Articles by Nancy Harmon Jenkins
I brought a jug of dark green Sicilian olive oil, freshly pressed from a friend’s farm, back to my home in the hills along the border between Tuscany and Umbria. “È buono,” said my neighbor, Arnaldo, when he tasted it. “It’s good but … non ė genuino.”
Non ė genuino – it’s about the worst thing an Italian can say about another Italian’s food, whether oil, cheese, wine or pork ragù. It translates as “it’s not the real thing,” but what it really means is, “This is not the way we do it here, not the way our forebears have been doing it since Etruscan times, and not, in fact, the right way.”
In this case, caro Arnaldo, I beg to differ. What I had offered was a fresh-tasting oil made from Nocellara del Belice olives, picked green and pressed immediately, radiant with the almond-to-artichoke flavors characteristic of that varietal, which is grown mostly in and around western Sicily’s Belice valley. Moreover, it was lush, verdant and fresh from the press — I knew because I was there when it happened.
This encounter led me to think about the astonishing variety of foods that proliferate throughout the long, skinny, undulating boot that is Italy, and about the intense pride each region, each province, each little mountain village or coastal fishing port takes in its own traditions.
Italians, it almost goes without saying, invented the locavore phenomenon — and invented it a long time ago. It’s what makes a culinary tour of this remarkable country so seductive and astonishing.
What makes olive oils great?
But it’s also a trap of deception. A New York Times reporter — who happens to be a friend of mine — fell into that trap recently when writing about Umbrian olive oil. “Our oil,” her informants told her (I’m extrapolating), “is not like that sweet Tuscan oil. Our oil has character!”
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Sweet oil? Tuscan? Really? Peppery, fruity, bitter, complex — these are the characteristics I taste in a well-made Tuscan oil. But not sweet.
Umbrian olive oil can be, and often is, excellent. The main local cultivar is Moraiolo, which is high in antioxidants that give it an overwhelming intensity, so much so that producers blend Moraiolo olives with others to calm that muscular quality. But Umbrian olive oil is also hard to distinguish from Tuscan oil. In fact, I would argue almost all high-quality central Italian oils — made from a mix of olives (Frantoio, Leccino, Pendolino and Moraiolo are the usual blend); often grown at high altitudes; usually harvested when still immature and pressed immediately thereafter — typically share certain acerbic flavors and peppery aromas that are redolent of freshly cut grass, artichoke or tomato leaves. I doubt most North American consumers, even well-educated ones, confronted with a selection of oils from Umbria and Tuscany, could tell them apart.
There are, I’m told, more than 500 olive cultivars grown in Italy, some of them widely known and grown such as Leccino, universally valued for its resistance to low temperatures, and some of them only from very specific regions, like Dritto, an olive that appears to be exclusive to the Abruzzi, or Perenzana olives from northern Puglia. With the spread of olive culture to other regions of the world — California, Chile, South Africa, New Zealand — some of these cultivars are being grown far from their native soil, and the oil made from them often suffers as a result — non ė genuino!
Or at least that’s what Italians believe, and my heart — and my palate — agrees. The best oils taste of that elusive characteristic called terroir — a combination of environment (soil structure, altitude, climate, weather), variety and technology, both traditional and modern, adjusted to match time-honored local tastes. In Provence, for instance, local taste demands a fusty flavor, the result of anaerobic fermentation in the olives, producing an oil considered defective elsewhere.
But I also believe North Americans are fortunate not to be trapped in the locavore delusion. We have access to olive oils from all over Italy, indeed from all over the world. How to deal with that abundance can be a problem, but it’s a problem we should welcome. Unlike those Umbrian producers, we can buy an Umbrian oil and a Tuscan one and taste them side by side, along with one, perhaps, from Puglia, or Sicily, or even from Verona in northern Italy. Or indeed Tunisia or Spain or New Zealand.
The revolution starts here
Now I’m going to tell you something radical: I have tried to love olive oils from retail outlets across the entire U.S., but with few exceptions, I have almost always been disappointed. Many retailers simply don’t recognize the importance of harvest dates or the critical significance of maintaining oils in dark, cool environments. They display bottles under shop lights in order to entice customers, and they’ve paid top dollar for oil when it first arrives on the market, so even if it stays around a while, the price still has to reflect their costs.
So more and more, my advice is to go to online distributors, many of whom get their oil directly from the producer and most of whom keep their precious bottles warehoused in a dark, cool environment. Here are a few I recommend; I’ve also noted where there are retail stores. Note that the first three sell only Italian olive oils; the rest carry a variety from many other areas, including California:
- www.olio2go.com, retail store at 8400 Hilltop Road, Fairfax, Va.; (703) 876-4666.
- www.gustiamo.com, mail order only; (718) 860-2949.
- www.dipaloselects.com, retail store at DiPalo Fine Foods, 200 Grand St., New York, N.Y.; (212) 226-1033.
- www.markethallfoods.com, retail store at Rockridge Market Hall, 5655 College Avenue, Oakland, Calif.; (510) 250-6000.
- www.cortibrothers.com, retail store at 5810 Folsom Blvd., Sacramento, Calif.; (916) 736-3814.
- www.zingermans.com, retail store at 422 Detroit St., Ann Arbor, Mich.; (734) 663-3354.
Main photo: Bottles of olive oil. Credit: iStockPhoto
When I was growing up in Maine, mussels were poor folks’ food, an archetypical trash fish. Searching old New England cookbooks, you’d be hard-pressed to find a mention of mussels, though clams, crabs, even whelks are conspicuous.
I always remember my mother’s admonition when she spied the Baptist minister’s wife gleaning mussels from a rocky ledge near the beach where we spent sunny summer days. “There,” said my mother, always alert to social distinctions, “you see how poor the Baptists are — the minister has to eat mussels!”
I was well into my 20s and a long way from Maine before I dared tackle the suspect bivalves. And I was won over immediately. Compared to the chewy chowder clams I was used to, the plump, briny taste and soft texture of mussels were revelatory.
The tide turns on mussels
If mussels were poor folks’ food in Maine, in New York, where I gravitated as soon as I could get away from New England, one of the classiest items in town was Billi Bi soup, a delectable concoction of mussels simmered in loads of wine and cream, their briny broth thickened to velvet and rich with egg yolks. It was the toast of the King Cole Bar at the St. Regis Hotel back in the day, though nowadays it seems to have disappeared from the menu at that venerable institution.
