As often happens a client is the catalyst for new discoveries. This time a client requested olive wood utensils. Having seen many I assumed it would be a quick easy request. As usual, it became something much more. While there are obviously thousands upon thousands of olive trees in Italy, there are not so many available to make olive wood good from. And, while there are commercially made spoons, cutting boards and rolling pins, there are not so many crafted bowls, boards and utensils (that are actually made in Italy).
With the internet it seems easy to find online anything you want. However, like many products, there is often a large difference between the lovely photos and catalogs you find and the quality of the finished pieces. And, the location of manufacturing can be far from where olive trees are grown.
Olives have been cultivated throughout the Mediterranean throughout history. The Romans cultivated olives throughout Italy and olive oil became so valuable they even used it as collected taxes. Ancient olive wood is beautiful and a real sustainable source. As I have mentioned in earlier posts, olives produce for hundreds of years, but eventually they stop producing and are classed as ancient. Usually it is this wood that is gathered and used for crafting the larger pieces of olive wood you see. The large cutting or carving boards, the table tops or large salad bowls. Every tree has its own unique pattern in the grain. You will never see two pieces created of olive wood that look exactly the same.
Olive wood is very hard, strong, durable and has natural anti-bacterial properties which make it ideal for production of items used for food. If cared for properly, olive wood items will last hundreds of years. So an ancient piece of wood becomes an antique long after it is harvested. Olive wood bowls, and utensils of the highest craftsmanship are not as ubiquitous as you might think given how many trees there are here.
Carboncella variety are prevalent here
Because the olives are a most important crop healthy trees are never felled for use of the wood. The limited availability is part of the reason for the high cost of quality olive wood articles. Although there are artisans in almost every region with high olive oil production, there are not as many craftsmen who work with olive wood. In Tuscany, I understand there are only a handful of artisans who work with olive wood. And, they tend to specialize in the types of pieces they like to make. There is one craftsman in a small town near Sienna that makes only small to large pots with lids, another near Florence that works only bowls. It seems that each artisan has their specialty. That is why I tried to find someone who has worked with these artists and could inform me how to determine the best pieces.
Luckily I found Ricardo Amoruso. He is from Tuscany and has resources throughout the region for artisans in a number of categories (his wife is a ceramicist) including the few who specialize in olive wood. Ricardo explained to me that there is always a shortage of olive wood. If the spring weather is below normal for too many days I believe he said 15) in a row the tree can be damaged and not just lose the crop of olives, the tree can be damaged beyond survival, but the wood also can be unusable from the stress of the cold. He explained that there are numerous makers of kitchen utensils because those do not require the whole tree to be used. In spring when they must prune the branches, they are collected and many are thick enough to be able to form spoons, spatulas and rolling pins. They are the most affordable of pieces in olive wood.
Once I saw some of the fine works he handles I knew that this quality was superiorto most of the other pieces I have seen. The prices will always be high so it is important to get the best quality wood that is formed by the best artisans.
His advice on how to make your wood pieces last forever… Do not soak them, or put in a dishwasher. Use only water to clean them. About once every month or so, brush or wipe on a light oil like coconut or sunflower oil and let it sit on some newsapers several hours or overnight. Afterward wipe any left oil with a paper towel.It is important to keep the wood from over drying. This prevents cracking or warping.
There are some really spectacular pieces that I am now sure I must have. The bowl below is from the works I purchased for another client.
This totally unique flat salad bowl is so stunning I start to drool every time I look at it.
Every trip to Italy introduces me to new places, people and products. It seems a never-ending journey. I have introduced my Sardinia honey source to olio nuovo from Farfa, I have been able to learn about the different grades of cashmere from my scarf vendor in Florence (who uses only Italian materials and workers and produces all she sells right outside of Florence). There are so many fine olive oils available from every region but my clients are spoiled by the consistently fabulous taste of Il Saporito’s olive oil from Farfa.
It is always a challenge to get everything done in the short time I have in Italy (a month is hardly enough time to get your breathing slowed down). And, I always end the trip with my stop at Campo dei Fiori to fill up on the “Spezie Famose nel Mondo” and meet up with Mauro Berardi for his amazing spice mixes that have people all over the world addicted.
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There is never enough time here, never enough space to bring all I would like and always too much weight. But I love it and hope to continue to introduce products and people from Italy to as many as I can.
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.
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 Oiland 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.
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.
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.