It was the olive harvest of November 2004 that set me on the path to creating Sapori e Saperi Adventures and organising my special type of slow travel tours. Ten years on there will be very little olive oil from Lucca. To find out about the Tuscan olive oil disaster, please read my blog on the Slow Travel Tours website, a group of independent tour organisers like me.
The 2014 Slow Food guide to the extra-virgin olive oils of Italy is out. Since the 2013 harvest 130 Slow Food collaborators have been working hard to assess more than 700 farms and over 1000 different oils. Like wine, some vintages of olive oil are better than others: 2012 was a great year for Lucca oil, but 2013 was particularly difficult, producing less characterful oils. Nevertheless, the guide recommends nine oils from Lucca Province.
To read more about olives and olive oil, please go to my blog on the Slow Travel Tours website: http://slowtraveltours.com/blog/extra-virgin-lucca/
Oxidation isn’t usually a hot topic of conversation. When my 1968 MGB GT was rusting away, I discussed it at length with the vintage car body shop, and I submerge peeled potatoes in water to prevent them going brown, but dinner parties don’t usually include riveting exchanges about the interaction between oxygen molecules and the substances they contact. In the olive grove, however, oxidation is the dragon that would ravish the extra-virgin oil, filing it with free radicals and a rancid flavour. Everyone talks about it.
Picking olives and pressing the oil has been a popular activity for many of my clients this autumn, and for our hosts Augusto Orsi and his son Claudio of ‘Alle Camelie’ avoiding the evils of oxidation is what determines the way they pick and press the olives. Their estate abuts the olive terraces of some neighbours who conduct the olive harvest in the old way. Augusto points to nets spread on the ground under the trees to catch the olives that drop during the weeks before they begin their harvest. He shudders slightly as he explains, ‘The moment an olive is detached from its branch, it begins to oxidise. It needs to get from the tree to the bottle really fast. We put our nets down under a few trees, pick the olives, move the nets along to the next trees, pick the olives, etc. Hard work, but the flavour of the oil makes it worthwhile.’ When his neighbours do begin to pick their olives, they beat them off the trees with bamboo poles thus bruising the olives and sometimes breaking the skin, allowing the fruit to oxidise even more quickly. Augusto, Claudio and their four farm labourers pull each olive off by hand. We help pick from the ground, but the other harvesters are often at the top of a ladder propped against the tree or standing on one of the thick branches to reach the olives at the top. Augusto would probably say, ‘Time consuming, but the flavour of the oil makes it worthwhile’.
The harvested olives should be pressed as soon as they are picked. Some estates invest in a small, though expensive, olive press and press olives on the day they’re picked. Augusto takes his to a co-operative modern frantoio every other day, but is thinking about buying his own. Pressing the olives at a traditional frantoio is tantamount to delivering the maiden to the dragon’s den, where the huge picturesque grindstone rolls round and round crushing the olives in a huge open basin (above left) — 45 minutes of exposure to oxygen. Then the paste is smeared onto woven mats, stacked on a spindle and pressed to squeeze out the oil. Old dry, oxidised paste sticks in the crevices of the mats and oil runs out around the edges exposed to the air. In a modern continuous-method frantoio, the grinding takes only a few minutes in a closed container (above right), and the paste is pumped into a closed vat where it is heated very gently to release the oil which runs into a stainless steel container with a well-fitting lid. Take a deep breath filled with oxygen, and taste the oil from ‘Alle Camelie’. The magnificent flavour certainly justifies the care they take to avoid oxidation.
I’m sitting round Franca’s kitchen table, already populated by her husband Peppe, their married son Marco, and Carlo, a builder and work colleague of Peppe’s. Carlo, always jolly and looking well-fed, observes with a sly smile that you can buy ‘extra-virgin olive oil’ in the supermarket for €1,80 a litre. He pauses for dramatic effect, and Franca, taking the bait, says she pays €8; she looks uncertain about admitting she may have been cheated. Carlo immediately supports her. ‘Of course it’s not extra-virgin. How could anyone produce extra-virgin olive oil at that price? You can’t believe it just because it’s written on a label. The cheap stuff is made from the remains of the first cold pressing by adding chemicals and heating it up to extract more oil. It doesn’t have any aroma or flavour at all.’ Franca looks relieved; she buys hers from a woman who comes to the village every year with her new olive oil. She doesn’t even ask to taste it anymore, because after so many years she trusts the woman to supply oil she knows she likes. But if you want to taste oil, Carlo’s recommendation is that you toast a piece of bread and drizzle it with oil while it’s still warm, thus releasing the aroma and flavour of the oil. Franca and I favour pouring a little puddle in our palms and leaving it to warm before slurping it up while also sucking in some air. At olive oil tastings I’ve been given oil in a little plastic cup to warm in one hand with my other covering the cup to keep in the perfumes that are released by the warmth of your hand. Before smelling, you position your nose close to the cup and when you remove your hand, you’re hit by the pungent odour of crushed olive — or not, if it’s a poor oil.
