Il Buco owner Donna Lennard will debut her olive-oil documentary, La Raccolta, at the Food Film Festival tomorrow night. The film captures the waning traditions of Umbria's olive-oil harvest, and a tasting of what Lennard calls the region's "full-flavored, herbaceous, and spicy oil" will follow. Lennard attended NYU's graduate film program, but this is her first short about food. She spoke to Grub Street's Alexandra Vallis.
Why make a documentary about olive oil?
I got interested in the harvest since we were importing our own olive oil. I had been told about the folklore through my partner [Alberto Avalle], so I decided to bring a friend with me to Umbria with a sixteen millimeter camera and check it out. [It took] three years. I financed it myself. I call Alberto the executive producer because he helped me put it together. He was my major support; let's put it that way.
Why did you focus on elderly harvesters?
The four of them had vibrant personalities, were very passionate about what they did, and they each had their own story, their own style.
Will the younger generation carry on the tradition?
The younger people who are harvesting are immigrants. Albanians and Russians, and maybe it'll be Chinese in the future.
What do you hope to achieve with this film?
I think it's so easy to lose track of the way things are made in a really organic way, a biodynamic way. Many of us have lost track of the roots — the basic sustainable ways of feeding ourselves — and I think this is one tradition that lives on and continues. That's at the front of my mind always: sourcing products and materials that are sustainable, whether it's our meat being produced upstate or buying vegetables that are grown sustainable or biodynamically. It's not so difficult to find if you look.
Does the label tell you if you're buying hand-harvested olive oil?
Sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn't. Olio Verde from Sicily is. There are a number of good oils from Tuscany, from Puglia, but you really need to do research and read up.
What are your next projects?
A new little wine-bar project in San Francisco. Our three products that we import are salt, oil, and vinegar. So I'll probably do a short on salt and one on vinegar production. The salt comes from Trapani, Italy. The vinegar comes from a little village outside Modena.