Christmas

Fascinating Olive Oil Pt. 2

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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.

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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.   images
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.

Taste

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.
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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.

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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.

Olives of Italy

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.
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The Abbazia at Farfa
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.
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End of the Year Reflections

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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.

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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.20151018_091107-1 20151026_132649-1 20151031_133000-1

 

Buon Natale – Christmas in Italy

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Christmas In Italy is a magical experience everyone should enjoy at least once.

In Italy it’s always about the food, so naturally, Italians revel in the holiday season. There are many special dishes served only at this time of year. There are regional baked goods that are unique to each area, although now more are available throughout Italy and even in the United States.  Panettone seems pretty easy to find these days, although, the ones shipped here for US consumption are not nearly as tasty or varied as those available in Italy.

I especially love the holiday markets which are throughout Italy. Although some of the biggest are in the northern part of the country like Trentino-Alto Adige and Emilia Romagna. Florence, Rome and Naples are also filled with the holiday spirit. The most famous market in Rome is in Piazza Navona. There are fewer crafts people and more mass-produced items in the market than in years past, but the spirit is still contagious.  Christmas Market, Piazza Navona

There’s lots of music, singing and families enjoying the season wandering from booth to booth around the fountains. It’s magical at night to see the fountains lit and flowing amidst the crowds.

Rome’s holiday season stretches much longer than ours. Christmas eve is the traditional feast of the 7 fishes (in some parts of Italy it’s 5, 9 or more or just ‘feast of the fishes’). Many families still hold strongly to this tradition, whether it’s actually 7 dishes or less. Usually there will be some fish antipasto, then a seafood pasta and definitely baccalà and anguilla (eel) if you are in Lazio. Christmas Day is less prescribed. It’s just enjoying family and as many dishes as you can imagine. Our most enjoyable Christmas in Rome was spent with our Italian family. I think we were 24 or 25 people in all. We managed to fill the room with a few tables and everyone moved around to talk with everyone else, while more and more food was served. And, then, Santo Stefano Day, which is the 26th of December. It’s a national holiday and often families will tour the nativity scenes (presepe) in town. In the town of Putignano in the region of Apulia they celebrate with a big Carnival, which, incidentally, is the oldest in the world and has been held for 616 years.

Generally, Italians celebrate the holiday season until January 6th, the feast of the epiphany. It is also the day La Befana arrives. And, the story of La Befana is one of my favorites. Gifts arrive with La Befana (the witch) who preceded Santa Claus and possibly even Christianity in much of Italy. Especially around Rome the tradition of La Befana is still very strong. The tale of La Befana, who was an old crone who was famous for cleaning her house and working in her kitchen is this. On the first Christmas, the Magi stopped by her house, asking directions to Bethlehem. She made them dinner and they told her, “We’re going to see the Christ child, want to come along?” “Impossible,” she replied. “There’s all these dishes to wash and the kitchen to sweep!” So the kings went on their way. Then, as the old woman was sweeping, it hit her: Did I make a terrible mistake? Could they really be going to see Jesus? She ran out the door to try to catch them holding onto her broom. She kept running, until her broom lifted her off the ground and she was flying.

La Befana
La Befana
And, she’s been flying the night sky on the Eve of the Epiphany ever since. She delivers goodies to children, hoping one of them is the Christ child. She knows no child has been perfect all year, so she fills their stockings with a mix of treats – coal (actually a really delicious black rock candy) and all types of sweets. I’ve brought back flying Le Befane for many of my friends who love this tradition as much as I do.

Have a wonderful holiday season. Felice Anno Nuovo (Happy New Year)