Photo: Giovanni Carpini
Late November...it's that time of year in Italy where Italians are celebrating the olive harvest and the pressing of the fresh, new olive oil. In various regions, a sprightly, young vino novello is bottled following a snappy fermentation. The divine smell of the white truffle fills the air at local festivals. Of course the arrival of these "new" ingredients–essential to Italian daily life–provides yet another exceptional excuse for a darn good party.
Homer called olive oil "liquid gold," and in ancient Greece, Olympic athletes ritually rubbed it all over their body. Drops of it were put into the bones of dead saints and martyrs through holes in their tombs. Olive oil has been more than just food for the people of the Mediterranean: it has been medicinal, magical, an endless source of fascination and wonder, and the fountain of great wealth and power.
Olive culture has very ancient roots. Fossilized remains of the olive tree's ancestor were found near Livorno, in Tuscany, dating from twenty million years ago, although actual cultivation probably did not occur in that area until the fifth century B.C.
Photo: Giovanni Carpini
Despite harsh winters and burning summers, olive trees continue to grow, bearing fruits that nourish, heal, inspire, and amaze. Extra-virgin olive oil is produced in all regions of Italy, except for Piedmont and Val D'Aosta. The leading producers are Liguria, Tuscany, Umbria, and Apulia. Tuscany produces such a great assortment of extra virgin oils and in Umbria, it would be hard to imagine the landscape without the abundance of olive trees. Puglia is home to an impressive one-third of Italy's olive trees, and other regions like Tuscany, Liguria, and Lombardia are famous for the high quality and intense taste of their olive oil.
A Labor of Love
Twenty-five percent of the olives grown in the world are grown in Italy. As of 2004, over 350 varieties of olive trees are being cultivated throughout the country. Southern Italian olives yield far more oil than do northern ones. A tree in the south will produce about 20 liters of oil. The average oil yield per tree in Tuscany is only one liter.
Olives in Tuscany are harvested younger than they would be in the south, to avoid the frosts that would kill the olives. This gives the olives a lower oil yield, but a more assertive or as the Italians say a "spicy" flavor. Tuscan oil is deemed to be the best, perhaps owing to the peppery taste or bite that comes from the oil from Moraiolo Olives, harvested early, that is blended in. Classic blends of Tuscan olive oil use 4 olives: Frantoio, Correggiolo, Moraiolo, and Leccino.
Olive oil from Liguria and Veneto is generally the mildest of all Italian oils.
La brucatura is used in Tuscany and it means picking them by hand. This is undoubtedly the best method in terms of the quality of oil produced because neither the olives nor the ramoscelli (twigs) are damaged. The downside is that it’s very time consuming. You can speed things up by using a kind of miniature rake to comb the olives off the branches into the nets below.
La bacchiatura is a method that involves beating the branches of the tree with a bastone (stick) or canna (cane) to make all the mature olives fall off. This is a good technique to use when the trees are too large to make hand picking practical.
La scuotitura means literally ‘shaking,’ from the verb scuotere (to shake). Here, special machines are attached to the tree trunks. These machines vibrate the whole tree, causing the olives to fall into the nets. This method would only really be used by big commercial growers due to the cost of the machinery, although it’s still cheaper than hiring a labor force to pick the olives by hand.
Finally, we have la cascola naturale, which is probably the least labor-intensive method. Here, the olives are left to fall into the nets in their own good time. Obviously, this method has its attractions, but the quality of the oil produced in this way is rather poor.
Italians producing and harvesting olives from North to South all tend to have very strong opinions about their chosen methods of harvest (as they do many other subjects). There doesn't seem to be any one right or wrong way. It's all about where you are and who you talk to.
In Tuscany, and in most parts of Italy, the olives are pressed at a community mill which is called a frantoio. At the frantoio, many growers bring their olives to be pressed, but each grower is very proud of his olives and comes along with them to the mill, to be sure that only his/her harvest goes into the pressing—a centuries-old tradition still rampant in rural Tuscany.
Liquid Gold: olive oil has been the hallmark of the healthy Mediterranean Diet for over 2,500 years.
Cold is Good, Old is Not!
Cold-pressed indicates that no heat was used to extract the oil from the olives. Adding heat to the olives allows producers to extract more oil from the olives, but simultaneously destroys the delicate flavors and aromas so prized in a quality extra virgin olive oil. It should be noted that “cold pressed” means at a temperature not to exceed 80.6°F, not actually “cold.”
Age. A good bottle of extra virgin olive oil will have a “pressing” date or sell-by date (usually one year after it is pressed) on the label, so you will know the age of the product. Unlike wine, olive oil does not age well. If you store it properly, away from light and heat (never on the back of the stove!), a good bottle of olive oil will not go rancid during its time in your kitchen.
Vino Novello and White Truffles
In addition to the arrival of the new olive oil, fall is certainly an exciting time for new wine and the precious white truffle. The "new" wine or vino novello involves a process of carbonic maceration in steel tanks for 2-3 weeks at 30°C, afterwards pressed and left to ferment 4-6 days, bottled and ready to drink. Add some tasty roasted chestnuts to the scene and you've got a great combo for a chilly fall afternoon snack.
Truffle hunting is a fascinating "sport" if you wish, but it's recently become a topic of discussion in Italy as the truffle–and the traditions around truffle gathering–are in the process of becoming part of UNESCO's Intangible Cultural Heritage. The hunter, or truffle gatherer, has a special relationship to his dog, "his" woods, and other secrets. The words and gestures used to train the dogs have all been handed down from one generation to another and is fascinating to witness as we do on several of our tours including Piedmont: Barolo and Truffles.
Photo: Carol Sicbaldi
During the fall season, we find the precious tarfufo bianco (white truffle). In the winter, the black truffle and brumale (a grayish-black truffle with white veins on the inside); late winter and spring brings us the tartufo marzuolo and late summer/early fall the scorzone and uncinato.
Huge markets and festivals, like the one in San Miniato (between Florence and Pisa) or in Alba, Piedmont, are happening throughout Italy during the month of November. It's been a tough year, with a long, hot summer and drought leaving expected low production and steep prices for these little gems. Believe it or not, there's actually an on-line borse del tartufo (aka truffle stock exchange!) where you can see the daily price fluctuations of the truffle varieties and how it compares to same day/past years.
I'd place my bets on the divine tartufo bianco delicately shaved and sprinkled over a steeping hot and delicious frittata any day—no matter the price.
Additional photos courtesy of Frantoio Pruneti