Olives are not the only fruit: fig trees in the olive grove

Montevettolini, Montalbano, Tuscany, Italy le colline de Leonardo Leonardo's hills

The hills of Montalbano, known as le colline di Leonardo (Leonardo’s hills), are prime olive-growing territory. From the top of the hill where we have our olive grove, a endless silver-green sea stretches out in every direction, blending into the bright green of vineyards at the foot of the hills. Since olive farmers in Tuscany are usually small producers, a single hillside can be an irregular patchwork of multiple small groves nestled alongside each other.

Fig tree at entrance to olive grove, Tuscany, ItalyThe fig tree at the entrance to our olive grove

There are rarely fences or wall between groves, which gives the hillsides a harmonious appeararence but initially caused me great confusion as I tried to remember where our grove ended and our neighbours’ began. I tried memorising tree shapes and counting terraces  - after all, it wouldn’t do to go picking olives from the wrong tree – while marvelling at Michele’s mysterious ability to identify exactly which trees were ours. Eventually I realised that the boundaries were deliniated by the other varieties of trees growing at intervals in the grove.

Holm oak (known in Tuscany by the lovely name querciolo) and fig are are the most commonly used for this purpose as they thrive in a similar terrain and climate to the olive tree. We are lucky to have a combination of trees marking the boundaries of our uliveto - oaks, but also fruit trees including walnut, pear, and best of all, several varieties of fig.

Fig tree Tuscany Italy

Fig tree Tuscany Italy

The fig and the olive are an ancient pairing, laden with cultural symbolism and historical significance. Personally I love the visual contrast the fig trees provide with the olive trees. In terms of colour, leaf shape, trunk texture and growth habit they are completely different, but somehow they compliment each other perfectly. When I see them together I always think of Aesop’s fable, in which the arrogant evergreen olive tree mocks the fig tree for its winter nudity, before being crushed by the weight of a heavy snowfall – the snow falls between the bare branches of the fig tree and it escapes unharmed.

freshly picked figs, Tuscany, Italy

The figs on one of our trees have started to ripen, although we face fierce competition from the birds for the fruit. I think fresh figs are one of the most Mediterranean of flavours, tasting of sunshine and summer. They are traditionally a symbol of plenty and for me there is still something terribly indulgent and luxurious about eating them fresh from the tree – maybe because when they featured in my English childhood they were always dried and only ever appeared at Christmas.

Freshly picked fig

Fresh figs for breakfast in the olive grove, admiring the view over the Montalbano hills, is another experience entirely.

Olive grove, Montalbano, Tuscany, Italy le colline de Leonardo Leonardo's hills

Montalbano, Tuscany, Italy le colline de Leonardo Leonardo's hills

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40 responses to “Olives are not the only fruit: fig trees in the olive grove

  1. ahhh figs, just one more reason to love Tuscany :)
    I think next spring when my wife and I are back we should try to get a tour of your Grove. I’d bet I would get a ton of great photos there.

  2. Your posts continue to be informative, interesting and generous…sharing your life now planted in an olive grove. I look forward to more. Thinking of you enjoying the summer in your new rich life in Tuscany.

    • Thanks for the lovely comment, it’s so nice to hear that you’re enjoying reading about our adventure. Writing is a great way to reflect on and process your experiences, but sharing it is also wonderful.

  3. I’m so glad I have read your post IN Italy and just been shown the fig tree up in the back end of our landlords olive grove…I’m just waiting for a few to ripen figs now. Can you also tell me why the olives on the trees around our place are speckled white? My Italian isn’t good enough to ask :)

    • Benvenuti! Make sure you get to the figs before the birds do!
      White splodges could be fungal infection (yuk) but if it’s more of a light speckling then it’s probably just the variety. Some cultivars have noticeable white dots when they’re in their unripe state, and I seem to remember reading that they’re more visible in years when there’s been a lot of rain (certainly true of this year!).

      • Oh I see, I think maybe its the rain!? Thank you for filling me in a little more….your trees look beautiful and full if that is even a good description? My olive knowledge will improve!
        Ciao

  4. Beautiful Pictures! That is a view to enjoy:-) I have never eaten a fresh fig off the tree, I have no doubt that it would be delicious. I like ” visual contrast” in the garden, and I agree it always seems to work, but when the plants are alone it never makes sense until they are together in the landscape. I feel gardening is a living “art form”:-) robbie

    • Absolutely! Gardening is a living, constantly changing art form… Just the beauty that different combinations of green, or different shaped foliage can create is wonderful and often surprising.
      I hope you get to pick and enjoy a fresh fig sometime, it’s delicious and the best way to eat them.

