I realize it has taken far too long to return to finish the Part 2 information on olive oil, but there have been good reasons. Mostly my traveling back from Italy (bringing along Mauro Berardi’s spices, porcini and all that wonderful Olio Nuovo from Farfa). Then the holidays seem to move in more quickly every year. Or, perhaps it is that I am slowing down somewhat? Nope, that cannot be.
Looking back, it seems unbelievable that I am renewing my EU passport already. While my husband and I managed to spend time in Italy (He mentored young film technicians for Technicolor Rome years ago) before we decided to move there for a couple years on his retirement. After our return it was just too painful to think about not being able to frequently return to Italy (and especially visiting all our friends there), so Expressly Italian was born. While I regret not beginning Expressly Italian’s journey much earlier, my life as an art dealer/ consultant was fulfilling and good preparation for Expressly Italian.
Our View in Belevedere di Riaino
While in Italy we were living outside Rome (about 9 miles north of the center) in the country and made great efforts to see as much of the country as we could. We traveled mostly throughout Tuscany and Umbria and I asked questions always. I shopped every street market in every village because I was fascinated to find how different each was in personality as well as goods. I learned to ask lots of questions even when you think you understand what you are being told. There is not an Italian who is not very happy to have a conversation about food at any time, and if you express any interest they will tell you how their mother prepared their favorite dish, which week is the best to buy whatever product is in season and who is best vendor to buy from.
Living in Lazio I had the chance to watch the seasons change with pruning, cleaning, harvesting and of course, tasting. Tasting is an art. To properly taste olive oil (which many of the frantoio insist you do); first you put a little in the bottom of the glass (the glass is blue so you don’t get swayed by the color the oil, which doesn’t really indicate quality, but more about the variety of olives used). You hold the glass in your palm (to warm it a little and bring out the flavor more), while covering it with the other hand. Hold it and swirl it for a moment or two. This traps the aroma in the glass. The aroma is a very important part of the oil. Now take a good whiff. Do you smell grass, artichokes, berries, cinnamon or olives? The word “fruity” in the context of olive oil can refer to vegetable notes, like green olive fruit, as well as ripe fruit notes. So think of artichokes, grass and herbs as “fruit” when you taste olive oil. I still haven’t found those little blueglasses they officially use in the tastings, but one day I will.
Now, take a sip of the oil (a decent size sip). You want enough to swirl around your mouth. Think of the way they taste wine. It’s the same. Suck air through the oil to coax more aromas out of it, and then—this is important—close your mouth and breathe out through your nose. This “retronasal” perception will give you a whole bunch of other flavor notes. Retronasal perception is possible because your mouth connects to your nose in the back. Now swallow some, or all of the oil. Think about the after-taste, the pungency of the oil as it goes down your throat. This peppery sensation is what gives great olive oil it’s little after-kick. It’s a pretty addictive impact that can be quite quiet or enough to make you cough. Everyone has their own preferences.
After you’ve done all this, then you should taste the oil with food. Usually just a piece of bread is enough to tell you if this oil is for you. Or potatoes, some mild food that will complement the oil, but still allow you to experience it. So, now you know the ins and outs of tasting and can taste oil with any aficionado with confidence.
The Sabine hills are about 50 minutes from Rome, and have been producing olive oil for more than 2,500 years. In fact, in Fara Sabina there is a tree called Ulivone Canneto which has been carbon dated to more than 2,000 years old that still produces enough olives to make about 150 kilo of olive oil a year today! This tree made olive oil for the Romans, to Byzantines and modern-day Italians.
An archaeological discovery of the small flask of Poggio Sommavilla traced back to the seventh century BC is preserved in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and is the oldest example of writings from pre-Roman times. It is a testimony of the olive culture of this area because in it are the remains of olive oil.
Claudius Galen (129 AD – 216 AD), the father of modern pharmacopoeia, called oil of Sabina “the world’s best known.” And, although Sabina oil is not as universally known today, it is revered by those who have tasted it and experienced its quality.
Sabina is slightly cooler than Tuscany and the hills make it ideal for cultivation of olives. The trees here are some of the largest in Europe and the distinct delicate flavor may be created by the warm winds whipping in directly from the south. There are various strains including Carboncella, Pendolfino, Moraiolo and Rosciola. All are a golden yellow/green and harvested just before turning brown.
Sabina has a consortium of small growers and cooperatives, but my personal preference and practice is to purchase the oil directly from the frantoio of the grower. Rosario presses his own olives from his own groves. He also contributes to the consortium, but I love knowing exactly what I am getting and feeling like I can watch the olives be delivered and watch them be pressed and put into the lattine (tins). It is really exciting and moves really quickly. Sabina DOP is available in many places, but I love knowing exactly how and when the oil is processed and how it is handled. The drive to Farfa is beautiful and serene, although I have to admit I always seem to get lost in the hills on the way there. I am confident that what I offer is as fresh, and high in antioxidants and flavor as possible.
Some of the characteristics of Sabina DOP oil are: Color: yellow gold with nuances of green, Perfume: fruity, notes of fresh herbs and artichoke; Flavor: velvety, aromatic, peppery finish.
This map is from Eataly.
Each region, even village has different types of olives grown, so the oils are different. In Italy there are 350 different cultivars of olives grown. When you travel in Italy try to taste as many types as you can to give you an idea of which varieties you prefer which may give you an idea of what oils you might like. And, taste oils as often as possible. During harvest times there are often tastings available as well as sagre (festivals) for olive oils which are wonderful opportunities to try different oils.
I hope this explains a little more of my fascination with Italian olive oils, and Sabina olive oil in particular. It is so full of antioxidants, great taste and bright flavor, add a little zip to your life by drizzling it on everything you can.