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New York’s mussel love may have had to do with the impact of immigrant populations on local cuisine. Greek, Italian and French cooks all have a natural appreciation for the mollusk. Still, Julia Child was advised, when working on the manuscript of what would become “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” that many Americans considered mussels to be downright poisonous.
Fearlessly, however, she included several recipes. And whether it was owing to Child’s influence or the growth of American travel abroad and investigation of more sophisticated cuisines, we were soon a nation convinced, and mussels today are as common as … well, they still don’t make the list of America’s 10 favorite fish, but there’s hardly a seafood restaurant anywhere that doesn’t have mussels on the menu year round.
Perhaps it’s because of the availability of aquacultured mussels. Even though mussels have been farmed for centuries, production in North America started to climb only in the 1990s and really took off after the turn of the century. Today’s minister’s wife is less apt to scavenge and more likely to dine on acquacultured mussels produced by the process of rope culture, which simply means long ropes that hang in orderly rows in clean, salty water, whether close in or offshore. The mussels, which start as seed hanging in mesh bags, eventually attach themselves to the ropes before growing to market size. This is a boon for cooks, because it means the tiresome practice of rinsing and purging the critters over and over and over again to get rid of sand is no longer necessary.
Cooks today have only to rinse mussels in a colander under running water then pull away and discard the beard — that whiskery, weedy stuff between the shells that attaches the mussel to its bed and comes off with a stout tug.
There are actually two types of mussels, the most common being Atlantic blue mussels, Mytilus edulis. This is the one most likely to be found in good fish markets, usually sold by the pound or by the quart in mesh bags. They’re grown widely along the Northeast coast, but especially in Maine and off Prince Edward Island. Bang’s Island mussels from Casco Bay, Maine, are a current favorite with many New England chefs (available from Harbor Fish Market in Portland). But the other kind, the Mediterranean black mussel (Mytilus galloprovincialis), is also available, farmed in the cold waters of Washington’s Puget Sound. I recently had a shipment from Taylor Shellfish Farms in Washington, where Mediterranean mussels are currently on offer for $4.95 a pound — but be advised that overnight shipping, which is necessary, can add a lot to that cost. It makes sense to plan a big mussel feed and order a lot.
The black mussels were delicious — succulent, plump, tasty, every bit as exciting as those long-ago ones I sampled in New York and probably even better than what the Baptist minister’s wife was foraging on the ledge above the beach.
Mussels, as mentioned earlier, need only a quick rinse and de-bearding before they’re ready to cook. They should be cooked while still alive. Discard any with cracked shells, or that don’t close up their shells when lightly tapped against the side of the sink — a sign they’ve gone to mussel heaven.
I turned the Mediterranean mussels into what I like to think is a classic southern Italian pasta, even though I actually made up the dish on the spur of the moment to take advantage of their sparkling freshness.
Cavatelli With Mussels and Saffron Potatoes
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 35 minutes
Total time: 50 minutes
Yield: Makes enough for 4 main-course servings, 6 servings as a primo or first course
5 pounds mussels (about 4 quarts)
3 stalks celery, diced to make about ½ cup
1 large shallot, diced to make about ½ cup
½ medium fennel bulb, diced to make about ½ cup
2 garlic cloves, crushed and chopped
½ cup extra virgin olive oil, divided
Small bunch of flat-leaf parsley, minced, to make ¼ cup, plus a few extra parsley leaves for a garnish
1½ cups dry white wine
1 pound waxy potatoes (fingerlings, yellow Finns or similar), diced small
Big pinch of saffron
Pinch of ground dried red chili such as piment d’Espelette or Aleppo pepper
½ pound cavatelli pasta
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1. Rinse the mussels under running water, pulling off beards. Set aside.
2. Combine celery, shallot, fennel, and garlic in a pan large enough to hold all the mussels. Stir in ¼ cup of olive oil and set over medium low heat. Cook gently while stirring until the vegetables are soft, then stir in minced parsley.
3. Add the wine and bring to a simmer. Tip in the cleaned mussels and cook, stirring occasionally to bring up the ones on the bottom, until all the mussels have opened. As they open, extract them and set aside in a deep plate or bowl. If after about 15 minutes there are still a few mussels that stubbornly refuse to open, discard them. Turn off the heat under the pan but keep it in a warm place.
4. In a separate skillet, combine the diced potatoes with the remaining oil and set over medium heat. Cook, stirring and tossing, until the potatoes start to brown along their edges. Toss the lightly browned potatoes into the mussel broth, adding the saffron and chili, and return the mussel pan to low heat to finish cooking the potatoes, just simmering them in the broth.
5. While the potatoes are finishing, shuck the mussels, discarding the shells. Add the shucked mussels to the potatoes, along with the saffron and chili.
6. Bring salted water to a boil in a pan and add the pasta. Cook until the pasta is almost al dente, then strain it and stir it into the mussel-potato combination. By this time the potatoes should be soft.
7. Add salt and plenty of black pepper, then taste and adjust the seasoning to taste. Serve immediately, either as a soup or as a pasta, garnishing with the whole parsley leaves.
Main photo: Mussels. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins
Once September turns the mid-month corner, nights start to get darned chilly in Maine. By the end of the month, we’ve already come close to a frost, and that means the tomato season is heading to collapse.
Tomatoes? Maine? I can hear your skepticism. But, yes, even in Maine we grow tomatoes, and we love them for the few very short weeks that they flourish. They’ll never be the intensely flavored ones I remember from the Mediterranean or the big fat juicy globes from New Jersey that proliferate in New York City’s Greenmarkets, but, yes, we have tomatoes and we cherish them.
Tomatoes for every season
We appreciate them so much so that we decorate our window sills from mid-September on into October with specimens we hope will “ripen” enough to be sliced into a salad. And those that are already ripe we turn into preserves for the winter — frozen whole tomatoes, tomato sauce put up in Mason jars and tomato relish for winter hamburgers and baked beans. (We’re also favorably inclined to baked beans, but more on that another time.) You can find my directions for preserving tomatoes here.
