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E + 19 : Ingenuity of Ancient Refrigeration

With the Scirocco pushing us north, we made such good progress that we have a day off in Otranto. Thought we would need a full day for cruising against the prevailing north wind. But we are already here.

The Mule powered Wheels which crushed the Olives before pressing


Given this fortunate development, wonder what are we going to do with a free day when temperature will reach 40 Celsius in the shade. Definitely not staying in the harbour but sailing to a beach. Swimming and canoeing alone though make a dull day.


After some discussions we thought that visiting an olive farm and a vineyard would be a good idea – there is shadow in the gardens and we could enjoy a good lunch. The farm we visited had an unexpected surprise for us. It sat on a cave where olive oil was pressed for hundreds of years and we learnt how people in ancient Apulia kept their food fresh in the soaring summer heat. Olive oil spoils when exposed for too long to heat and light – you can try it yourself at home – it becomes inedible after 14 days. Olive oil has to be prepared and stored in the cool and dark place - an underground cave is ideal.

Entrance to the underground cave


When we entered the ancient cave, we immediately noticed the temperature difference. Just 5 meters below ground, it dropped to a comfortable 18 degrees. It was a bit humid though. The cave was carved into the soft limestone – as was the one we visited in Gallipoli three days ago. The beautifully cut limestone blocks were used for building the wide ceiling arches. The place was spacious and comfortable – for our eyes. Less so probably for the dozen of young men who lived down here for months with their mules needed to power the wheels for crushing the olive. Must have been a smelly place. We asked the owner how old the cave was but she did not know. It was in use in the 14th century but may be much older.

The modern wine cellar built next door in 2015


Next to the ancient cave the owner built a new one to store her wines barrels and bottles. The temperature was ideal for the ageing progress. The vinery is not large. It produces only 50’000 bottles per year. A crisp and fresh White called Kyra made with Greek Malvasia Grapes, a well-rounded Rosé called Massaro Rosa and a deep, strong Red named Jèma, both made from the Primitivo grape. We tasted all and merrily left with 12 bottles.

A Model of the Snow Storage Cave in Matera - and me taking a photo of it! Ha!


The visit reminded me of our trip to Matera where we learnt how people stored snow in natural lime stone caves. They shoveled it through a small hole at the top into the cave. There, it was preserved in 20 cm layers, every layer separated by straw. The weight of the top layers squeezed the snow further down into ice which lasted for the entire summer and was used to keep perishable food fresh. Of course, the nobles were only people who could afford it. The rest had to do sweat. Until mass production of refrigerators after World War II gave access to cold storage to everybody, being able to buy ice was a sign of wealth. So were the fruits, the fresh milk, the butter or meat. Ordinary people like my grandparents ate stews, soup and bread – and more stews, soup and bread. Every day.

An old Persian Yakhchal - they could cool the air to freezing using condensation technology


The technology to keep ice during the hottest times of the year was well knows since antiquity. In Persia, there are still old structures dating back to 400 BC, the Yakhchal, which use water condensation and the related loss of energy to cool temperatures down. The best ones were even able to produce ice during the summer but people did not know how to remove the dust from it thus preferred the ice they cut in the winter in the surrounding mountains. But it is amazing what cool technologies our ancestors had – and how little we know about. Maybe it is time to recover some of them. They are extremely energy efficient.

Having learnt so many new things we returned to the AFAET, moved her to the north of Otranto to a beautiful spot with limestone cliffs and tested the hypothesis that taking a swim in the ocean also cools you down. The hypothesis was confirmed.

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