Whilst the rest of the world is dreaming of a white Christmas (could this year be the year?), the Italians are looking to the heavens for other reasons. Since the beginning of November, the Olive harvest has been in full swing. All over the countryside, olive trees are displaying signs of their own take on the traditional Christmas bouboule. Some black, some green, some small and some large; all are being watched as they grow heavy with oil. Pregnant with promise, these seemingly insignificant fruit are the jewels in the crown of Italian culture.
Olive oil in Italy is like bread and butter to the western world. An Italian family will get through litres of the stuff every month. No Italian table is complete without a bottle of olive oil taking centre stage. The demand is so high that whilst the Italians produce 20% of the world’s olive oil, they also consume an impressive 28% of it. Whilst the rest of the Western world might use it as a base for frying or dressing salads, the Italians will drizzle it on soups, pasta, rice, fish, meat and vegetables. In the same way that the British are partial to dipping biscuits in tea and the Americans for ‘dunkin doughnuts’ (now branded such), the Italians would rather douse their bread with oil.
For the Tuscans, it is especially important. Considered to be their most treasured asset, the oil produced in this region continues to be un-paralleled in both Italy and the rest of the world. From late October-January, the Tuscan landscape remains under a veil of olive nets. In direct contradiction to the Italian’s dislike of planning-ahead, families gather together to ensure that every olive is taken care of. Nets are painstakingly sewn together and laid over a landscape that rolls up and down like a turbulent sea. Steep, rocky paths are climbed by i nonni and bambini alike as each generation plays its part to prevent any olives ‘slipping through the net’. For foreigners/city dwellers unused to the annual routine of the olive harvest, it is a rare opportunity to witness family members working harmoniously together. Requiring much patience, it is a quiet process that demands concentration. Radios don’t blare out music, phones don’t ring and even conversation is muted. Each generation focuses on the task in hand: to collect as many olives as possible during the daylight hours.
In much the same way that the harvest breaches the generation gap, it also remains classless. Most frantolios, olive presses, require a minimum of 250 kilos of olives for a single pressing which allows for families with few trees to line their store cupboards for the year. For those who can’t make up the minimum weight, there remains the option to contribute produce to the communal pot and partake in a collective pressing. In Italy, no olive is left out in the cold and this applies to the people collecting them. Prices are reasonable, approximately 80 euros for a pressing, and nets, baskets and sticks used year after year. Olive harvesting is such a collective passion for the Italians that first-timers will usually be able to loan the basics from enthusiastic neighbours, only too keen to impart their knowledge. However, virgin olive pickers be warned, whilst enthusiasm is welcomed by the Italians a piano piano approach is required. Always ask questions and pay heed to advice when it’s given. Grown Italian men are prone to cry over the misuse of olive trees – even when not their own.
Whilst the dream of ‘pick-your-own’ might be appealing to some, in today’s fast paced world, time (or lack of it) can prove too costly. For those who want to enjoy their olive oil without the forethought, the market place can prove hard to navigate. Supermarkets are saturated with olive oil, following the media attention from celebrity chefs and it’s all too easy to pay for this liquid gold without actually getting it. Often olive oil can be blended and bottled in Italy and then labelled Italian when the olives themselves have actually come from Spain, Tunisia, Turkey or Greece. The same can be said of Tuscan olive oil. The name holds such weight that producers want the region on the bottle. However, in many cases it’s only the latter stages of the processing that take place in Tuscany.
To ensure ‘liquid gold standard’, observe the label carefully. The best olive oil is classified as ‘extra virgin’, which requires the acidity to be below 2%. The very best Tuscan extra virgin olive oils have acidity of less than 0.01%. These superior oils will always be cold-pressed within the first 48 hours, better still 24 hours. As heat alters the property of the oil, cold-pressing is required to retain its purity. If presented with the opportunity to taste the oil, take it. Generally Tuscan oils will have a peppery finish. The most classic of them have a green flavour, often described akin to Sauvignon Blanc with notes of green apple, artichoke and fresh grass. Other oils tend to be rounder and nuttier. The olio nuovo garnered from the initial pressing is notably green and cloudy. Whilst slightly bitter, the majority of Italians consider it to be of the most premium quality. This oil will retain its unique flavour for two-three months before mellowing out. However, oil can also last up to two years if kept well-sealed and stored in wine cellar conditions.
Whilst good olive oil doesn’t require a recipe to compliment it, bread is as good as any other accompaniment; the current season presents the perfect opportunity to enjoy both artichokes and oil at their best. So after sampling the new oil in the traditional Italian way with toasted bruschetta (pronounced brus-kett-a and not bru-shett-a!), enjoy the combination of finely cut artichoke hearts crudo drizzled with oil, lemon and pepper.