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Why I abandoned my highflying city job to become an olive farmer in Puglia

Why I abandoned my highflying city job to become an olive farmer in Puglia

  • Scott Harrison was a gay city lawyer who didn’t really know where black olives came from when he started. Now he’s a proud peasant farmer.
Puglia grotto.

How do you go from being a lawyer in London to a chainsaw-wielding olive farmer in rural Italy?

That’s the journey I took three years ago when we moved to Puglia. And my husband and I have never looked back.

Rat race life of a City lawyer

It was all unplanned. I loved living in London, the vibrancy and buzz of the city. The diversity that London offered – whether in terms of cuisine, culture or people.

But work was taking its toll. I had been a City lawyer at an international law firm for almost 20 years. And I had very little control over my life. That’s because I was expected to be in contact and respond to my clients’ needs almost 24/7. 

Planning a holiday (or even a day off) was becoming more and more difficult because of the deals I was working on. Booked holidays were postponed to meet deal deadlines. 

For example a few summers ago, I was closing a development deal that I had been working on for several years. It was all scheduled to be completed in August. My client told me I had to be available all August to ensure the deal closed to meet their timetable.

But August was pushed back to September. I had previously planned a holiday in August and had to postpone it to September. Now I had to rebook it again – this time for October. By then, my client confidently told me, I could be certain the deal would have closed.

In the event, I soon started to realise the September deadline was also unrealistic. I was told I had to make myself available for closing in October. My rebooked holiday had to be cancelled yet again.

And so it rolled on. By November I was looking at no holiday until Christmas Eve, almost eight months since my last day off.

Discovering Puglia, the home of Italian olive oil

Puglia's coast.
Beautiful Puglia is in the southeast of Italy. Unsplash

One day – and it was as quick as that – I decided that things had to change. Living to work had overtaken working to live.

But there was another part of the equation to think about. Just like me, my husband Christophe loved living in London. Unlike me, he had no desire to leave. However, he supported me, of course.

So we had to negotiate where to go. He is French, so France was out! After a few weeks we decided that we could settle on Italy. Even though I didn’t speak any Italian.

Then it was time to narrow down our search. We looked at Lazio, the region around Rome. We also attracted to Umbria, the stunning mountainous area in the center of Italy. Or somewhere by the coast – to enjoy the sun, sea and other things beginning with ‘s’. (Seafood, obviously!)

In October 2016 we went on holiday to Ostuni to see whether Puglia might be a fit.

If you imagine Italy to be stiletto boot, then the city of Ostuni and the Puglia region around it are at the heel.

Ostuni is a stunning hilltop town, crowned by a magnificent cathedral. And the countryside all around is surrounded by an incredible 60million olive trees, producing 40% of Italian olive oil.

Olive farm
Olive groves require relatively little maintenance, Scott says. Unsplash

Harvesting olives the old fashioned way

We came back with the most expensive holiday souvenir ever – a house surrounded by almost 10,000 square metres of olive grove.

We moved here in March 2017, knowing nothing about olive husbandry. I didn’t even know that black olives were ripe green olives. I had thought they were different types, or from different trees.

In our first year here we produced almost 400 litres of olive oil.

Since then, I’ve learned that less ripe olives harvested from the tree before they fall produce greener, fruitier flavoured olive oil.

In contrast, here in Puglia, people prefer the bitter, peppery oil you get if you harvest after the olives have dropped naturally.

So we harvest in the old fashioned way. We wait for our olives to drop, we sweep them up using a traditional broom which looks like a witches’ broomstick. Then we collect them by hand and bucket.

Scott Harrison with a traditional olive harvesting brush.
Scott Harrison with a traditional olive harvesting brush. Scott Harrison

Using an artisan press

We use manually-operated machinery to sort the olives from the debris before finally taking them to the local artisan press.

Because it’s a natural process, the oil we produce varies in flavour. So this year’s crop is nuttier and sweeter than last.

The olive harvest is from November to January, we harvest up to four times. And every four to six years, we prune the trees to ensure they stay healthy and give us the best crop. Well cared for olive trees can last for over a thousand years.

What is more, nothing is wasted – we use any wood we cut off for fuel.

Here in Puglia, of course, the oil is plentiful and relatively affordable. But it is highly prized outside Italy. We’ve even heard of oil from our region selling in the US for $99 for 3 litres (about 3 quarts US). 

Now, instead of worrying about innovative ways of financing new real estate development, I am interested in where to find the finest olive trees.

The stress isn’t entirely gone though. At the moment, I am worrying about the blight that is spreading north, wiping out Puglia’s olive industry.

Scott Harrison with a chainsaw and olive logs.
Maintaining the olive trees is one of the few tasks Scott has to undertake. Scott Harrison

Bringing a richer tone to LGBT+ life in Puglia

But, in fact, outside of harvest time, there’s not a lot else to do by way of tending the crop.

LGBT rights and organisations are far less developed here. Back in London, I had a diversity and inclusion management role at my firm and was a trustee for the London Gay Men’s Chorus. So I felt I had something to offer.

And that’s how I came to co-found Puglia’s first LGBT+ choir.

Ricchitoni choir in the streets.
Ricchitoni is the first LGBT+ choir in the region. Scott Harrison

We call ourselves RicchiToni, which is a kind of joke. ‘Ricchione’ is a derogatory Italian word which best translates as ‘fag’. But ‘ricchitoni’ means ‘rich tones’, in the sense of a nice sound. So we took the insult and reclaimed it.

Getting the choir going wasn’t easy. We started from scratch and had very few resources. I knew nobody in the area when we arrived. And, remember I spoke no Italian at the time – even now I only just get by.

So it’s true that I cried the first time we tasted our olive oil produced from our land. But I am even prouder of having started RicchiToni.

To help raise awareness of LGBT issues in Italy, I started the The Big Gay Podcast from Puglia. Along with the Instagram I use to support it and an online guide to LGBT+ life here, it allows me to share my passion for Puglia.

The Ricchitoni choir group shot.
The Ricchitoni Choir in fine voice. Scott Harrison

Overall, the stress of London life has gone.

However, I get up even earlier now than I did when I was a lawyer. Admittedly, in the summer, that’s to get to the beach before the crowds arrive.

But I also have to tend to the land and our other harvests – apricots, figs, lemons, pomegranates and almonds. We even make our own limoncello.

Now I can say I’ve made the transition from city lawyer to proud contadino (peasant farmer). Life may be simpler, more rustic and less material, but boy am I happier. Especially in summer, with a dirty martini in hand, by the pool.