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But what to do with all that tomato sauce once you’ve got the harvest under control? The easiest thing is to make the simplest pasta sauce in the world — just open a jar of tomato sauce, chop a garlic clove coarsely, simmer it gently in a couple of tablespoons of olive oil, add the tomato sauce and, if you have it, some chopped fresh herbs — parsley, basil, rosemary, all are fine — or a half teaspoon of crumbled dried oregano and perhaps a small dried red chili. Let the whole thing simmer together for no more than 5 or 10 minutes, stir in a tablespoon of unsalted butter at the end, add some freshly ground black pepper and serve it over pasta with plenty of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Grana Padano cheese.
This is guaranteed to warm all hearts on the coldest night of autumn when the rain sheets down and threatens to turn to snow.
And for a more elaborate presentation, when there’s a bit more time to cook, make a classic Tuscan pasta al forno. This is simple to prepare, but it cooks in a slow oven for a long time — perfect to start off on a chilly Saturday, then go for a long walk and have the ragu ready for you when you come home.
Pasta al forno
Prep time: About 20 minutes, mostly done during cooking
Cook time: About 3 hours
Total time: About 3 hours
Yield: Makes 8 servings
½ cup diced pancetta or guanciale
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 pound pork in one piece (boneless loin is fine)
Sea salt and black pepper
1 medium onion, chopped
1 garlic clove, chopped
1 medium carrot, chopped
1 stalk of celery, chopped
¼ cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
2 bay leaves
2 pints preserved tomatoes or tomato sauce
2 cups coarsely grated mixed cheeses (Parmigiano-Reggiano, Pecorino Romano, smoked provola or similar)
½ cup ricotta
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
About 1 pound (500 grams) short, stubby pasta such as rigatoni, lumache, calamari or calamaretti, etc.
About ½ cup unflavored bread crumbs
About ½ cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
1. Combine the pancetta and olive oil in a heavy-duty saucepan, one that can go in the oven. Set over medium heat. Dry the pork thoroughly with paper towels and sprinkle generously with salt and black pepper, then add to the pan. Brown the pancetta and pork on all sides; the pancetta should become crisp, and the piece of pork should be golden all around. When done, remove the browned pancetta and pork and set aside on separate plates.
2. While the meat is browning, chop together the onion, garlic, carrot, celery and parsley to make a finely chopped mixture. You should have about 1½ to 2 cups of vegetables.
3. Preheat the oven to 300 F.
4. Add the chopped vegetables to the pan, lower the heat to medium-low and cook the vegetables, stirring frequently, until soft and fragrant, about 10 minutes. Then add bay leaves and the tomatoes or tomato sauce. If you’re using whole tomatoes, break them up with the side of a spoon.
5. Nestle the pork into the vegetable mixture and add water to come almost to the top of the meat. Bring the liquid to a simmer, cover the saucepan and transfer to the oven. Cook very gently for about 2 hours, or until the pork is very tender and the vegetables have almost dissolved into the sauce.
6. When the ragu is ready, remove from the oven and let cool down to warm room temperature. Remove the pork and set aside.
7. Using a hand blender, blend the vegetables to a chunky sauce. (You could also use a food processor, pulsing briefly, to keep the sauce somewhat chunky.)
8. Shred or chop the pork and add to the ragu along with the reserved pancetta.
9. Set the oven to 400 F.
10. Bring 4 quarts to 6 quarts of water to a rolling boil, adding a big spoonful of salt.
11. While the water is heating, mix together the grated cheeses with the ricotta.
12. Using a tablespoon of butter, grease the bottom and sides of a rectangular oven dish approximately 10 inches by 12 inches and at least 2 inches deep.
13. Spread a thin layer of ragu on the bottom of the dish. Combine the remaining ragu with the cheese mixture.
14. Add the pasta to the boiling water and stir with a long-handled spoon. Cook the pasta for just 4 to 5 minutes from the moment the water returns to a boil. The pasta will finish cooking in the oven. Drain and immediately combine the pasta with the cheesy ragu. Turn into the prepared oven dish. Top with the bread crumbs and grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, then dot with the remaining butter and dribble a tablespoon or two of oil over the top.
15. Transfer to the hot oven and bake for 20 minutes, or until the top is brown and bubbling. Remove and serve immediately.
Main photo: Jars of tomato sauce ready for the winter pantry. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins
Sun, Sea & Olives: Forty years ago, I took my young family to live in the hill country between Tuscany and Umbria, Italy. Our mountain neighbors were all self-sufficient farmers, raising almost their entire food supply themselves. They grew vegetables and beans, harvested chestnuts and mushrooms, raised pigs, chickens, rabbits and sometimes sheep. Only salt and pepper for curing pork, coffee and infrequently a piece of chocolate came from a shop in town, 20 kilometers (12 miles) away.
Of course they made wine — thin, sour stuff — and pressed their olives to make musty, fusty oil (pork fat was much more to their liking). And they grew their own wheat, threshed it and had it ground into flour for the unsalted bread that was then and still is today a Tuscan staple without which no meal is complete. Sometimes, in fact, bread was the meal, maybe with a thin slice of prosciutto or guanciale from the family pig or a dribble of rancid oil to add flavor.
So wheat was the primary crop, the survival mechanism on which everything else depended, and the annual harvest in July was a moment fraught with anxiety that erupted into celebration once the anxiety was relieved. Our valley had one threshing machine, and it went from farm to farm, each day fetching up in a different place, and the farm folk followed it. When it arrived at our neighbors’ farm, people descended for miles around to help with the hot, dirty, tiring work of the harvest and take part in the feast and dancing that followed.
I think about all this now because it is once again harvest time in the Mediterranean. The wheat harvest begins in North Africa in June, rolling north, across Anatolia, Italy, and Spain, as the tall stalks fall to the cutting blades. The landscape that was green a month earlier is bleached now with the color of ripening grain and then golden with the chaff left behind after the harvesters have come through. Our neighbors no longer grow their own wheat, but the harvest is still critical throughout Tuscany.
Durum wheat, the go-to choice for pasta
Sun, Sea & Olives
One in an occasional series on the Mediterranean diet.
