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Puglia's subterranean olive presses

FRANTOI AND TRAPPETI IPOGEI

Villas in Salento >>

Wandering around the towns and villages of Salento in southern Puglia, it's difficult not to be impressed by the baroque brilliance, the intricate artistry and the honey-golden hue of the area's palazzi and churches, or, indeed, by the impressive stature of its handsome masserie

Salento's architectural individuality was borne not only of the inspired creative vision and superior artisanship of those who designed and crafted the area's wonderful masterpieces, but also from the very materials employed in their creation: pietra leccese, a malleable, eminently sculptable calcareous limestone found only in the Lecce area of Salento, and carparo, a versatile, hard-wearing form of calcareous tuff.

Pietra leccese and carparo weren’t only used for the construction of splendid churches, aristocratic palazzi and masserie, however, but also for Salento's numerous frantoi and trappeti ipogei, subterranean olive presses excavated under houses, shops and even town squares.

Frantoio ipogei are as much a part of Puglia's architectural heritage as trulli, masserie and the baroque marvels of Lecce.

Some frantoi ipogei date back to at least Roman times, when the local Messapic tribes built underground storerooms to house their grain supplies. With the advent of the Byzantines in the 9th century AD, Salento’s wheat fields made way for vast plantations of olive trees. As a consequence of this agricultural revolution, from around the 11th century a great many of the pre-existing subterranean grain stores (and even church crypts) were transformed into olive presses and equipped with large storage tanks. Many more were built ex novo right up until the 18th century.

The advantages of frantoi ipogei were considerable. First, while a great many families had their own olive grove, most did not have enough land, nor the financial means, to build a press room. Even had they been able to do so, their precious liquid assets – olive oil was one of life’s fundamentals, used for cooking, heating and lighting - could not be left unattended in the countryside. Having a place to make and store olive oil right under their own homes, then, was the perfect solution. (The obvious exceptions to this rule were the wealthy landowners, who built themselves fortified masserie to protect and better manage their agricultural activities in situ.)

The second main advantage of frantoi ipogei regarded the conservation of the olive oil, which quickly deteriorates if stored in extreme heat or bright sunlight. Frantoi ipogei, which were usually between 2m and 5m below ground level, provided the ideal conditions for preserving olive oil for the whole year.

Frantoio ipogei are as much a part of Puglia’s architectural heritage as trulli, masserie and the baroque marvels of Lecce. While we may have an inkling as to how important olive oil has been to the Puglians over the centuries – those millions of olive trees give us a clue – its real value can only be fully understood by visiting a frantoio ipogeo. Fortunately, a great many have been restored and opened up to the public, with some of the most interesting to be found in Castri di Lecce, Gallipoli, Galatina, Melpignano, Presicce and Specchia.

Villas in Salento >>

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