It has been a little over two years since I decided to fund my trips to Italy by introducing more people to the true flavors of Italy, along with true Italian cooking. What a learning experience it has been. I have slowed it to two trips a year, each four to six weeks. Every trip brings new experiences and amazing finds to share with people who have not been to Italy, or those who have not visited recently. Much of what I bring no tourist would ever find. There are times when I find it difficult to track some of the things I look for!
The last trip was to locate some of the most precious of olive oils, olio nuovo. It is the “new oil”, the first extra virgin olive oil off the press each season. There are many ‘rules’ for true olio nuovo. The DOP (Denominazione d’ Origine Protetta) is a government assigned designation that assures that products are produced locally according to pretty regid requirements. The DOP olio nuovo (at least in Sabina – one of the first ever given) means that the olives have to be processed within 48 hours of picking. (no sitting in trucks). They are permitted only to wash them in water before processing and there are pretty stringent rules about the processing. All this means that if you are getting real olio nuovo, you are getting the freshest, least tampered with flavors of the olives. There is an amazing difference both in taste, and the levels of antioxidants in these oils. Few Americans ever have the opportunity to taste these oils since they are not really for export. Obviously the nature of being only the first pressing, means a limited quantity and I have found Italians are not really anxious to share these rare oils. They are rarely in stores in Italy, let alone elsewhere.
Last year, there was little olio nuovo available. The places I spoke with said there was none available for other than the growers and ‘favored’ clients. This year I was determined to bring enough back to share the experience. I started heading to Farfa, where my personal favorite oil is found. Farfa is only an hour or so from Rome in the Sabine Hills. It is a lovely area of winding roads and groves dating back as far as 2,000 years. Unfortunately, it is also an area of little reception for GPS or phones. My hour drive took almost two since the GPS kept rerouting me in circles. I finally found the frantoio (olive mill) I was looking for and arrived just as a truck load of olives arrived. It was exciting to see the process as well as taste the oil. I bought what was on hand (not much) and headed out to explore the local museum of olive oil. Then started the whole process again in Tuscany, Vetralla and Puglia. Some fantastic oil this year everywhere.
Driving throughout the areas where there are frantoi gives you a really personal attachment to the oils. Many of them are quite concerned that you know what you are buying. Lots of attention is paid to tastings. And, there are many surprising differences between these oils in different regions. Many have a strong fruity flavor with a finish of citrus, or pepper or a little green flavor. It has been a real learning experience and I wish there were an opportunity for everyone to experience these tastes. So much of my searching is word of mouth, so I depend on all my Italian friends and my expat friends living in Italy.
The last stop on every trip is the market at Campo dei Fiori and a meeting with Mauro Berardi with his Spezie Famose nel Mondo – which truly are world famous spices. It is astonishing to me how many inquiries I regularly get from all over the world about replacing spices bought at his stall. Mauro, Marco and Fabrizio are very kind to me. I get the freshest of the mixes, a few added scoops of the priciest parts of the mixes and each time more information about how to keep them fresh. A few years ago Mauro insisted they would keep two years if kept in a plastic bag in the dark. No glass, nothing else. And, they did stay fresh that long, if they were around. Through the last couple of years he has changed his mind about the best ways to keep them fresh. Currently, they will last best if kept in plastic or glass, but in the refrigerator. Certainly, the Puttanesca mix (which contains both sundried tomatoes and olives) needs to be refrigerated.
Each trip I find that the requests for his mixes grows and I have included pesto mix, bruschetta mix and bolognese to the most popular Campo dei Fiori mix, Puttanesca and Arrabbiata mixes and some others as special requests. Since Mauro cannot ship outside Italy it makes me very happy to be able to keep people in spices here.
In between the oil and spices, there is always honey from Sardegna and condiments from Calabria. And, the special requests of many clients for things I had not tried myself. Each trip is different, and exciting learning experience.
I hope that I can continue personal shopping for many years to come. I am grateful to all those who have found me and are experiencing the fun and flavors I can bring them. It is a fulfilling and fun way to get myself to Italy often.