We came to the land of olive oil, the place where the landscape is coloured with dusty greens and smoky blues, the place where the sun lingers just a little bit longer and rosemary and sage seem to grow as easily as grass: Tuscany.
For the month Darcy and I volunteered at Le Serre the olive trees became our home, our work and our food. We arrived towards the end of the olive harvest in mid-November. I had always associated olives with summer: all those lazy anti pasto platters and fresh salads drizzled with oil. However, olives herald the beginning of the winter season just as much as pumpkins, pears and chestnuts. In Tuscany, by the time the olives are harvested, pressed and the oil bottled it is time to light the fire and celebrate Christmas.
Enrico and Luisiana moved to the farm back in 1989, escaping city life in Milan for the fragrant and fertile rolling hills of Tuscany. They traded their city bar “Entropia” for the hazy olive trees of Le Serre. Every year since then they have harvested the olives of 1000 trees and then pruned and fertilised the whole grove in early spring. Recently they expanded their brood with an additional 500 trees.
The oil is organic and is also nationally recognised as authentic Toscana olive oil with the “Indicazione Geographica Protetta” stamp of approval. Each year they must send a sample of the oil to the authorities who test the acidity levels and then approve it to be labelled in this way.
When the olives are first pressed the oil is so vibrant and green like a living organism with an energy and personality of its own. And it’s true, the oil tastes alive; it is fruity and peppery and the flavour evolves as it lingers in your mouth.
Let’s talk ‘virgin’. What does it really mean for olive oil to be virgin, extra virgin or not virgin at all? Well Enrico summed it up quite well, “the only olive oil is Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil. Everything else is rubbish”. In fact he went on to say “industrially produced oil from Spain tastes like the pee-pee of the cat”. And I suppose he’s right. Maybe it doesn’t taste as bad as cat pee, but when you taste the real extra virgin oil you realise ‘regular’ stuff just tastes like nothing.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil is made with the first press of the olives, hence like a virgin, they are touched for the very first time. It also means they are not treated with any chemicals, heated or in any way adulterated in the pressing process. During this process they are de-leafed, cleaned, crushed and then sent through a centrifuge which expels all moisture. The moisture is primarily made up of two substances: oil and juice. This mixture then undergoes a separation process where you end up with bright green olive oil.
If you go outside to the back of the oil press you will see a big skip bin into which all the pulp gets pumped. Larger companies may buy these leftovers from the press and then press it another couple of times. I know this might sound very savvy and a clever use of resources but there are a few issues:
1. Like wine, olive oil has a region, a particular flavour, its own story. All of this is lost when you are combining loads of different scraps. Furthermore, most of this flavour goes in the first press anyway.
2. All the nutrients that olive oil provides go into that first press. (Check out this information on all the benefits of Extra Virgin Olive Oil)
3. Most of the companies using the leftovers need to use solvents and chemicals to extract as much oil from subsequent presses.
‘Virgin’ oil is also the first press of olives, however, it is usually from inferior olives which results in a very high level of acidity. This means that the oil isn’t as good and usually the company has had to use chemical processes to improve the flavour and change the acidity levels.
In Australia, large olive oil companies have some other clever ways of confusing consumers. For instance oil that is labelled ‘light’ or ‘extra light’ or ‘pure’ actually does not have less calories than other olive oil. It has been recognised by Australia’s code of practice that these terms simply mean ‘refined oil’, as in oil that has been treated or changed.
So how do Italians use their precious Olio Oliva? Well Enrico gave us fairly specific instructions every time we sat down to eat. If Risotto Milanese was put before us he would say “pepper, parmigiano, olio oliva”, if it was Penne Pomadora “parmigiano, olio oliva”, if he made some toast “alio, oregano, salt, olio oliva”. The whole family would then lavishly drizzle the oil over their entire meal before digging in. If Americans like to pour syrup over everything then Italians like to pour olive oil over everything. I know which I’d prefer.
Enrico and Luisiana don’t fry and cook with this liquid gold. They use cheaper organic sunflower oil for that. Instead they savour the complex flavours of fresh, raw oil. This is the best way to eat it anyway, you get all the flavour, nutrients and it’s much easier for your body to digest.
So the next time you make pasta, get the olive oil on the table and get into it! PV