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A lot of this wheat, especially in the hotter, drier parts to the south, is hard durum wheat (Triticum turgidum, var. durum), the venerable species used for so many traditional Mediterranean preparations, from bulgur (burghul) to tarhana to couscous to pasta. American cookbook writers used to claim durum semolina was difficult to work in the home, that you needed special heavy equipment to turn it into pasta. But in fact, throughout the south of Italy, especially in Puglia, hard durum wheat, as semola or semolina, is regularly used in home kitchens to make orecchiette and other traditional pastas. And the great breads of Altamura and Laterza get much of their character and their golden color from being made with locally grown durum wheat, using a slow-rising lievito madre (what we might call sourdough) and baked in a wood-fired oven.
Italian law requires all commercial pasta to be made from durum wheat, one reason why Italian pasta in general is of such high quality. The government is concerned with maintaining quality because Italians are world-champion pasta eaters — between 26 and 28 kilos (61.6 pounds) per capita annually depending on the study. And most of that is commercial or boxed pasta (called in Italian pasta secca).
A more useful distinction to keep in mind, however, is the one between industrial and artisanal pasta. The artisanal product is generally of much higher quality, and, like most artisanal things, costs more, a reflection of greater care in production. To qualify as artisanal, pasta must be made at consistently low temperatures (no higher than 122 degrees F) from start to finish, extruded through bronze dyes (producing a roughened surface) and dried slowly. Low temperatures keep the wheat from cooking, so it retains its pale color; the high temperatures and Teflon dyes of industrially produced pasta result in a golden yellow color and a sleek, plasticized surface.
Gragnano, a small city south of Naples, has been at least since the 18th century one of those places Italians cite for high-quality artisanal pasta. Why? Several historical reasons — access to excellent durum wheat through the port of Amalfi, just over the Lattari mountains on the Golfo di Salerno; clean, fresh water cascading from those same mountains to power the grist mills that ground the grain; and a constant flow of brisk breezes to dry the pasta, which once hung on rods in the streets of Gragnano until it was ready to ship to hungry Naples across the bay. Nowadays, Gragnano has a coveted Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT) from the European Union, a certification that pasta with that seal has been made according to precise regulations.
Pastificio Faella is one of nine Gragnano producers that make IGT pasta. I spent some time recently in Gragnano with Pastificio Faella’s Sergio Cinque. As we toured the factory, Cinque described the various phases of drying and the importance of each one. “If it’s not done properly,” he said, “there’s a real risk of fermentation and that will result in pasta with an acid flavor.”
But it was the perfume of wheat that imbued the small factory with its warm, nutty, slightly dusty fragrance. To understand the high quality of artisanal pasta, Cinque suggested this test: Prepare equal quantities, say 100 grams, of ordinary commercial pasta and Pasta Faella. Bring two pots of water to a boil and add the pasta, one to each pot. Cook for 8 to 10 minutes and then measure.
You’ll find, he said, that the Faella pasta will expand notably in the water, while ordinary pasta will remain the same. That’s because under high-temperature drying, a crystallization — another word is plastification — takes place, and the pasta doesn’t absorb water at the same rate. What that means is that artisanal pasta is more easily digested and gives a greater sense of satiety with less of the actual food.
I left with a kilo package of Faella’s excellent spaghetti tucked under my arm. When I got home, I turned it into this pasta dish, a variation on one in my daughter Sara Jenkins’ lovely cookbook, “Olives and Oranges.”
- ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
- 2 or 3 pints (1½ pounds to 2 pounds) mixed small tomatoes—cherry, grape and currant
- Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
- About 1 pound (500 grams) spaghetti, preferably IGT Gragnano
- Handful of chopped fresh arugula, leaves only (discard tough stems)
- ⅔ cup grated or shaved bottarga or freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
- Bring 4 to 6 quarts of water to a rolling boil.
- While the water is heating, add the oil to a large, heavy skillet and set over medium-high heat. When the oil is very hot (but not smoking), add half the tomatoes, sprinkle them quickly with salt and cook, tossing the skillet, until the tomatoes start to wrinkle and collapse. Add the rest of the tomatoes and continue cooking and tossing for another 2 minutes. (Yes, some of the tomatoes will be more cooked than others—that’s the point.)
- Push the tomatoes to one side and add the garlic to the pan. As the garlic starts to soften, mix it in with the tomatoes, gently pressing the tomatoes to release some of their juices. When the sauce is thick, remove from the heat and add a pinch of salt and a few turns of the pepper mill. Keep the sauce warm until the pasta is done.
- Add a big spoonful of salt to the pasta water and let it come to the boil again, then plunge in the pasta and give it a stir with a long-handled spoon. Cover the pot until the water returns to the boil, then remove the lid and let the pasta cook vigorously until done—about 10 minutes.
- Prepare a warm serving bowl by adding some pasta water to the bowl to heat it up, but don’t forget to tip the water out before you add the pasta to the bowl.
- Drain the pasta, transfer to the warm bowl and immediately toss with the warm tomato sauce, stirring in the arugula. Toss again, then sprinkle with the bottarga or cheese and serve immediately.
If possible, select from an array of little grape and cherry tomatoes, mixing them up for a colorful presentation. We like to serve this with grated bottarga (salted and dried fish roe) on top, but you could also serve it with freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.
Main photo: Spaghetti With Sun-Burst Tomatoes. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins
Sun, Sea & Olives: The feast of St. John the Baptist, is a date laden with folklore and myth, like all those associated with equinoxes and solstices. It’s June 24, and throughout Europe it’s referred to as midsummer, even though summer officially begins only three days earlier. In many cultures it’s a tradition to celebrate with bonfires, almost always an indication of some ritual connection to the sun.
This year, I got up very early, just at dawn on the 24th, and went to check on the great walnut tree. This sturdy specimen planted 40 years ago now lords over the front lawn and spreads over the surrounding grapevines, which annoys the grapevine master to no end, for reasons I’ll get to later. The boughs are low and heavy, so it was easy to reach the round, green fruits, still quite firm to the touch.
Within a few minutes I had 32 of them in my basket, harvested well before the dew had time to dry. That is the beginning of the prescription for nocino – the nuts must be harvested on the 24th of June before the dew is dry. Nocino is a fabled Italian digestif, pride of farmhouse kitchens in Tuscany and many other parts of the country too. Some nocino is available commercially (Padre Peppe is a famous brand from Puglia), but what most people seek out is the straight-from-the-farm, homemade, handmade miracle of bittersweet flavors — the kind, most people will swear, their grandmothers were noted for and no one has been able to duplicate since.
