How can anything be “extra virgin”? An olive either has or has not been pressed. In fact, nobody in Tuscany talks about “virgin” olive oil. The olives get milled, the oil comes out, the pith gets discarded or used, these days, as fuel in a furnace. The salient point, rather, is the oil’s age, and “new oil,” the just-pressed oil available only in October and November is everyone’s passion. Even though we have our own olives, if we spot a bottle of new oil for sale before we get around to making ours, we’ll buy it without a second’s hesitation. It’s too good not to.
Throughout the year, that neon green, delicately peppery, fresh, wild-grass-smelling oil becomes week by week, almost imperceptibly a more golden, less zesty condiment with a muted, leafy aroma. Whereas, the new oil is like a drug, and we halt all culinary projects, health programs and weekly meal routines to gorge on it as soon as it it become available.
The first chance to taste the new oil is often at the frantoio, the mill itself, where we go with a loaf of bread and the crates of olives picked that day. Just the smell inside the building is enough to make our mouths water. The olives are ground up, pit and all, and the oil is centrifuged out, an electric green stream we pass a chunk of bread under when no one’s looking. Then, that night at home, we light the fire and toast slice after slice of saltless Tuscan bread seemingly created for this purpose. We rub it with garlic, drizzle it in oil and sprinkle it with lots of salt. They say “la bruschetta chiama il vino,” bruschetta calls wine: a bite and a sip and a bite and a sip, on into the evening, on into the winter.
If the weather is sunny, picking olives is truly enjoyable work. We stand at the trees and pull the fronds down through our fists, dislodging the olives onto a net on the ground. Bigger farms use mechanical “arms” that shake the tree’s branches. Olive leaves have razor-sharp edges, and multiple paper-cut like wounds are common, as are injuries to the eyes because we stand among the branches and leaves. But it’s still a marvelous moment: the children can help (or just climb the trees), the old folks too, every year retelling the story of the winter of ’85 when so many of the trees froze and died.
You can’t earn money, though, making olive oil this way. They say if you fully mechanize, you can, but I wonder. As a rule, one grown tree (30-40 years old) makes one liter of oil. And the price for bulk oil is essentially fixed in each region, as if all the producers had agreed on what was a reasonable price to pay. If any producer raises her price, customers simply go next door. If there is a shortage of oil, like last year, when an olive fly destroyed most of the crop, people do without (because no matter their claims of distress, they’ve all got secret stocks). We keep last year’s oil, “l’olio vecchio,” for cooking, a liter a week per family give or take, and this year’s, “l’olio nuovo,” for dressing salads (no vinegar, please!), soups and bruschetta, or any dish that requires it “raw.” By January, the new oil is gone, sold out, so you have to know your needs and buy for the year in November.
Outside of Italy, olive oil talk is all about how it’s made. Cold pressed? I don’t really know what that means: those stainless steel machines surely generate some heat, though not enough to keep my feet from freezing standing around at the mill waiting for my turn. In Tuscany at least, the process is pretty much always the same. There’s one mill for every few counties, they all have the same equipment (thank you EU subsidies and cronyism), and everyone uses those. There’s a new fad to divide the cultivars (the different kinds of olives, Leccino, Moraiolo etc.) and bottle them as “single varietals.” Another approach is to pit the olives before pressing them, thereby making, it is claimed, purer oil. Outside of Tuscany, they can talk all they want about process and packaging but they’re not what drive value, as a management consultant would say. That’s simply age. “Il nuovo diventa vecchio,” new becomes old. Right now, it’s time for the new.
Viandante della vita questa massima è infinita “Vino vecchio e l’olio nòvo, guardo, assaggio e mi ci trovo.” Vieni sentire questo e quello. Io se dico “Questo è olio!” stai sicuro che è un rosolio e se dico “E’ vino vecchio!” lo sorseggi anche nel secchio. Stai contento in verità, un tesoro è l’onestà. A.D. 1955 PINXIT.
Here is an invaluable maxim for life: “Old wine and new oil: I look, I taste, I like it.” Come, then, and taste the latter and the former. If I say, “Now this is oil!” you can be sure that it’s a precious one, and if I say “This is old wine!” you would taste it even from a bucket. Be content, because truly, the real treasure is HONESTY. A.D. 1955.]
THIS ARTICLE WAS FIRST PUBLISHED ON OCTOBER 26, 2015 in The Truth About Tuscany.