You would think that after the summer season has passed, the busy streets and beautiful countryside hills of Italy would be silent. Quite the contrary in fact, the fall season here brings excitement with the start of the season for olio nuovo (new oil, olive oil) across the country and the season of tartufo bianco in the Langhe and Montferrat areas of the Piedmont region in northern Italy and around the cities of Alba and Asti.
The fall colors of the Italian countryside are also quite the sight to see. While some green does remain, red, orange, and yellow hues are also present, creating a beautiful contrast in its landscape.
I was lucky enough to know someone who knew someone in the olive oil production business here in Italy. I was able to connect with Fil Bucchino who is a certified Olive Oil Taster and founder of Abandoned Grove, “an alliance of olive oil farmers, producers, chefs and visionaries, on a mission to change the perception of what a true extra virgin olive oil really is.”
Every year, as the season brings in a new harvest, they put on an Olive Oil Festa among family, friends, and neighbours. Fil was kind enough to extend an invite for me to join in on this humble and closed family affair to see the grove, eat some food, and learn a little more about what true extra virgin olive oil really is.
I drove up to Tuscany for the weekend in hopes that the weather would hold up and the Olive Festa would not get cancelled a second time.
It seemed that the olive oil gods were in our favour because the sun came out and shinned just as the festa started. I met Fil and his wife at the entrance of the Villa and we joined in the feast where everyone had already started eating, and drinking.
It’s was not an extravagant feast but like some of the best food I have had here in Italy, sometimes the no frills experience is the best.
I know I keep going back to the movie Under The Tuscan Sun but it really felt like I took a scene out of it.
On one side there was the olive grove and on the other, there were tables set up with people eating, and a big tent set up with all the food you could think of! Everyone was there from the little kids running around to their parents and grandparents having casual conversations among each other. It’s just what you would imagine a Sunday afternoon in the countryside of Italy to be like.
At the buffet, all the traditional dishes were present from the Ribollita to Pappa al pomodoro, Fagioli, Polenta, Funghi con Ragù, different types of Pecorino and salami, sausages, breads, and all the wine you could possibly ever need. Of course, there was also a range of bruschetta available from pomodoro to fegatini di pollo to possible the best thing you can ever experience: Fettunta -Toasted bread rubbed with fresh garlic and drizzled with new (real) olive oil.
Oh my god you guys, probably the simplest thing but the flavours that came out of this toast were simply extraordinary. As you took a bite, you heard the crunch of the toast and smelled the aroma of the fresh garlic. Then as you began to chew, the olive oil became more present with a rich sort of like grassy taste that then began to burn at the back of your throat.
“Is that pepper?” I asked Fil. “No, that’s the real olive oil you are tasting.”
Now this is where we start talking about olive oil. This piece of toast would probably make you change the way to see and taste olive oil. Olive oil should burn the back of your throat a little and when you drink it, it should also leave your mouth dry. It’s quite amazing actually, you can swallow a spoonful of oil but when it’s real it leaves no traces of oil behind.
Olive oil shouldn’t be the commodity item it has become today. Real extra virgin olive oil is something truly special and well now very difficult to come by.
There are two major problems: 1) The fact that the majority of the olive oil produced is produced to yield quantity not quality and 2) We consumers are not educated enough about Olive Oil to know or understand the difference.
Did you know that olive oil…
Is actually supposed to burn a little when you taste it? You should get an almost pepper-like feeling at the back of your throat. And that’s not all; it also needs to have a fruity aroma with varying levels of bitterness. So not olive oils will taste the taste and some will be stronger than others.
Or that about one olive oil tree in Tuscany will produce one litre of olive oil?
Let me put some more context into the real value of good oil. If the tree is damaged and then replanted, it can take between 5 and 12 years for an olive oil tree to yield fruit that is good enough to process into oil.
When a tree is pruned, ideally every two years, it will take about 1-2 years in order for that tree to yield good fruit.
Not to mention the work that goes into harvesting good olives. Once an olive falls from its tree, it starts the fermentation process. And in most cases these olive will be over ripe, which means that the quality of the oil produced will already be less than optimal.
The olives want to be picked from its branches in order to avoid over ripeness, bruising and pre-fermentation. This means that control tests have to be conducted around the harvest time to pick the optimal time to harvest the best olives for new oil production.
Can you see now why the minimum cost to produce oil is roughly about thirteen euros ($18 CAD)? And that’s before production, shipping, and profit. This means that you are probably looking to spend at least around forty dollars for a good quality olive oil.
So how do you explain those $7.99 bottles of “Extra Virgin Olive Oil” 1L bottles being sold at supermarkets? Mmm, makes you think doesn’t it? I don’t know if I would trust that label if I were you.
Olive oil also has a declining lifespan. This means that unlike wine, it does not age well at all. When buying olive oil you want to look at the harvest date, not just the bottling date. A lot of the oils out there, are past due or worse yet are harvested late resulting in bad quality olive oil as I explained above.
Like wine, olive oil is yet another world that the world does not know much about, especially millennials like you and me. There is so much to know about its production, taste, and pairings. However, you can start like me by being curious and looking into this new and evolving world of real olive oil.
After stuffing our faces and our bellies with all the Tuscan specialities, Fil, his wife, and I took a walk through the groves where Fil showed me the different types of trees along with the different stages of the olives. He gave me some pointers on how the olives should look and feel when they are premature, ready, and over ripe.
He also showed me a very special type of olive oil tree that produces white olives. In order to properly produce this oil, the olives have a very small window of time to be harvested, as they ripen extremely fast.
I also learned about the amount of work that goes into a grove. Pruning must be done to maintain the trees in good condition. The trees need lots of space in order to breath. They say that the trees should be pruned in such a way that a bird can fly through them no problem.
If no proper maintenance is kept, then the branches will grow out without any control, reducing the quality of the olives and thus the oil. These unmaintained trees are hard to harvest and when the industry has pushed prices of oil down this is usually one of the main reasons of how abandoned groves occur.
Another cool fact about Abandoned Grove, is that they actually have “rescued” and brought back to life the once abandoned groves to produce their limited quantity and high quality real extra virgin olive oil.
I had such a great Sunday afternoon in the countryside of Florence among the Tuscan hills with Fil and his wife at the Festa. It was such a cool experience to be gathered in such an Italian family setting, eating some good home cooked food and drinking some good old table wine.
Getting a chance to taste and learn more about real olive oil was a great experience as well, one that has sparked my interest to educate myself and hopefully you guys more about. I look forward to getting back to Canada and working with Fil on some tasting projects in order to understand a little better on the different tastes olive oil can have. So stay tuned for that you guys and until then, check out @abandonedgrove on IG for some cool videos on real olive oil from experts in the field!
Also, Abandoned Grove will be releasing a documentary on properly produced olive oils in 2019. So can’t wait for that!