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Actually, making nocino isn’t all that difficult, apart from the requisite early rising. Once the nuts are brought into the kitchen, they are split or cut with a knife or partially crushed in a mortar, my preferred method. The insides are pure white, but you can clearly see the milky embryo of what will become, by October, a full-fledged walnut.
In my kitchen, the lightly crushed fruits go into a glass jug along with pieces of cinnamon stick, whole cloves, crushed nutmegs and a half dozen star anise. Some cooks might add a whole vanilla bean, split down the middle to release its flavor, but I keep it pure. I add 2 liters of alcohol and 3 cups of sugar dissolved in a cup of boiling water and let it cool before adding to the mix. Plus the zest of a lemon and three or four thin slices of the same lemon. The jar gets sealed, set on a sunny shelf and left, according to my instructions, for a philosophical month, during which it is stirred or shaken daily.
What on earth is a philosophical month? After a lot of searching, I figured out a philosophical month is 40 days. The term comes from medieval alchemists, though why it’s called that and why it differs from a normal lunar or solar month I cannot say.
But now the jug sits on my kitchen window ledge, growing steadily darker, to be siphoned off and bottled Aug. 5.
And why is the master of the grapevines annoyed with the walnut tree? Part of the walnut’s mythology has to do with its potent effect on growing things, doubtless owing to the fact that the tree, roots, leaves and fruits are all laden with tannins; the branches that extend over the vines inhibit them from further growth. “The tree of idleness” is what they called the big, old walnut at the kafeneion — the local cafe — in the Cyprus village where we once lived, and the old gents of the village idled their time away under its branches, loath to disturb themselves for another coffee or ouzo, with just enough energy to throw the dice for another game of trictrac.
Years ago, when our walnut tree was much younger, Bruno, the neighboring contadino, warned me never to fall asleep beneath it. “You might never wake up,” he said with a dark look. The tree of witches, I’ve also heard said. The legendary witches’ tree of Benevento in southern Italy, under which they held their Sabbaths, was a walnut.
Walnuts show up in variety of Mediterranean dishes
A week after making nocino, I finally got the last traces of walnut juice out of my fingernails, which were stained first yellow and then dark brown with that tannic juice. The whole process led me to think more about how valuable walnuts are and what an important but all too often unacknowledged ingredient they are in traditional Mediterranean cuisines, from Greece, Turkey and Lebanon, where crushed walnuts add flavor and crunch to sweet, honey-drenched pastries, all the way to the Perigord region of southwest France, where walnut oil is often used in cooking, and sweet vin de noix, an aperitif rather than a digestif, is made from walnuts — also harvested on the morning of St. Jean Baptiste.
It’s not surprising they should be so prevalent. First off, their healthfulness: Walnuts are one of the few plant sources for valuable omega-3 fatty acids, so necessary for human metabolism. Vegetarians and vegans especially are well advised to add walnuts to their diets because the only other good, readily available source of this essential fat is oily fish. Moreover, walnuts, like extra virgin olive oil, have a high percentage of antioxidants, anti-inflammatories and monounsaturated fat — all things that can make us live longer and more healthfully.
But real happiness comes from the good things walnuts do in just about anything they’re added to. Pounded walnut sauces exist in every Mediterranean cuisine: Turkish cooks make tarator, a walnut-based sauce, to go with fried seafood — a great summertime combination for al fresco dining — and in Italian Liguria, the original pesto genovese, that quintessential basil sauce so characteristic of the season, seems to have been made as often with walnuts as with pine nuts. Here are some hints to spur your imagination:
- Add a little walnut oil to a salad dressing for extra richness.
- Toast a handful of chopped walnuts with some breadcrumbs to make a great topping for any sort of baked cheese pasta.
- Add a handful of chopped walnuts to bread or biscuit dough.
- Add walnuts and little knobs of feta or soft goat cheese to a plain green salad, or combine walnuts and goat cheese to make an elegant topping for pre-dinner crostini, served with a glass of chilled rosé.
- Make a simple, seasonal dessert: a handful of walnuts and a bowl of fresh-sliced, tree-ripened peaches.
Or do as cooks in the eastern Mediterranean do and serve a very plain cake, not too sweet, made from olive oil and yogurt, enriched with toasted chopped walnuts; it makes a fine accompaniment to seasonal berries or those same sliced peaches. And here’s a secret: It’s just as good for Sunday breakfast as it is for Saturday night’s dessert.
This is from “The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook”; the original was made with mastic-flavored olive oil, but because that is not easy to find, I’ve adapted it using vanilla instead.
- Butter and flour for an 8-inch springform pan
- ¾ cup walnut meats
- ¾ cup unbleached all-purpose flour
- ½ teaspoon baking soda
- ½ teaspoon baking powder
- Pinch of fine sea salt
- 4 medium eggs, separated
- ¾ cup sugar
- 2 tablespoons plain yogurt (full fat is best)
- ⅓ cup extra virgin olive oil
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla essence
- Preheat the oven to 300 F. Butter and flour the cake pan.
- When the oven is hot, spread the walnuts on a sheet pan and set in the oven for 15 to 20 minutes, until they are lightly toasted. Let cool, then chop finely or grind to a fine texture in a food processor, but do not let them process into a paste. The walnuts should still be a little gritty.
- Combine the flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt and toss with a fork to mix well. Add the ground nuts and mix again.
- Beat the egg yolks in a separate bowl, gradually beating in about half the sugar. Beat until the yolks are thick and pale. A little at a time, beat in the yogurt, olive oil and vanilla essence, beating well after each addition. Fold the flour mixture into the yolks.
- With clean beaters, beat the egg whites to soft peaks, then sprinkle with the remaining sugar and beat to stiff peaks. Stir about a quarter of the beaten whites into the yolk-flour mixture, then, using a spatula to bring up the batter at the base of the bowl, continue folding the remainder, about a third at a time. When everything is well combined, turn it into the prepared cake pan.
- Transfer to the oven and bake for 50 to 60 minutes, or until the top is golden, the center is firm and the cake pulls away a little from the sides of the pan. Remove and transfer to a cake rack. When cool, remove the cake from the pan.