  5. Love your topic and your writing style. I spent a couple nights at an agriturismo in Umbria on my first trip to Italy and took a bunch of photos of the beautiful olive trees. I’ve always loved olives so I was particularly enchanted to see them growing! On trees! In Italy! Wow!
    I also had a close encounter with a white bull. City girl that I am, I didn’t realize it was a BULL until I noticed the, um, “difference” in the photos after the fact. I calmly stood taking photos of (and talking to) the pretty white Italian “cow” who had crept up the very steep hill and under the barbed wire fence to join me in the olive grove.

    • Thank you so much!
      That sounds like a scary encounter although you didn’t realise until after the fact! I love the flora here (olives! figs! grapes! watermelons! actually growing on plants, not packaged in a supermarket!) but am still getting used to the fauna. I’m a city girl really so snakes, wild boars, bulls, all the giant insects etc are a bit frightening for me.

  6. a truly exquisite post. I especially love the part about the undefined boundaries, but then recognising other groves by marker trees. In highland Kenya long ago, Kikuyu farm boundaries used to be marked by the planting of pyjama lilies. But then you need to belong, or become an insider, to decode the ‘signs’. Lovely.

  7. What I love about the way you write is that make me see things I’ve never noticed before. We have fig trees in our olive grove too, and I never thought of looking at them together, or even wondering why they’re there. We do have a few that are at the boundaries, together with oaks!

    • Thank you! A fresh pair of eyes helps you see familiar things in a new light… it’s funny how different people notice different things. Good to know that planting figs and oaks with olives is an Italian, not just Tuscan, habit.

  8. I have a figtree in my garden too(I live in Belgium )some breeds can stand a lot of cold, we had -18 C° this Winter and last Winter. I have trained my fig tree against a South wall and it is doing fine, it gives me lots of ripe figs every year(except for last year, the cold Summer was not good enough to have ripe figs), soon I’ll have to protect my tree cos the blackbirds love to eat them and they take the biggest and sweetest figs first !A few years ago our Winters were a lot softer and many people bought big olive tree’s for their gardens but the last 5 Winters were horrible with lots of heavy frosts and thick snow layers so all the olive tree’s got killed. I love the shapes of old olive tree’s !!!!If you are interested you can see pictures of my tree in my blog. I’l love to live in Italy !or Spain !

    • I will visit your blog and see your tree for myself! Figs trees are so beautiful, you do have to fight the birds for the figs though… good luck saving figs from the blackbirds!
      I’m impressed that your fig tree withstood minus 18 degrees, although I knew they were hardier than olive trees. My mum grows an olive tree in a pot in the UK, she takes it inside in winter as cold winters kill the trees… I think that’s probably the most realistic option for olive lovers in Northern Europe!

      • small olive tree’s in a pot you can put inside for Winter but they get bigger and heavier every year !!!
        I was told that fig tree’s grown from seed in Belgium are hardier than the ones you bring home from Italy or Spain.mine is called “white from Marseile, the figs are not very big so they ripen faster in a colder climate, I have my tree for about 6 or 7 years now and I have to cut a lot of branches each year cos it grows explosively !

  9. Querquiolo, love it! I shall be using that from now on :)

    What a fantastic project you have…I bet it’s hard work too. Looking forward to following your adventure.

    • thanks for visiting and following, yes it can be hard work but we love doing something so connected with nature and history… I think your line of work is similar in that way, but olive trees are probably a little more obedient than cows.

  10. Omygoodness! Fresh figs for breakfast! With honey and yoghurt! Maybe the best thing ever. I remember fresh figs were on sale last year and I ate them for breakfast every day for weeks. Mmmm….

  11. I never knew about planting other type of tree to mark boundaries. It’s really interesting and I’ll look out for it. Our olive grove is a funny shape but it’s bordered by woodland and open pasture rather than other groves so it doesn’t apply. I think it did at our old house, though, and might explain a few things!

  12. I adore fresh figs. They’re so expensive to buy over here, but I crave them as soon as I see them at the markets! The Tuscan countryside is absolutely spectacular. My husband and I would love to visit one day. It’s one of those idyllic bucket list destinations :)

  13. Pingback: La raccolta: the olive harvest in Tuscany | Notes from a Tuscan Olive Grove·

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