I, like everyone else I know have been lying low, waiting and hoping for a more sane and normal life to return. Well, sanity might be too much to ask. But it looks like at least most of the U.S. is soon going to loosen up some and travel may start again as soon as June. I am finally confident enough in the loosening of quarantines and shut downs that I have booked my return trip to Italy. It is truly astonishing that it has been so long since we were in Italy. After living there for a few years, and traveling twice a year for so many years, it has left me not only sad, but a little confused.
I am feeling so fortunate that all my friends and associates in Italy have remained healthy. It has been so impressive to me that so many Italians followed all the restrictions that were put on them.
Most of the regions are now at least partially open. As of this date six regions remain in the “orange” zone,, which limits travel between regions and more restrictive business hours, etc. (Puglia, Basilicata, Sicily and Calabria and Sardinia will remain in the orange zone another week). Otherwise, travel for anyone who can prove vaccination or nagative covid testing is open. There is still a 10 pm curfew in most places, including Rome. While there are still restrictions, like social distancing and masks, museums are opening, theaters and movie houses are opening. Italy is determined to ready for tourists by the end of June. I am takingno chances and will wait for summer tourists to move on.
I am determined not to miss another olive harvest. I will be traveling the end of October to be in time for the harvests. I have promised a visit to Puglia to visit the ‘Just Puglia Factory’ a relatively new endeavor with artisinal local products from the Lecce Apulia area. I am excited to visit – to experience the Just Puglia Olive Oil collection including the infused organic extra virgin olive oils. They will have cooking classes, locally grown produce and local ceramic artists from Grottaglie with their traditional gray salt glazed ceramics. It sounds like a fantastic project. Apulia is a very beautiful area near the heel of the boot. If you have the chance to visit be sure to visit Bari, Lecce and especially the Trulli houses of Alberobello. There is so much great food in this region too. The area is considered the breadbasket of Italy because of the durum wheat grown there. The best taralli come from Puglia.
I will be sending out a newsletter with updates so if you are not already on my mailing list, please send me an email and I’ll happily add you to the list. And, yes, I will bring back fresh harvested olive oil and spices/herbs from Campo dei Fiori. And, that really special honey from Sardinia that Stefano has.
Mauro, Marco and Fabrizio await me.
I am hopeful that by the fall life here as well as throughout the rest of the world will have taken on a more normal look and we can all relax for awhile.
Thanks for your patience with me. I think I can get myself back to organization, communication and photos soon.
Finally, we can say goodbye to 2020. While it seems 2021 will be a challenging year I at least can start the new year believing I will be able to return to Italy in 2021. I have missed all my purveyors – Mauro Berardi with his magnificent and irreplaceable spice mixes (from Famose Spezie nel Mondo), all the talented ragazzi at Il Saporito di Farfa, I miss their olive oil so much. There are not many olive oils available in the U.S. with comparable quality and freshness of the Il Saporito EVO. Stefano, who brings me his honey from the bees in Sardinia and of course those fabulous naturally dried porcini from Vetralla. And, so much more. It has been more than a year since I have been able to stock up on all things Italian that I bring back from my forays into shopping Italian. I realize even more how much I personally depend on all the associates and friends I see in Italy. They are gems in my life.
This devastating year with its many disasters brought the gifts of appreciation for the health and well being for all those I care about. The reality of how fragile our lives are both in health and how we live is now fact. The unimaginable changes that would have never been considered in the past have become “normal” and hopefully they will give us new hope and determination to begin this new year. My wish is that we all become more kind, considerate and thoughtful. Whether it is in Italy or elsewhere we are connected. I found it really impressive that Italians (well known for hating rules, government and dictators) followed the guidelines much better than others. Of course, they were also fined for not adhering to the rules of between $500 and $1,000 for an infraction. Still their cooperation is impressive . . . .
I hope you have found ways to keep yourselves healthy and occupied this year and are ready for the challenges of the new year. It looks to be a long spring and I hope a few images from the past will inspire us all to plan for the future. I cannot wait to travel again. Trenitalia was nice enough to extend my credit from the trip planned for last spring until February of 2022. I plan on using the credit long before then.
I wish all of you a very safe and happy new year. Just know that I will be ready to shop for you once again as soon as I can. Be kind to yourselves and celebrate your Cappodanno (New Year’s Eve) quietly with Le Befana and she will arrive with gifts for the kids. (Le Befana is the witch who was too busy cleaning to go with the three Wise Men to visit the Baby Jesus. She rushed after them so quickly so flew on her broom and drops gifts on all the children hoping to find the Baby Jesus) on the eve of the Epiphany. The Epiphany, on January 6th is the finish of the long holiday season in Italy.
