The Museum of the Olive - Imperia, Liguria

Visiting the Museum of the Olive, A Top Ligurian Attraction  

Not just for Children or Tourists or Rainy Days, This Imperia Stop is a Treat. 

Museum of the Olive displays of early private label olive oil containers
The Museum of the Olive displays many examples of early private label olive oil containers. No stereotypes here! 
In Imperia, Italy, along the Riviera dei Fiori, there’s a nifty Museo dell'Olivo dedicated to olives, and it is guaranteed to show-and-tell you things you did not know about olives –  fascinating things. The museum was created by the Carli family. Their family business -Fratelli Carli - is olive oil, and they've been doing it since the early 1900's. It all started because one year they had a real bumper crop, more than they could use, and they tried to sell it. All their neighbors, however, also had bumper crops, so one of the brothers hopped on his motor bike and started selling the oil in Piedmont, beyond the coastal mountains, and the rest is oily history. You may not know the Carli name, since they sell mostly “to the trade” to ensure that their oil will always be used fresh. For decades the family had collected olive related objects, and in 1992, the museum was born. What's more, there's also an excellent company store & lunch counter, an optional olive mill tour, and an optional tour of the office/production facility.

Early branding: Italian girl with 5 gallons of olive oil.
Early branding: typical ragazza with 20 liters of olive oil.
The museum traces the history of olive trees and olive oil, uses of olive oil, and the olive oil trade. How the trees are grown, the oil pressed, filtered, stored, transported, served, and etc. You start out thinking this sounds dry, but, darn if you will not end up a devotee.

A small sample of things we learned:
  • There were olive trees in existence 12 million years ago. The seeds, and so probably the fruit, were much smaller than those of modern olive trees, but a fossilized olive tree trunk is still identifiable as an olive tree.
  • Some of the early uses of olive oil were surprising – rather than cooking with the oil or using it on food, the oil was used as a medicine, as a unguent for athletes, a medium for fragrances and cosmetics, and for flaunting wealth by displaying it in beautiful early glass vessels.
  • When Ligurians began to cultivate olive trees, their land had the right soil and weather, but there simply wasn’t enough room to grow a lot of trees. Workers terraced the land all the way from the sea to the mountains to create level fields, hauling rocks for walls and filling the terraces with soil. They built over 220,000 km of dry stone walls – that's 136,000 miles - more than 5 times around the earth.
Early fish serving dish with olive oil well for dipping.
Early Etruscan fish serving dish with olive oil dipping well.
  • Genoa was long  the queen city of olives, thanks to Ligurian enterprise, and it set the standard. There is a white stone measure in the museum with a hollowed out center, which holds a precisely defined ¼ of a barrel. Precise was crucial, because olive oil was literally used as money.
  • After the olives have been pressed, the remainder has value, too. Olive pits were an important and clean source of heat, and were burned in copper braziers and stoves.
In addition to this type of information, there are anecdotes about the production of the oil, and the confiscation of olive oil during the war. A display of metal cans used to export olive oil around the world is a study of lithography, geography, and marketing (or stereotyping) all at once. There's also a re-creation of an old frantoio (olive mill) complete with hokey contadino and horse dummies. The museum offers an optional audio guide in a number of languages (get one), and it took us a little over an hour to go through the whole museum.

Ancient glass containers for olive oil
Ancient glass containers for olive oil. The cruets of 18th C. nobility follow.
When we were finished, we had also arranged for the free English tour of the company facilities across the street, with the excellent bilingual guide Michela Gavi. You can arrange the tour by simply asking for it in advance. The offices are busy, the historical artifacts along the tour interesting, and of course the production line is great. You'll see the bottles stream steadily along to be cleaned and filled and weighed and sealed and inspected and boxed and readied for shipping.

At the end, one more treat – the Fratelli Carli store and lunch counter. The company has expanded into gourmet food products and cosmetics over the decades and all are available here. The store is a treat because you can taste every food product. There are crackers or bread to put the artichoke spread, pesto, or olive oil mayonnaise on; there are tiny little cups that you can use to taste the oil straight up; there are cookies, jellies, and of course olives. The lunch counter is fun, too. It is best to reserve ahead because it's a good value, and they have a small menu. A complete lunch with antipasto, primo, and little dessert is 15€, but you can have just an antipasto if you like.

Ligurian tourist shoping in Fratelli Carli store
Discriminating shopper in the excellent Fratelli Carli store.

Olive Mill: Visitors to the Museum may also visit the modern Carli Olive Mill by appointment. The mill is adjacent to the Museum and is in operation during the Olive Harvest season (normally between December and March).

Parking Note: While visiting the Museum, you can park across the street at the Fratelli Carli store and factory lot.

Fratelli Carli olive oil
Fratelli Carli olive oil. Is a big family producer an oliogarch?

Museo dell'Olivo
Via Garessio, 13   (Oneglia)   Imperia   Link: Museum of the Olive
Tel : 39 0183 295762

Museo dell’Olivo opening hours:
Mon. to Sat.: 9 am – 12.30 pm and 3 pm – 6.30 pm   Closed Sundays.

Admission tickets:
5€ full fare, 10€ family fare  (2015)
2.50€ children, students and 65+.
Audio (Italian, English, French, German): 4€

Written by Martha