- Serve the cake plain, or top it with a sprinkling of powdered sugar or serve with a dollop of whipped cream or ice cream (maple walnut perhaps?). You could ice the cake if you wish, but that’s not in the Mediterranean tradition.
Main photo: Walnuts. Credit: iStockphoto
Sun, Sea & Olives: There’s a lot of talk these days about ancient grains, but frankly, as far as wheat is concerned, it would be hard to get more ancient than einkorn (Triticum monococcum). Einkorn, archeologists agree, is the oldest cultivated grain in the Mediterranean, and the Mediterranean is the great cradle of wheat in all its forms — whether as porridge (probably the oldest wheat “dish”), bread, pasta or even tabbouleh or couscous, it all begins in and around the Mediterranean.
Einkorn is, then, the ancestor, the wheat that precedes all others, including modern T. aestivum, aka bread wheat, from which we get our all-purpose flour. T. aestivum is “only” 10,000 years young; einkorn is much older. Botanists call it a relict crop, meaning its cultivation has died away except in a few remote places.
That’s too bad, because it has a number of virtues modern wheats lack, principally a gluten structure tolerated by gluten-sensitive people (although not by those diagnosed with celiac disease). Some types of Italian farro, called farro piccolo or small farro, are in fact T. monococcum, though most farro is emmer, T. dicoccum, or spelt, T. speltum.
All this may be confusing to most people, but not to Eli Rogosa, a wheat farmer and grain investigator of exemplary determination, who, after identifying and researching einkorn in the Palestinian territories and Israel, set herself to growing einkorn, as well as emmer, on fields in central Maine and western Massachusetts. Growing the grain and milling the berries into flour that is uniquely gratifying to turn into bread — as I’ve been discovering in recent weeks.
Einkorn is a whole grain in the truest form
Einkorn flour is sweetly nutty and flavorful. Unlike most whole-wheat flour, in which various parts of the grains are milled separately then recombined, this is a genuine, whole-meal, whole-grain flour with nothing separated or recombined — just pure whole grains of wheat milled to a soft, tan flour. You can find out more and order flour (or whole-wheat kernels if you wish) at growseed.org, the website of The Heritage Grain Conservancy. Meanwhile, here’s how to turn it into a delicious bread, made with approximately half einkorn flour and half unbleached all-purpose flour.
The process takes two to three days, although you will only be working a small amount of time each day. The tastiest bread I can make begins with a pre-ferment, also called a sponge; in France, this is a poolish, while in Italy it’s a biga. Handling the dough like this -- letting it rise, gradually adding more liquid and flour -- helps to develop fermentation and the complex flavors that result. Note: I prefer King Arthur unbleached all-purpose flour for this. I also set a pitcher of water on the counter the night before so the purifying chemicals added to most tap water will evaporate.
- ½ teaspoon instant yeast, divided
- ½ cup room-temperature water
- 3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, divided, plus more for dusting
- 2½ to 3 cups einkorn flour (or use whole-wheat or whole-rye flour)
- 1½ cups water, at room temperature
- 1 tablespoon fine sea salt
- Cornmeal or semolina flour, for dusting
- Combine ¼ teaspoon of the yeast, ½ cup of water and ½ cup all-purpose flour in a bowl and beat gently for about 30 strokes with a wooden spoon to activate the gluten. This is the starter sponge. It will be a thick slurry, more like a batter than a bread dough.
- Cover with plastic wrap and set aside to rise overnight in a cool place (not the refrigerator).
- The next day, combine the sponge with about 2 cups of all-purpose flour and 2½ cups of einkorn flour. Dissolve the remaining ¼ teaspoon of yeast in 1¼ cups of tepid water and add to the bowl. Stir to mix well; it will still be quite shaggy. Cover again with plastic wrap and set aside to rest for at least 20 to 30 minutes; it can also rest for a couple of hours. This is what bakers call the autolyse.
- Use the remaining flours to lightly dust the bread board. Add the salt to the dough and knead it briefly by pushing it onto the board, then folding it over itself, turning it a quarter turn and then pushing it out and folding it over again. Keep doing this until the consistency of the dough is springy and no longer sticky. Add more flour to the board if the dough starts to stick. It should be neither so wet that it doesn’t hang together nor so dry that it looks and feels powdery. You may add a touch more water or flour from time to time, depending on how the dough feels to you.
- Return the dough to a rinsed-out bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Set aside to rise once more -- several hours at room temperature or overnight in the refrigerator. Once or twice during this period, punch the dough down and fold it over itself, then let it rise again.
- When the rising time is up, turn the dough onto a lightly floured board and divide it in two, each piece weighing about 1½ pounds.
- Press the dough out on the board as if you were shaping pizza, and fold it over onto itself several times, like a letter you’re folding to go into an envelope, very firmly to get rid of excess air holes. Give the dough a quarter turn each time you fold it. Finally, shape the dough into a round boule or a longer, more slender piece, like a thick baguette or what French bakers call a bâtarde.
- Scatter cornmeal or semolina over oven trays or sheet pans and set the unbaked breads on the pans. (Some home bakers use terracotta baking tiles set on a rack in the oven. If you do that, instead of sheet pans, scatter cornmeal or semolina thickly on a bread peel -- a wooden shingle with a handle that will allow you to transfer the breads directly onto the tiles.)
- Cover the breads with a damp cloth and leave to rise for 2 to 2½ hours.
- Preheat the oven to 450 F. (If using baking tiles, preheat for at least 30 minutes; even if the temperature control light goes off, the tiles will need more time to heat to baking temperature.) Have ready a deep skillet on a rack just above the oven floor. When you’re ready to transfer the bread to the oven, have ready a teakettle of boiling water.
- Just before transferring to the oven, use a sharp knife or razor to slash the tops of the loaves in whatever pattern pleases you.
- Slide the breads on their trays into the oven, or set the peels directly on the oven tiles and give a jerk to shift the breads onto the tiles. Immediately pour an inch or more of boiling water into the skillet and close the oven door.
- Bake for 30 minutes, then reduce heat to 350 F and bake another 15 to 20 minutes. Remove the breads from the oven when done and transfer to a wire rack to cool.
For no-knead bread: Another foolproof method, developed by New York master baker Jim Leahy of Sullivan Street Bakery and made popular by New York Times writer Mark Bittman, is “no-knead bread.” (But as you can see, there’s not a lot of kneading with the previous method.)
