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Italy travel

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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I Hope You Become as Fascinated As I With Oil pt 1

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I realize that I’ve written about olive oil before, but as I spend more time in Italy and have more opportunity to talk with producers, growers and cooks as well as tasting  more oils, the more fascinated I become with all the details about olive oil. The history, the benefits and the lies, as well as the rationale and need for DOPs.

The DOP is the designation the Italian national government has taken to ensure that all traditional products are held to a strict standard for quality, excellence and originality)   D.O.P – Denominazione di Origine Protetta.  In particular this applies to Extra Virgin Olive Oil and signifies that the oil has passed all the government tests for quality and acidity levels (extra virgin olive oils must be no more than 0.8% in free acidity and be cold pressed.  The lower the acidity, the better since it provides better health benefits, among the many reasons.

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These days we find that it is difficult to trust much of anything we hear or read about our food.  We are “sold” on health foods on the internet without much documentation, we are in farmer’s markets buying food that has been brought by people who have never been to a farm and have no idea what has been put on the food they are selling.  It is difficult to buy almost anything with much confidence that the label is truthful, the information accurate and the pricing fair.  That is one of the reasons I have spent so much energy and time asking questions, talking to growers and finding people and resources that I can confidently believe and relay what they say to you.  These are small purveyors not exporting, not supplying distributors, just growers or consortiums.  People I trust.

If you get bored or find this information too tedious I understand.   Skim, or just look at the photos.  It will be too much information for many, but it is here for those, like me, who want all the details.  Now, for a little more on olive oil.  Actually there will be a lot more.  This is just part 1.

The olive harvest starts with the Raccolta. — the harvest of olives from the trees.  They use  a giant-size plastic comb, or more often a mechanical mop top broom that kind of whirls around.   You grab the branch, pull down and comb. The olives fall out like knots from your hair and the leaves remain.

The nets lie around the trees on the ground to catch and hold the olives that are combed from the branches.  Once finished, the olives are carefully collected from the nets and poured into the cestini (baskets).  As the baskets are filled they are taken to the frantoio (olive press).   Each region has it’s own rules for their DOP registration.  But in general, the olives must be taken from tree to the frantoio witin 48 hours.  With olio nuovo in Sabina, it is usually more direct.  From tree to pressing within ten hours.  No storing.  Often the lesser quality olives can be stored up to three weeks before being pressed which means much of the nutrients and antioxidants and lots of freshness and flavor have already evaporated before they are pressed.

Here is the process for pressing the olives:

Step 1 WASHING

Water jets on conveyor belts remove large particles of earth and foreign bodies, followed by the removal of olive leaves and small un-ripened fruit.

 

Step 2  FRANGITURA

The olives get pressed to produce a pulpy, usually violet-coloured substance, with no addition of heat or water. Though it is now done by mechanical means, it was traditionally done by grinding one stone around and around inside another larger stone, often pulled by a donkey or a horse, differing from region to region. I have friends my age from Sardinia who remember growing up with their olive oil being made like this.

 

Step 3  GRAMOLAZIONE

This is the important step of adding a recipe of movement, heat and time together to separate the pulp into diverse particles, therefore helping the microscopic oil drops unite into larger oil drops: normally 27°C for 15-20 minutes to get a high quality and low extraction. Normally, for top-quality extra-virgin olive oils, it is good to get 15kg of finished product for every 100kg of olives picked, this can change for each harvest.

 

Step 4  CENTRIFUGATION AND EXTRACTION

This machine separates the different particles produced by the gramolazione into: oil, vegetal water, and the remaining sansa or pomace, which is what the pulp is called.

 

Step 5 SEPARATION

This final step takes the oil, adds fresh pure water, mixes them together and filters the water away which in turn removes further impurities from the oil.

 

The oil is then taken and filtered through cotton, and bottled.

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PART 2  is a little more about the history and my reasons for staying firmly in Sabina for the oil I bring back.  Hint:  I love the flavor.  Oh, and as you can see above, the Sabine hills are pretty spectacular.

Porcini Season – Tripping to Vetralla

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Vetralla

I am on my fall shopping trip to Italy and now that I have collected the olio nuovo from the frantoio in Farfa, and am a week away from collecting spice mixes from Mauro Berardi in Campo dei Fiori I have the opportunity to wander the countryside to visit some of my favorite places outside Rome.

Sutri

Vetralla is about an hour drive north on the Cassia through the lovely countryside of the Veii (through some Etruscan ruins). I take Cassia Bis since it is a more direct route and I love the caves of Sutri and often stop off at Ronciglione. Both are medieval cities with amazing history and buildings as well as fun festvals during the year. Ronciglione has one of the oldest Carnevale in central Italy. To open the festivities, the mayor gives the key to the city to the Carnival King, who rings in the week of madness that includes costume parties in the piazza, allegorical parades and a strange tradition of throwing pasta at passersby. The main event is a Palio competition initiated in 1465 by Pope Paul III Farnese, but unlike other Palio theirs features a riderless horse.

But, this week, my mission is porcini secchi. I cannot take fresh porcini back to the U.S. but my clients have come to realize the stiff dark cardboard sold there as dried porcini are nothing like real porcini. And the best I have found are from a small farm outside Vetralla where the family grows, harvests and dries them by themselves. I have never been disappointed and neither have my clients. They are worth every penny and my efforts to shelter them to get them home.

 Botte

The shopping I do for my clients is very personal. I spend lots time resourcing to find the best quality, most reliable people and ask lots of questions so I can answer lots of questions from clients. Every trip brings new people and resources because friends in Italy want to share their finds with me. Tourists would never have the opportunities to locate the places and people I do, so I love sharing my finds.

If you the chance do travel around more than the big cities of Italy. There is so much to see and explore. Every village has festivals and products that are unique. The more time I spend and areas I travel, the more in love I am with the whole country and realize there will never be enough time to explore all of it.

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Here’s an easy recipe for a porcini cream sauce using dried porcini to try.  It can be used on pasta or any meat dish or almost anything.

Porcini Cream Sauce       Makes more than 1-1/2 cups

  • 1 1/2 ounces dried porcini mushrooms
  • 1 cup warm water
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 cup chopped onion
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1/2 cup dry Marsala
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • 1 teaspoon minced fresh rosemary
  • 1 cup chicken stock or canned low-salt chicken broth
  • 1 cup beef stock or canned beef broth
  • 1 tablespoon butter, room temperature
  • 1 tablespoon all purpose flour

PREPARATION

  1. Combine porcini mushrooms and 1 cup warm water in small bowl. Let stand until mushrooms soften, about 30 minutes. Remove mushrooms from liquid, squeezing excess liquid from mushrooms back into bowl; reserve liquid. Place mushrooms in another small bowl.
  2. Heat oil in heavy large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add onion and garlic; sauté until onion browns, about 15 minutes. Add Marsala and white wine. Increase heat; boil until most liquid evaporates, about 7 minutes. Add rosemary, mushrooms and both stocks. Pour in reserved mushroom liquid, leaving any sediment behind. Boil until liquid mixture is reduced to 2 cups, about 15 minutes.
  3. Mix butter and flour in small bowl to blend; whisk into mushroom mixture. Simmer until sauce thickens, about 2 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

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