From a string of bad harvests to last winter’s international export-fraud scandal and the European Union’s recent decision to remove tariffs on the Tunisian competition, the Italian olive oil industry has faced its share of setbacks over the past couple of years.
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Nevertheless, the 24th edition of the Ercole Olivario — a prestigious national olive oil competition held in March in Perugia, Italy (which I attended as a guest of the Italian Trade Commission) — was a bright spot amid the gloom, going to show that the ancient art of harvesting and crushing olives into liquid gold (or green, as the case may be) remains alive and well.
Granted, very few of the 100 Ercole finalists export their bottlings to the United States. Such is the nature of craft production; farms like one I visited in Spoleto, Azienda Agricola Antonio Bachetoni, still prefer to sell their oil the old-fashioned way — on site and in local markets. A few, though, are available in the U.S., albeit in more or less limited supply. Good sources include Olio2Go, City Olive, Eataly, Famous Foods and Market Hall Foods.
Five olive oils to try
Located in Puglia, Italy’s top-producing region, this acclaimed mill relies on the softer Ogliarola variety and the more intense Coratina for bittersweet oils that show grassy, nutty and vegetal characteristics.
The most widely imported brand on this list comes from Sicily, where the Cutrera family makes a full range of DOP (protected designation of origin), organic and infused oils.
This Ligurian producer makes monovarietal oils from the richly fruity Taggiasca olive. Its Extremum CRU — golden and multilayered with herbal and vegetal notes — took home the top prize at the Ercole Olivario for non-DOP extra virgin oils in the “fruttato leggero” category (essentially “light-flavored”).
Pasquini makes IGP (protected geographical indication) and other extra virgin oils from the Frantoio and Moraiolo cultivars, which contribute to the green, savory, peppery qualities for which Tuscany is famous.
In the Sicilian DOP zone of Valle Trapanesi, this organic farm produces an extra virgin oil from a blend of three olives: Nocellara, Cerasuola and Biancolilla. Redolent of tomato plant and herbs like basil and mint, it’s known for its staying power — use sparingly.
‘Preserving Italy’: The book
Besides cooking and dressing salads with quality Italian olive oils like these, what else can you do?
Plenty. During the trip, I had the pleasure of getting to know fellow journalist Domenica Marchetti, who wrote the book on preserving Italy’s olive oil heritage — literally. Just released by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, “Preserving Italy: Canning, Curing, Infusing, and Bottling Italian Flavors and Traditions” is chock-full of recipes for pickles, relishes, sauces, jams, liqueurs and other Italian pantry staples; verdure sott’olio — or vegetables under oil — play a key role. I asked her for an introduction to the technique.
Ruth Tobias: What are some common uses for verdure sott’olio?
Domenica Marchetti: I use oil-preserved vegetables all the time. Because they tend to be vinegary (in spite of the fact that they’re submerged in oil), they make a great side to roasted or grilled meat — pork, beef, chicken, lamb, sausages. I like to fold oil-preserved asparagus, garlic scapes, peppers or zucchini into frittatas. Oil-preserved mushrooms, peppers and eggplant also make great toppings for pizza, because they counter the richness of the cheese. I dice them up and put them in insalata di riso (rice salad) and farro salad [as well as] egg or tuna salad. And of course they are great as part of an antipasto platter, with cheese and salumi.
RT: Can any vegetable be preserved in olive oil, or do some work better than others?
DM: Most vegetables can be preserved in oil, but the proper technique requires several steps: salting or semi-drying the vegetable to remove excess moisture, bathing it in a vinegar brine, draining and letting it dry out a bit more, and then submerging it in oil. These steps together make the vegetables safe for long-term keeping — though, just FYI, the USDA does not provide guidelines for preserving in oil and so doesn’t recommend it. For this reason, I store any homemade oil-preserved food in the fridge and use within three months.
Certain dense, watery vegetables, such as onions, carrots and celery, are better preserved in a vinegar brine to maintain their crunchy character; some, such as zucchini and peppers, are suited to both methods.
RT: Does the quality and/or character of the oil make a difference to the final product?
DM: Generally, the freshest oil is not used for preserving, because it’s not the best use of the oil. Rather, it’s reserved for drizzling on bread or grilled vegetables and meat. Older, mellower or milder oil is better for preserving, because it doesn’t overwhelm the flavor of whatever is being preserved. I used good (but not break-the-bank expensive) extra virgin olive oil for nearly all the oil-preserved recipes in my book.
Main image: Samples from a tasting of oils submitted to the Ercole Olivario competition. Credit: Copyright 2016 Ruth Tobias