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In this case, prepare the dough as above, but after folding each loaf and shaping it, set it on a heavily floured kitchen towel and cover with a dampened towel to rise for about 2 hours. Toward the end of that time, heat the oven to 450 F and insert a heavy covered pot, like a cast-iron Dutch oven. (Le Creuset pots are perfect for this.) Let the oven and the pot heat for at least 30 minutes, then, working rapidly and carefully, pull the pot out of the oven, uncover it and turn the floured cloth over to drop the bread dough into it. Give the pot a shake to let the dough settle. (There is no need to slash the loaf.) Clamp the lid on again and return to the oven. Let the bread bake for 30 minutes or so, then remove the cover, lower the heat to 350 F and continue baking for another 15 minutes before turning the bread out on a rack to cool.
The advantage to this method is that the pot with its lid on acts like a miniature oven and creates a crisp toasted crust without either slashing the loaf or adding steam to the oven. The disadvantage is that unless you have a very large oven or double ovens, you must bake one loaf after another, but the results are so spectacular that it’s worth it.
Main photo: Bread made from a mixture of einkorn flour and all-purpose flour. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins
Sun, Sea & Olives: Start your day with bacon and lose 10 pounds?
That’s what a self-styled dietary expert writing in The Wall Street Journal says happened to her. And, she suggests, it could happen to you too. Just get over your obsession, and your doc’s obsession, with avoiding saturated fat. The kind in bacon, burgers, butter and several other ingredients that do not start with the letter B. Eat the fat and cut the carbs. Totally.
These and similar conclusions have been trumpeted recently in the national media, from NPR to Fox News to The New York Times, and often with more than a hint of triumph attached. They are based on a much-criticized report, published in Annals of Internal Medicine, of a mega-analysis that concludes: “Current evidence does not clearly support cardiovascular guidelines that encourage high consumption of polyunsaturated fatty acids and low consumption of total saturated fats.”
The news on saturated fat can be misleading
This is not exactly saying saturated fat is good for you, but you wouldn’t guess that from what’s being pronounced. Authors of the analysis itself are a bit more cautious: Saturated fat is neither beneficial nor is it harmful, according to Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian of the Harvard School of Public Health, one of several co-authors of the study. It all depends on what it replaces. “Compared to polyunsaturated fat from vegetable oils, saturated fat is clearly more harmful to the heart,” Mozaffarian told an interviewer.
Sun, Sea & Olives
One in an occasional series on the Mediterranean diet.
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So hang on a minute — let’s see what this is all about. First of all, the reported conclusion is hardly news. Already in 2010, the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported, another meta-analysis questioned the association of saturated fat with heart disease risk. “There is no significant evidence for concluding that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of (congestive heart disease) or (cardiovascular disease),” concluded the report. “More data are needed to elucidate whether (cardiovascular disease) risks are likely to be influenced by the specific nutrients used to replace saturated fat.”
So why is it news now? I can’t answer that question.
But the most recent analysis has a number of problems, and not just of interpretation. Dr. David Katz of Yale’s Prevention Research Center called The Wall Street Journal article “reheated leftover nonsense,” and pointed out that nowhere in the Annals report does it say that saturated fat is harmless or beneficial. In any case, he asks rhetorically, “Is lack of harm really the new standard in healthful eating? … I thought we might actually be interested in food that was genuinely good for us.”
Rosie Schwartz, a Toronto-based registered dietician, concurs and points out further that there is a strong and to date irrefutable relationship between consumption of lots of red meat and the risk of colon cancer. And if you still want to switch to a diet of beef ‘n’ bacon, Schwartz says, be aware of the ways different fats affect insulin sensitivity. Insulin resistance, which increases with age, weight gain and lack of exercise, leads almost inevitably to Type 2 diabetes. Saturated fat from meat and dairy products, according to a recent Spanish study, decreases insulin sensitivity, meaning it promotes insulin resistance; oleic acid, on the other hand, the predominant fat in olive oil, has the opposite effect.
These findings, Schwartz notes, are another victory for the Mediterranean diet, which treats meat as a minor part of total calories, often simply as a garnish to a dish of beans, pasta, vegetables or all three mixed together with some extra virgin olive oil. (You can follow more of this discussion on Schwartz’s website, Enlightened Eater.)
Speaking of the Mediterranean diet, I should add that the man who first identified the good health outcomes of a traditional Mediterranean diet, the late Dr. Ancel Keys, has become a whipping boy for the anti-carb crusaders who accuse him of promoting a devastating anti-fat campaign that has led us to our present predicament. After decades of anti-fat messages, the argument goes, Americans have become fatter and unhealthier than ever and it’s all the fault of Keys, who promoted low-fat diets as a cure for heart disease.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Keys was well aware that the Mediterranean populations his research team investigated on the island of Crete and in southern Italy were hardly members of the low-fat brigade. Indeed, the Cretan population at the time got a whopping 45 percent of its calories from fat. But it was a very particular fat, mostly olive oil and mostly extra virgin.
So why, then, the increase in obesity, diabetes and concomitant problems in recent decades? Because it seems to be related to diets of increased carbohydrates and decreased fats, should we simply switch categories, increasing fats and decreasing carbs? Not so fast. First of all, well-grounded research shows that although the percentage of calories from fat has decreased in the average American diet, the actual quantity of fat consumed has remained the same. You don’t need a graduate degree in statistics to understand why: The total amount of calories consumed has gone way, way up.
Stephan Guyenet of Whole Health Source, a well-regarded website, used statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service to show that U.S. average dietary consumption increased between 1960 and 2009 by 363 calories per day. That alone is enough to account for the present predicament. Keys can rest comfortably in his grave, knowing his recommendations to follow a Mediterranean-style diet are still completely valid and have nothing to do with the low-fat mantra.
And what does that mean? The Mediterranean diet is not one single element but rather a holistic pattern that includes a variety of ingredients — vegetables, fruits, legumes, seafood, small quantities of meat and dairy products, a primary fat in olive oil — and from this we should be eating a wide variety. Maybe put butter on your toast one morning and extra virgin olive oil (my own preferred condiment — think bruschetta) the next. Or have a burger for dinner one night, a piece of fish the next and a big bowl of steamed greens with beans on a third.