Besides the synthetic oil, Carlo’s bad category includes oil that burns your tongue, which in his opinion includes Lucca oil. One of his favourites is a mellow oil from Montecatini. Here I disagree. I love the early oil pressed from olives harvested in October on the Lucca plain, peppery on the tongue and a little bitter at the back of the throat. Carlo insists, ‘The olives have to be completely ripe, black. Then the oil is sweet and mellow. The best is from Genova.’ I’ve tasted Ligurian oil and agree its delicate flavour is well suited to the fish that forms a large part of the diet in that coastal region just to the north of us. Even the Genovese basil is more delicately flavoured than our Tuscan variety, and no self-respecting LIgurian would make pesto from our hard-hitting leaves. We finally agree it’s all a matter of individual taste — ‘a ciascuno il suo’. Walking home, I reflect that my sophisticated oil-producing friends stereotype old farmers, who harvest their olives from late November onwards when they’re fully ripe, as ignorant or greedy. They’re only simple peasants who wrongly believe they’ll get more oil from riper olives and care nothing about the flavour. It never occurs to modish followers of fashion that their traditional neighbours may have just as well-developed palates, and after analysing the old and the new flavours, decide that what they’re used to is best. What do you think?
Super-highways rarely belong to the country they’re in. While racing along with cars and lorries overtaking on all sides, you could be anywhere, except for the blurred glimpses of houses or fields beyond the crash barriers. The village of Molina di Quosa tumbles like a stream down a mountain valley and spreads out on that ribbon of land squashed between the Serchio River and the hills of the Monti Pisani overlooked by the autostrada and the railway that link Lucca to Pisa. And that’s all I knew about it despite my many trips between the two cities. Now a couple of friends and I were heading there at a sedate pace on a small twisting country road for a festival based around new olive oil and chestnuts, vintage cars and Vespa scooters, with a wild mushroom exhibition thrown in for good measure. It must be a winning combination since before we even reach the village, parked cars line the verges and coming into the village itself we nose up to a queue of stationary cars held up by a policewoman to let the crowds cross the road. We abandon the car in a field that has been requisitioned as the festival car park and walk back along the main road, passing several large elegant villas skulking behind high walls and heavy iron gates. I must read that history of Pisa, in Italian, that I bought at Pisa airport in one of my fits of wanting to know everything about everything between the sea and the Garfagnana. It might explain why anyone with money and status would have wanted to live on the Serchio River bank kilometres from anywhere. The original main street of the village runs perpendicular to the road we drove in on, up the side valley. We turn up it between shops and houses on one side and, on the other, stalls selling craft jewellery, kitsch wooden carvings and honey. After a porchetta stall (we make a mental note to return for lunch), we come to the first roasting chestnuts and the first olive oil stall…
The signora tells me that her olive groves are at Montemagno, but she takes the olives to the frantoio (press) at Vicopisano which is an excellent modern press. The olives were picked yesterday and pressed and bottled early that morning in time for the festival. The owner of the olive press arrives just in time to verify both the quality of his frantoio and the timing of her pressing. She offers me a slice of bread doused with oil — these oilanteprima are the times I’ve ever seen oil poured over bread in Italy, but I notice a stack of small plastic cups and ask to taste the oil in one of them. She agrees this is the best way to taste the oil, but ‘many of us’, she circles her hand to encompass the anonymous bystanders, ‘are ignorant’. She pours a small puddle of thick green oil into the cup. I hold the cup in one palm to warm it while keeping the other hand firmly clamped over the top. After a minute or so, I put the cup to my nose and raise my hand enough to sniff up the pungent aroma. Then I slurp up some of the oil with lots of air and taste the strong heady flavour, bitter at the edges and peppery at the back of the throat. The most interesting producer for me is a young man who is offering comparative tastings of his last year’s oil and this year’s, also just pressed that morning. But these first few bottles contain oil only from the bitter leccino variety of olives, since they’re the ones at the top of his slopes and ripen earlier than the sweeter frantoio and moraiolo lower down. Last year’s bottles contain a blend of all three varieties, and have a decidedly gentler flavour, partly due to the blend and partly a result of ageing in the bottle. His azienda is organic and he’s joining forces with some other producers, including a norcino (pork butcher) to present taste workshops. He invites me to visit.
Next instalment: roast suckling pig panini and what non-foodies get out of village festivals.
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