I am a little ashamed to see it’s been more than a year since I have posted here. Worse yet is that we have been in stay-at-home mode for over eight weeks and I am only now finding the time to post. I am amazed at how fast the days fly by with little accomplished
Initially I spent much time feeling terribly sad about the problems in Italy and the extreme lock-down they were under. One of my friends would send me the daily death count every evening. Their restricted access held for the whole country under lockdown. Anyone leaving their house had to have a form filled out stating where and when they were going. And the only acceptable reasons to venture out were to go walk their dog, grocery shop or a medical visit. If you were found to be somewhere other than where the form said, or at a different time, the fines were quite high (several hundred euros for a first offense). In some smaller towns, people were only allowed to go 200 metres from their homes (that’s about 670 feet – not very far).
In watching the news, videos and messages friends sent I was impressed by the willingness of Italians to adhere to the rules. Following rules us not something Italians are known to often do. With the pandemic though, families, which most often have grandparents either living with the family or nearby were clearly most at risk. Italian children were told if they wanted their grandparents to live, they would have to follow the rules. Italians were much quicker to take seriously the threat of losing their senior citizens than we Americans seem to be. Social differences between the U.S. and Italy are reflected in the basic customs of Italians, which rely so much on community versus the apparent diverse concerns of Americans. It seemed perfectly logical for everyone to be communing from their balconies, to be playing music, dancing and singing. Because so many live in very highly populated areas, it was a natural way to continue the connections so important to all Italians. And with their usual consideration Italians showed their nightly appreciation for healthcare workers who were overwhelmed throughout most of the north. Images that children and adults made of a rainbow with Andrà tutti bene (everything will be fine) seemed to be everywhere in the country along with the Italian flag.
While it was a difficult and frightening time for all my friends, they determined to make the best of a dangerous situation. In fact, when the government said they were opening things up, none of the people I know were at all excited about it. They all are still quite fearful about going out. It does look like they will open the borders to Italy for travelers early in June, and they are slowly figuring out how to cope with all the changes to life.
For me, this break has made me reflect on the incredible differences a decade or two makes. If this were to have happened awhile earlier, it would have been so much worse. Without Amazon and all the food delivery services, the on-line stores to deliver goods to your door, without the connections the internet has made possible and the resilience of essential workers, it would have been a horrible experience. So much more difficult, I cannot imagine enduring such a long isolation. Without all the video calls, online classes, museum tours, zoom meetings, virtual everything, it would have been an unbearable experience.
Italy has been very busy during the shutdown utilizing all the technological advances available and inventing a few more. There is so much creativity in Italy, so many with determination to find ways around this global gut punch, that Italy will be ready for tourists again soon. There tourism groups are really quite sophisticated they had already been doing a lot of work on virtual tours, museum tours and all kinds of reminders that make you wish you were there. Now they are hard at work facing the challenges of social distancing, creating new innovations for tourist visits. One innovation is being to be used is in Florence’s Duomo. They have devised a necklace that helps keep social distancing easy in public areas. The Duomo official said in a statement that the device will be handed out for free at the beginning of each visit. When two people approach within a range of 2 metres (6-1/2 feet) the device will beep softly, vibrate and flash. The devices will be disinfected after each use. It looks like this type device will be utilized for many tourist attractions throughout the country.
Even with the great losses Italy has suffered they are ready to come back as they have many times in the past. I have no doubt that the bars that had expanded onto the sidewalk in front of their locations will expand even further now. Whatever the changes, the inconveniences, the difficulties, I am ready to return to Italy.
I was due to spend the month of May in Italy buying for my clients. So, the first several weeks of April I spent trying to cancel flights, hotels, cars, etc. It was bittersweet accomplishment with only Italo train refusing to refund and only issued a credit. But with all the seriousness, of all my friends and associates in Italy I don’t personally know of anyone there who contracted the virus.
I am anxious to hear that the market in Campo dei Fiori has completely re-opened. I am completely out of all Mauro Berardi’s spice mixes. Actually, I am out of everything I normally have for clients. The spring replacement trip would have enabled me to bring back olive oil, sundried tomatoes, honey (from Sardinia) and all those fantastic spice mixes. My current plan is to return in November, my normal fall trip, when I can collect the new olive harvest as well as dried porcini. I can only hope that by then, both the United States and the rest of Europe has settled in to whatever our new normal is.
