receiving visitors. You can browse their lists and select some in provinces or regions you'll be in or would like to visit, and then contact the estates.
Regions like Tuscany, Umbria, Liguria, Sicily, Puglia, Lazio, Campania are likely to offer more options, given the extent and maturity of their olive oil industry. Some major growing areas like Sabina (Viterbo) near Rome or Imperia (Liguria) are fairly accessible from big cities. Buon soggiorno!
Unfortunately in April, there is not much going on in the world of olive oil - the mills (in Umbria, at least) are only open between October and December. As for seeing an estate, you just have to drive around the olive trees are everywhere! :-)
What part of Italy are you planning to go to?
If you'd really like to experience visiting an olive oil estate, then I would recommend visiting during harvest and pressing time. That way you will really get a full understanding of not only how the olive oil is made, but how it is harvested and pressed.
Nancy Jenkins, one of the world's experts on olive oil, leads a fantastic week long learning and tasting trip in Tuscany each year. You can find out more here at her site:
Another good resource is Pamela Sheldon Johns, also in Tuscany:
Hope this helps a bit.
I live on property In Italy where olives are grown, harvested and taken to the mill to be pressed (and I get to drink it), and while it is interesting to see a mill in operation it is not uninteresting (or uninformative) to visit a mill when it is not in operation.
What probably matters most to any "foodie"'s understanding of olive oil (other than its history, which can be read in books or with visits to the olive oil museum in Imperia), is to improve one's knowledge of olive oil through TASTE. For that you need to be able to taste a variety of olive oils, even better if they are from different regions.
If you are really very interested in the quality and taste of olive oil then you might want to know about the Italian national organization of olive oil tasters and their activities, which include one-day and 5 day courses in learning about olive oil quality through its taste. The price for their 5 day courses is remarkably inexpensive given how food tours usually charge and one happens to be coming up at the end of March/early April.
Even if you don't want a 5 day course, if you are interested in olive oil as more than just a touristic excursion with other tourists to pick some olives and and watch them get pressed then you might enjoy reading this account of the tasting course, which shares revelations about discerning good olive oil from bad
and here is a link to the courses in olive oil tasting run by ONAOO, including one course they offer online via Skype (they mail you the various olive oils to taste)
I honestly do think what matters when it comes to olive oil is its taste and you don't need to be in Italy at the harvest to have a deep experience of olive oil in that regard (although it feels special to taste new pressed olive oil even when it isn't particularly great olive oil).