Every November throughout the Tuscan countryside, you'll see people spreading nets under the olive trees and climbing up into them to strip away the ripe olives with hand rakes.
And they will be delighted to be doing so, because last year there was no harvest! No new oil! A disaster! As mentioned in a recent New York Times article, “Last year’s harvest was severely damaged by extreme heat, torrential rains and hailstorms, as well as a devastating fruit fly infestation. But even worse, a few regions to the south, in Puglia, olive trees have suffered a catastrophic bacterial infection that has wiped out at least one million trees. It’s been a disastrous year. Some experts predict many olive farms will go out of business; others foresee skyrocketing prices. One thing is clear: We can’t take olive oil for granted.”
And in Italy, olive oil is a way of life! It is served at every meal and when it is Olio Nuovo (new oil), it is cherished. We have just harvested our olives at Podere Erica and although it was not an abundant crop, it looks fantastic. Here it is coming directly from the press. Green goodness!
Here are our olives loaded up for the trip to the frantoio for pressing. This mixture of ripe (black) and unripe (green) olives were immediately taken to our local frantoio, or olive press. This is done at room temperature. The olives are never heated. There are no chemical treatments of any kind. Otherwise the oil won't be extra virgin.
Tuscan olive oil is considered the prince of olive oil (especially by the Tuscans!). It has a grassy, sometimes peppery taste that is quite addictive. Harvesting the olives while most are still green contributes to this spicy taste. Don’t worry if the oil is opaque, because olio nuovo usually is, and expect there to be some sediment.
What to do with olive oil, other than dress a salad?
The simplest thing is “fettunta." You will need a loaf of Italian bread, slice it, toast or grill it, and rub it with a peeled slice of garlic. Then drizzle it with your “new olive oil”, season with salt, and serve. Paired with a glass of Chianti, you’ve got a great appetizer. Even better, top with white cannellini beans that have been simmered with sage and rosemary.
Check out our recipe for Crostini con Fagioli.
In addition, Italians drizzle it over hearty soups, especially minestrone, pasta e fagioli or ribollita or wherever the flavor of the oil complements the dish. During the summer, they drizzle it over pappa al pomodoro or to season pinzimonio (a platter of mixed raw vegetables).
How to preserve your golden goodness:
Don't expose it to light or heat
Don't keep it in a clear glass bottle
Don't keep it in a half-empty bottle
Do keep it cool
Do keep it in the dark
Do keep it in a dark bottle
Do decant a large bottle into smaller ones and use them one at a time
In the News today
I was shocked to read today about a scandal in the Italian olive oil industry. Written in the British newspaper, the Telegraph, they announced this week that of 20 brands tested in the laboratory by specialists from the Italian customs agency, nine were found to be lower quality oil, even going so far as to add green food coloring to achieve the appropriate green color of extra virgin olive oil. The producers caught up in the investigation include big names such as Bertolli.
So, buyer beware. It is best to buy from small producers who are proud of their olive oil. It may be more expensive, but you know that it is the real thing!
Would you like to Take an Olive Harvest Tour in Italy? Every November a friend of ours organizes a great tour in Tuscany. Based at our Podere Erica, he offers a hands-on harvesting experience with a trip to the frantoio as well as great cooking classes and tours of the area. In the past, his tour has included a cooking class, wine tasting and dinner at Antinori’s famous Osteria di Passignano, pizza making class, wine tastings, tours of Volterra, San Gimignano, Siena, Florence and Montalcino. Contact David at a Cooks Tour for more information.