The photo below is what the neighborhood market I frequent on Via Cassia looked like before the beginning of May. I can’t wait to see the streets of Rome with people again. The market I visit in Milan will hopefully be opening in the next couple of weeks too.
I recently read of a new chocolate developed by researchers at La Sapienza University of Rome, let by Prof. Francesco Violi. It utilizes extra virgin olive oil’s oleuropein, to keep blood sugar low. The study published in the journal Clinical Nutrition shows it will allow diabetics to enjoy the beneficial properties of chocolate (antioxidants and protecting the cardiovascular system.
I have not read exactly how this chocolate tastes, but I do have many recipes that combine chocolate and olive oil. The delicious recipe below is from The Sweetest Menu website for Chocolate Olive Oil Cake with cream cheese icing. I suggest using a fresh mild olive oil, like the oil I bring back from Farfa in the hills of Sabina. It’s consistently flavorful and has a green but fruity scent and a silky uniform taste with a slight peppery kick at the end.
for the Chocolate cake
280 grams (2 cups) plain flour
80 grams (1 cup) cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
300 grams (1 and 1/2 cups) sugar
90 grams (1/2 cup) brown sugar
240 ml (1 cup) buttermilk (if you don’t have buttermilk, add 1 Tablespoon white vinegar to 1 cup whole milk
180 ml (3/4 cup) olive oil
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 large eggs, room temperature
240 ml (1 cup) hot water
Chocolate cream cheese frosting
250 grams (1 and 1/4 cup) full fat block of cream cheese, softened
375 grams (3 cups) icing or powdered sugar
2 tablespoons cocoa powder
2 tablespoons milk
Preheat oven to 180 C (350 F) standard / 160 C (320 F) fan-forced. Grease and line two 8-inch round cake tins with baking or parchment paper.
In a large mixing bowl, sift flour, cocoa powder, baking powder and baking soda. Then add the sugars. Whisk together. In a separate mixing bowl, add the buttermilk, olive oil, vanilla and eggs. Whisk together. Boil the kettle and pour out 1 cup of hot water.
Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients. Start to fold together. Then slowly pour in the hot water down the side of the bowl, and continue to mix until all the ingredients are incorporated.
Divide the mixture into two cake tins and bake for approximately 30 minutes or until a skewer inserted comes out clean. Leave for 10 minutes before gently removing the cakes from their tins and leave them to cool completely on a wire rack.
Place softened cream cheese in a large mixing bowl and beat with an electric mixer until creamy.
Add half the sugar, all the cocoa powder and 1 tablespoon of milk and beat on low until combined and smooth. Add the rest of the sugar and the extra tablespoon of milk, and beat until combined.
Spread half the chocolate frosting on top of one chocolate cake. Add the other cake on top and cover with the remaining frosting. Serve with fresh strawberries if desired. It’s easy to do and very good. Please do try it.
Today, May 20th was World Bee Day. Smile if you see a bee. We need them and they need all the help we can provide to keep them thriving. They are doing a world count of bees at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. Today they officially unveiled the Global Pollinator Map! To view the recorded presentation, click here. Check out the Global Pollinator Map for yourself, and see the pollinators that they counted so far. The EU is planning on cutting pesticide use in half by 2030 to help save the bees. I don’t know if you have heard, but many bee farmers experiencing hive failure (or Colony Callapse Disorder) in greater numbers than ever in California. Apparently the utilization of vast numbers of bees to pollinate the almond trees here are causing massive deaths of bees. The need for pollinators for almond growers in trying to keep up with almond milk demand are putting the bees at risk due to the amount of pesticides used in the almond industry. The amount of chemicals used by large commercial growing operations puts the bees at great risk.. Independent farmers are much less likely to incur the same problems because they use fewer chemicals (and have less acreage to need pollination). Just another looming global problem.
We all have a different future on our horizon, with many opportunities to change directions in numerous areas of life. It is difficult to even grasp what may be required or possible. Let’s make the best of it and stay healthy and positive.
It has been far too long since I have posted anything. I am sorry. My shopping trips take preparation before departing added to the four to six weeks traveling and at least two or three weeks to dispense purchases and unpack. So a twice a year excursion becomes between two and three months. The trips seem to get ever closer together. And each time I am in Italy I seem to learn more, meet more people who help me find new products, and always more information. It is so amazing to realize how little we know about much of the food we eat. Even more astonishing is how wrong what we do know can be. We are often purposely mislead, exaggerated claims made, sometimes flat out lies occur so it is important for all of us to be diligent in considering all information along with our own common sense to decide what we invest in our foods.
With that, I have read and absorbed so much info on olive oil lately it seems unavoidable that I write more on the subject.
As I have mentioned before, the early harvest October/November olive oil that are harvested and milled when they are green or just beginning to ripen have the highest polyphenol levels. These not only contribute to taste, but are the most helpful in health benefits. The green olive’s polyphenols are a measure of the very desirable low oxidation levels that result in olive oils spiciness, fragrance, pepperiness and bitterness. They are an indication that the oil will not only amplify all the flavors it touches, but keep you healthy longer.
As the olives ripen, the polyphenol levels plunge. There is just no comparison to that fresh, distinctly peppery slightly bitter flavor that signifies the best olive oil.
Unfortunately, the horror stories of poor labeling, mixed blended oils and addition of oils other than olive, are all true. Most olive oils in stores and even on the internet have been cooped up in shipping containers, bottles or tins for months and months. They are mostly stale, lifeless, oxidized and not at all what great olive oil should be. Few Americans have experienced the living, fragrant and flavorful taste of fresh olive oil.
One help is to look at the designations on the container of oil you purchase here. If you see DOP, that means Denominazione di Origine Protetta (the protected designation of origin) and IGP, which means Indicazione Geografica Protetta ( the protected geographical indication). Both designations are governed by the EU rules designed to guarantee authenticity to protect consumers.
There are very specific rules to achieve these designations, which are certified by an independent body. With regard to olive oils, there are requirements for the length of time from tree to mill, the levels of acidity and considerably more restrictions. You can confidently buy any product in the EU with those designations.
If you want to try some of the DOP products here are a few and their locations:
Curious about which foods are certified DOP? Here’s a list of some of our favorites!
Mozzarella di bufala (Campania, Lazio): Considered to be more creamy than mozzarella made from cow’s milk, buffalo mozzarella is a true Italian delicacy. Love this tasty cheese? Find out some surprising facts about it here.
Balsamic vinegar (Emilia Romagna): DOP balsamic vinegar, from Modena and Reggio Emilia, has a thicker consistency and richer taste than most other vinegars on the market—and can be aged for over 12 years. (Here are more fun facts about balsamic vinegar of Modena!).
San Marzano tomatoes (Campania): Long in shape and bittersweet in taste, these tomatoes are harvested by hand. They’re later crushed, canned… and used to make dishes like pizza and pasta taste out of this world!
Olive oil (Abruzzo, Calabria, Campania, Emilia Romagna, Lazio, Liguria, Lombardia, Puglia, Sicily, Tuscany, Veneto): This staple has the largest number of DOP varieties of any Italian food specialty, and it comes from many different Italian regions. Some regions even have multiple DOP oils from different areas!
And of course wines. The 73 DOCG wines are located in 15 different regions but most of them are concentrated in Piedmont, Lombardia, Veneto and Tuscany. Among these are appellations appreciated and sought after by wine lovers around the world: Barolo, Barbaresco, and Brunello di Montalcino (colloquially known as the “Killer B’s”).
And, don’t get me started on honey which has even more fraud in the claims made by some producers. Basically we cannot believe anything much being touted as pure, local, made in the USA or anything else. Food now requires an amazing amount of diligence to know you are getting what you are paying for and expect. Ask questions, read all labels and educate yourself. It is the only real protection you have.
I am currently beginning to pack to return to California. Besides having to find creative ways to get as much back with me as possible without triggering the dreaded third suitcase cost of $240, I have been watching a little local tv. I have never written about Italian tv because it really is something you need to see for yourself. It is a little hard to explain in any language. I have just been watching Stasera Tutto è Possibile (tonight everything is possible). Now I am the first to admit my Italian leaves much to be desired, especially with long conversations or talk shows, where it is normal for at least three people to be talking at the same time. And over the years I have watched many of these competition type shows, usually with a confused look on my face and my Italian dictionary in hand. There is one where if you lose you are dropped through the floor if you lose (caduta libera – free fall ; one where they spend hours imitating famous singers and are made to look as much like them as possible.
I am not kidding about hours, that program is three hours long. I have seen Elvis, Amy Winehouse, David Bowie and numerous famous Italian singers I am totally unfamiliar with. And listened to the panel critique the contestants ability to mimic not just sound, but looks, style and mannerisms of more famous folk.
