In November we made not quite 30 gallons of pretty good olive oil, a record for our small orchard of 150 trees, almost all of which are less than two decades old, which is very young for olives. I planted the trees, or rather had them planted, in 1996 on a piece of land my family owns in the hills east of Cortona in Tuscany. They are no longer baby trees exactly, but rather strong-willed and sometimes sulky adolescents, growing untamed in all directions unless and until we apply the vigorous discipline of the pruning shears.
But like many difficult adolescents, the trees are also delightful at times, especially in May when the blossoms appear, small white clusters amid the grey-green leaves, almost invisible until you get right up to the branch, and again in late October when the fruits are swelling and turning from green to black, a process Italians call by a graceful if untranslatable name, invaiatura. That’s the point when you know it’s time to start thinking about picking olives and making oil.
A case of baskets
You haul out the nets and spread them in the field behind the farmhouse, checking for any mouse holes, and you count the number of picking baskets that will be tied around each harvester’s waist. Those traditional baskets are hand-woven, unlike so much in Italy that’s made with plastic in China, and consequently they cost a lot to replace. In October I bought two new ones at the Thursday market in Camucia, one for 35 euros (about $47) and then another, smaller, for only 25 euros ($35).
This year we delayed the harvest until almost mid-November, partly because that was when the team of harvesters could be there, but also because last year’s crop had produced a significantly bitter oil, and the hope was that by waiting we would tame the bitterness and let the olives develop their natural sweet fruitiness. I think we made a mistake, but making olive oil, it turns out, is a lifelong learning process, and every mistake counts as a valuable part of that. The oil we made this year is delicious, with a well-rounded, ripe fruitiness, but it probably doesn’t have the staying power that an earlier harvest would have brought. I call it pretty good oil — but not really great.
The power of polyphenols
Let me explain: Each olive oil is different, each year is different, each grove is different, and each olive variety is different. Those differences are what make extra virgin olive oil such an exciting product to make and to use in the kitchen and on the table. What I call staying power in an oil, the ability to last two years or longer if kept under appropriate conditions, comes from the polyphenols that give the oil bitter and pungent flavors. And just as the polyphenols are good for the oil, they are also good for us, for our bodies, for our health, protecting us from the dangerous free radicals that are present in the environment and are also a natural part of the aging process we all must undergo.
In the development of the olives over the course of a season, from those white blossoms to the fully ripened fruits, there is a climax when the polyphenols are at their peak. After that point, they start to fall off and fade, which allows the natural fruitiness in the oil to come forward. The climax of polyphenols often comes a week or ten days before the fruits have reached their maximum oil content. So producers who want to make the most oil will wait, but producers who want to make the best oil will have already harvested and made less but better oil.
Quality vs. quantity
Opting for less oil is, understandably, often difficult for traditional farmers to understand. Wise consultants like my colleague Jean-Marie Baldassari, who spends a lot of time with traditional farmers in the Middle East and North Africa, also spend a lot of time trying to convince traditionalists of the importance of producing excellent oil, rather than just a lot of oil.
But variety also enters into the picture. With the exception of a dozen or so trees that came with our property, our olives are mostly a variety called Leccino, which we planted because they are cold hardy, thus more suitable for our mountain climate. At around 2,000 feet, we are near the traditional limits for olive cultivation, although that is changing along with global warming. Leccino, like Taggiasca from Liguria and Arbequina from Catalonia, produces a softer, fruitier oil — perfect to blend, as Tuscan producers do, with more aggressively flavored Frantoio and Moraiolo to make the well-balanced oil that is typical of Tuscany at its best.
The weather factor
Yet a third factor in determining what experts call the organoleptic characteristics, meaning the aromas and flavors of olive oil, is climate, and here we have no control whatsoever. A long drought (almost no rain from July to late November) and exceptionally warm weather right up until December worked together this year to tame the usually more assertive flavors of the olives. That was true all over Tuscany, indeed in many parts of southern Europe.
So, late harvest of a naturally more fruity variety that was further sweetened by an exceptional climate means our 2011 Teverina oil is, yes, delicious, very fruity, terrific poured over the salt-baked salmon that we had for Christmas dinner, wonderful in olive oil ice cream or even spooned over an ordinary vanilla ice cream. But it gets a little lost in a tomato sauce, on a grilled Tuscan steak or basting a spit-roasted loin of garlicky pork. Of course, we use it for all those things anyway. Because that’s what we have and darned glad we are to have it, too! Next year, maybe, we’ll go back to an October harvest once again.
Nancy Harmon Jenkins is the author of several books, the latest of which is her newly revised “The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook.” Her other food books include, “Cucina del Sole: A Celebration of the Cuisines of Southern Italy” and “The Essential Mediterranean,” which looks at a dozen foods key to understanding Mediterranean cuisines. She also wrote “Flavors of Tuscany,” “Flavors of Puglia” and “The Mediterranean Diet Cookbook.” She is working on a book on Atlantic salmon. A former staff writer with The New York Times, Nancy continues to contribute to the Times in addition to writing for The Washington Post, Saveur, Food & Wine and other national publications. She currently divides her time between a Tuscan farmhouse and a home on the coast of Maine where she was born and raised. She has lived and worked throughout the countries of the Mediterranean, at various times making a home in Spain, France, Italy, Lebanon, and Cyprus as well as in Hong Kong and England. You can read more of her food writing on her site, NancyHarmonJenkins.com.
Top photo: Olive harvest basket. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins