Artistry in Olive Wood
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.
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.
A Word (or two) about Olive Oils This Year.
Having recently, about two days ago, returned from an extensive trip in Italy, I’ve been reluctant to discuss olive oil production in Italy this year. It was a little depressing, so I put it off. Many of my blog and newsletter followers were eagerly awaiting my return for their olio nuovo and I hated to disappoint them.
But, here I am, back in California, and without their olio nuovo. The sad fact is, there is little to no olio nuovo in Italy this year. What little there is in most regions is being hoarded by families there. Maybe Liguria has some, or Campania, (which is never mentioned without the comment “that’s a whole different thing”), but wherever I asked I was told with a sad shake of the head, ‘none this year’. In fact, in Lazio, around Sabina, where I often get most of the oil I bring, they didn’t bother to harvest at all. Neither did most of Umbria, nor much of Tuscany. Everywhere I asked it was the same response. The terrible rains that were all over Italy this year ruined their crops, which were likely to have had a light crop anyway due to a really heavy crop last year, but no one suspected this.
The rains caused immense damage, so the olives were tiny, malformed and became infested with a fruit fly. According to an a news article I read just before leaving in Sabina a group of growers is trying to assess the amount of damages to ask for assistance from the government for their losses.
The price of olive oil is set to soar after a widespread failure of the annual harvest in large parts of Italy. A wet summer in combination with a fruit fly blight has led to some producers not harvesting at all this year. Production fell by up to 80 per cent in some areas of Italy, a farmers’ cooperative said.
Many farmers felt it was not worth the money or time to harvest at all. The newspapers in England have projected increases in olive oil topping an additional 2 pounds per bottle before summer.
Paolo Calosi owner of a farm in in Sesto Fiorentino, Tuscany, where 1000 trees were hit by the fly, said: ‘Unfortunately this year we will not produce extra virgin oil because the fly has damaged all the trees.
‘This will produce a very acidic oil which cannot be sold as extra virgin. ‘It will in any case have a nasty aftertaste with a marked woody flavour.’ This is truly a disaster.
So, what I bought was year old very good extra virgin oil that still has a life span of another year that it will retain it’s flavor. But it was much more expensive that it would have been last year. And, I know in my heart that by next summer, the oils will be 4 to 8 euro more per bottle than now. There will be no more olive oil until next harvest in the fall of 2015. And, I also have little faith in those importers being honest about the value and taste of what they’ll be delivering to the U.S. as extra virgin oil from Italy. BEWARE!
Be prepared to pay more. The oil I have is almost double what it was last year. If it is not expensive, ask lots of questions. If it is not due to expire in 2015, ask when it was harvested and where. The only good harvests I found were in Livorno. They had a bumper crop this year. I’ve learned so much about the varieties and tastes of olive oils and I still have so much more to learn. It is an elixer of health and should be used as a fresh drizzle on almost any dish. Use the less expensive oil for frying, save the cold pressed, and olio nuovo type delicate oils for that fresh, fruity or peppery taste as you serve your food. It’s worth whatever the money, just know what you are getting.
Extra virgin olive oil does not age well
Check the date on the bottle and make sure you are getting oil produced during the last harvest. Buy only the quantity you might need for the year to make sure you are not stuck with old olive oil when the new fresh one is out on the shelves. The very best of the extra virgin olive oils retain their full flavor for only two years. They are still usable for another year, just not as good. In America, we are often using rancid oil without any idea it is too old.
Green colour does not automatically means top quality. The most emphasized organoleptic characteristics of extra virgin olive oil is often the colour that should range between green and yellow. However, a deep green colour does not automatically indicates a better quality oil. Professional olive oil tasters use blue or green coloured tasting glasses not to let the colour of the oil influence their final judgment. Focus on taste and acidity levels rather than colour when buying extra virgin olive oil. And, remember, to each his own. Everyone has their own taste preference. Try several until you find just the type of olives you prefer. When you think about it, it’s a very inexpensive way to improve your health, add flavor to your foods and experience new tastes.