Introductions to these varied people
On Stasera Tutto è Possibile, I have no idea what the point is, but they take this motley group and have them sing along with familiar music, like Abba or The Village People. Then they take the away the recorded music and you hear what they actually sound like, which is pretty awful since they don’t know the words or have much in the way of voices. Then by twos they pair off for segui le labiale (sort of read my lips) where one has headphones and tries to figure out what the other is saying. Following this they have sketch games with angled stages and weird(er) costumes. Did I mention you really have to experience it yourself. It is unlike anything on American tv. Although Stasera is 2 hours long I admit by the time they got to the sack races I gave up. It is not the first time either. It is fascinating but I have my limits.
Then there is l’Eredità. I did watch this every evening while living in Italy. It isn’t Jeopardy, but I looked at it as educational to sort of help my Italian. It’s got several round where the seven players are eliminated until there is only one left. The categories range from music to trying to answer questions to determine the theme to categories. They are building winnings along the way. The final round is called “La Ghigliottina” (The Guillotine). This is random choices between two words and the guillotine either cuts your winnings in half if you guess wrong or passes if you guess right. You usually lose much of your “winnings”After there are 5 words the contestant tries to ascertain the thematic connection to theother five words. If the word is correct, he wins the game. For years now, even if I know all the words I have never been able to figure out the theme word.
Oh, and lest I forget to mention it, almost all the shows have at least two or more young women in sexy clothing moving around usually with not much to do.
I highly recommend on your next trip to Italy forget whether you completely understand the language and tune in to the uniquely Italian spectacle of game shows.
I have had this buzzing in my brain for weeks now and finally am taking the time to sit down and let it pour onto the screen. It has been a long time since I’ve written so be patient with me if I ramble a bit. I seem to be constantly dragging a little behind my life.
I have watched the results of Monsanto’s court trial with Dwayne Johnson, who was awarded $289 million for Monsanto’s continued claims about the safety of Roundup. While I know this will be taken through the appeals system and poor Mr. Johnson has little likelihood of surviving long enough to see any cash, it is the first time Monsanto has been held to account for all the slanted, testing and information they rely on to insist their product is safe.
Why should we be concerned (other than the risk of cancer for those working around the fields?) It turns out that Glyphosate kills bees. Recently two studies proved the effect of the weedkiller on bees. There were previous studies showing the effect of neonicotinoids, which are also horrible, but these studies show that Glyphosate targets an enzyme only found in plants and bacteria. This poison is being shown to cause damage to the microbiota that honeybees. In other words, it is affecting the gut bacteria of the bees. It also impairs the adult bees to lose the cognitive capacity to return successfully to their hive. But, the biggest impact has been the destruction of wildflowers on which they depend. The wide-spread use of Roundup in the environment has unintended consequences. We are seeing this across the United States.
Monsanto does claims that any effect on bees from Glyphosate are just not true. Their research for 40 years shows no evidence of risk for humans, animal and the environment in general.
This new study published by the National Academy of Sciences, found that some key beneficial bacteria in the bee’s guts have the enzyme targeted by glyphosate. Apparently it prevents newly emerged worker bees to develop a normal gut biome.
Professor Dave Goulson, University of Sussex has said “Gut bacteria play a vital role in maintaining good health, in organisms as diverse as bees and humans. The finding that these bacterial are sensitive to the most widely used pesticide in the world is thus concerning.”
Other researchers Nancy Moran, Erick Motta and Kasie Raymann suggest their findings are evidence that glyphosate might be contributing to colony collapse disorder, which has been wreaking havoc on bees for more than a decade.
I take all this information very seriously. Without bees, food production world wide is in big trouble. In fact, it was one of the reasons I searched for as much information as possible when getting honey in Italy. Actually there are only a few pollution free areas left in the world: New Zealand, Sicily and Sardinia primarily. You’ll note, as I did, they are islands, with little industrial pollution.
I have found the most wonderful apiarist who keeps his bees in Sardinia and moves them from field to field to get the most amazing honeys. There are about 20 different varieties that Stefano supplies me with. The honey is amazing and the flavors are quite diverse. I am personally not a fan of corbezzolo (which is strong and rather bitter), but I have clients who insist on it. While I get the most requests for millefiori, acacia and sunflower, there are so many more choices (and they each can assist with specific weaknesses in the body).
It is one of my goals to be sure I am not bringing anything but the finest possible products back with me. I deal mostly with individuals and have made some wonderful friends in the process. Vetralla fields grown fabulous porcini and I would rather get them directly from the farm, than any market. Honey, I am confident that Stefano has the best, purest honey possible. (Did you know that in the U.S. honey can be up to 50% corn syrup and not be labeled as anything but honey?) While China is the worst offender with honey syrup that is mostly corn syrup, whether you get your honey from me or elsewhere, I would strongly suggest you know the source. Buy from local bee keeper or know where the bees are and how the honey has been processed.
I apologize for the rant, but my purpose with Expressly Italian is to make people aware of what they are paying for. Are the products what they say on the label? Do you know the source? As there are more and more options for getting our foods, there are more and more opportunities for getting exploited and over-charged at the same time.
I am fully confident in all the spice mixes I get from Mauro Berardi. Not only does Mauro personally be sure what I get is the freshest of his mixes, but I have been using his products for about 12 years. He has been in the same location in Campo dei Fiori for three generations with clients who come from all over the world.
I go directly to the frantoio (the olive mill), I watch the olives arrive, they go through the pressing process and are packed there. I take them directly and if you have never tasted fresh olive oil, it is nothing like what most bottled olive oil tastes like (even those “extra-virgin” labeled bottles). Much of the imported oils are delivered in huge ships and sit in containers on the docks or warehouses without temperature controls. Olive oil survives for 18 to 24 months if you keep it with cool, dark temperatures and getting as little air as possible.
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I am getting ready for my next shopping trip. I have to be there when the olives are harvested to get any olio nuovo (the first pressing).
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 am always happy to let my thoughts turn to Italy. My next trip is in two weeks. My husband is going with me this trip, so more product can come back with me! As unhappy as taking empty suitcases for a long trip makes him, he’s a great sport in carrying packages and taking the very heavy full suitcases home with him.
This trip will start from Rome once again. And hopefully a quick stop at the Borghese Gallery where the Caravaggio room always wows. It takes a few days to get settled, then I will be off to visit markets from Lazio to Emilia Romagna, Umbria, Tuscany and Lombardy. A very full schedule, but this trip is five weeks. So, I can manage all the time in bella Italia.
If you want spices from Mauro in Campo dei Fiori, Sundried tomatoes from Sicily or pine nuts, just let me know so I am sure to get enough of your favorite spice mix.
This trip begins as always, in Rome. It helps me get oriented and my brain thinking in Italian.
The rough, open to change, itinerary will be through Florence, stops in Spello, Bologna, a trip to FICO, Milan, Vetralla among other small villages and markets.
I will be bringing back Extra Virgin Olive oil from Farfa with me. There will also be honey from Sardinia, porcini from Vetralla, spices from the famous Mauro Berardi and whatever other items clients have requested.
Here’s a great spring recipe.
Farro Penne with Porcini, Pistachios and Arugula 1/2 Cup roasted pistachios, divided
1/2 Cup chicken or vegetable stock
1 teaspoon sherry vinegar
Salt & Pepper
1/4 Cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 ounce dried porcini mushrooms
2 cloves of finely chopped garlic
1/2 cup dry sherry
8 oz. Farro Penne or similar type pasta
1 cup fresh Arugula leaves
Grated Parmesan Cheese
Place dried porcini in a small bowl and cover with hot water (about 2 cups). Let stand till softened, not more than 30 min. Remove the mushrooms, squeezing to get most of the liquid from them (reserve it all). Chop the mushrooms coarsely and set aside.
Coarsely chop the pistachios and set aside. Put the remaining 1/4 cup pistachios in a blender with the stock, 1/4 cup of the mushroom liquid, the sherry vinegar and a pinch of salt & pepper. Blend until smooth (might take about 3 min.)Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium high heat. Add the rehydrated mushrooms, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring occasionally, for 2 – 3 minutes. Stir in the chopped garlic and cook for another minute. Add the dry sherry and bring to a vigorous simmer. Cook until the liquid has reduced by half, about 2 minutes.
eanwhile, cook the farro penne in a large pot of boili salted water until still slightly firm in texture, about 6 minutes. Drain, reserving 1 cup of the cooking liquid.
salted water until still slightly firm in texture, about 6 minutes. Drain, reserving 1 cup of the cooking liquid.
Add the pasta, the reserved pasta cooking liquid and the pureed pistachio mixture to the pan with the mushrooms. Stir the mixture as the liquid is slowly absorbed. Continue stirring as the pasta finishes cooking and the sauce thickens and coats the pasta. If too dry, add a little more of the mushroom soaking liquid. Cook for a minute or two longer, then taste and adjust seasonings as needed.
Just before serving, toss the pasta with the arugula leaves and top with the reserved chopped pistachios. Serve with plenty of nutty grated parmesan cheese, if desired.
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.