In the end, however, the solution is simple: Get into the kitchen and cook!
Main photo: Beef and other foods high in saturated fat can affect your body’s insulin resistance, which can cause Type 2 diabetes. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins
Sun, Sea & Olives: Just recently, news of yet another Italian olive oil scam hit the air waves. It was the usual story, only writ large, astonishingly so. Italian financial cops (Guardia di Finanza) and inspectors from the Ministry of Agriculture seized 300 tons — that is, 660,000 pounds — of olive oil falsely labeled extra virgin.
I can’t translate that figure into actual bottles of extra virgin, though I conclude, along with most of the Italian press, that it represents “an enormous quantity.” The seizures took place in Tuscany, Umbria, Lazio, Campania and Puglia, all prominent regions of olive oil production, and in establishments — warehouses, olive mills, packaging plants and the like — operating in both national and international markets.
According to Italian newspapers and websites, however, this was not oil produced in these regions; rather, it was low-quality olive oil, illegally obtained outside Italy, that had undergone industrial refining, including deodorizing to eliminate disgusting aromas and flavors. The refining process apparently also took place outside Italy.
Although fraudulent olive oil seems to be an ongoing problem, one can take some heart from the vigilance of Italian authorities. This was a major break in a case that had been going on since early 2013. But the crux will come when fines and jail sentences are handed down. Or not, Italian courts being notably slow and reluctant in such matters.
So should you throw out that bottle of Italian extra virgin for which you paid a king’s ransom last week? Absolutely not! I’m reminded of a favorite story told in olive oil circles: What’s the best oil? Italian. (Or Spanish or Greek or French or what have you.) And what’s the worst oil? Italian. (Or Spanish or Greek — you get the point.)
Do your homework before buying olive oil
It’s true, there’s a lot of bad oil masquerading as extra virgin. But there’s also a lot of tremendously good oil, much of it from Italy. Our job as consumers is to educate ourselves about what constitutes good oil so we no longer submit our palates, kitchens or tables to the nastiness of old, rancid, fusty oil. Over the past few weeks I’ve tasted the following Italian oils and find them all highly commendable. Furthermore, all are easy to find with a Google search; sources include amazon.com, gustiamo.com, olio2go.com, markethallfoods.com and other websites. (In my next piece, I’ll talk about some equally excellent non-Italian oils.)
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Crudo, from Bitetto, in Puglia’s northern Terra di Bari, is a monocultivar made by the Schiralli family from local ogliarolo olives. The cultivar, considered delicate, is usually blended with more aggressive oils, but Crudo has decidedly bold, piquant flavors of artichoke and green almond. Unfiltered. Excellent with strong-flavored dishes such as roasted peppers with anchovies.
Pianogrillo, made in the Iblean Hills near Chiaramonte Gulfi in the Sicilian province of Ragusa, is a monocultivar of prestigious tondo iblea olives, made by Lorenzo Piccione. Golden green oil with fresh fruit flavors and an intense aroma of tomato leaf and cut grass, Pianogrillo has more than a hint of wild oregano growing around the olive trees. Perfect to bring together complex flavors, as in Sicilian pasta alla Norma or caponata.
Cru di Cures, guaranteed denomination of origin (DOP Sabina), is produced in Fara Sabina, in the Sabine hills northeast of Rome, by sisters Laura and Antonella Fagiolo. A blend of autochthonous cultivars raja and carboncella, along with more pan-Italian varieties such as frantoio and leccino, this is a roundly fruity oil with a distinctive almond flavor. Unfiltered. Delightful garnish for a hearty bean soup.
Capezzana is made by the Contini Bonacossi family in the town of Carmignano, between Florence and Prato. This is the epitome of classic Tuscan oil, a careful balance of fruitiness, bitterness and pepperiness, with no one characteristic dominating. A blend of frantoio, moraiolo, pendolino and leccino olives, the typical Tuscan mix, this is a great choice for another Tuscan classic — fettunta, toasted country-style bread rubbed with garlic and liberally dribbled with new oil.
Olivastro, made by the Quattrociocchi family in Alatri, southeast of Rome, is a monocultivar of Itrana olives (apparently the same variety as Gaeta table olives). This 2013 harvest oil received the “best from organic farming” accolade by the prestigious FlosOlei annual guide. Smooth and well-balanced with lush fruitiness, the oil offers a hint of minty spice in the aftertaste. Certified organic.
Marfuga L’affiorante is made in very limited quantities from the first harvest of olives in early October at the Gradassi family estate in Campello sul Clitunno, between Spello and Spoleto in Umbria. The smooth, lush oil comes from 100% moraiolo olives, and it’s both peppery with green almond and fragrant with fruit, as one would expect from such an early harvest. Unfiltered. This is one to try as a lavish garnish on a plain and simple baked russet potato.
Il Tratturello is produced by Francesco Travaglini at his Parco dei Buoi, in mountainous Molise, a small region sandwiched between Abruzzi and Puglia. The olives, harvested early in October, are mostly an autochthonous cultivar called gentile di Larino, with an admixture of frantoio, leccino and moraiolo. The oil has a decidedly fresh, herbaceous fragrance (cut grass, freshly mown hay) and on the finish a flavor of almonds and hints of spice. It stands up well to abbacchio, very young lamb, traditionally roasted in the region’s wood-fired ovens.
Olio Verde (Italy) is made by Gianfranco Becchina at his Tenuta Pignatelli in Castelvetrano, southwestern Sicily. This is a monocultivar of local nocellara di Belice olives, big round olives that look like walnuts (hence the name nocellara, from noce, or walnut), harvested when still green at the beginning of October. Smooth and velvety on the palate, Olio Verde is unfiltered but naturally decanted and goes very well with the fish, o crudo o cotto (raw or cooked), in which Sicily abounds.
Frescolio, Frantoi Cutrera (Italy), from Chiaramonte Gulfi in the Iblean Hills in the Sicilian province of Ragusa, Sicily, is often the first of the new oil to arrive as the company makes a real effort to get fresh oil out early in the season. Harvested in late September, Frescolio has a green aromatic profile (citrus, artichoke) that sustains itself even six or eight months later. Made from Sicilian cultivars tonda iblea, moresca and biancolilla, it’s a good choice for winter salads, especially Sicilian combinations like anchovies, oranges and black olives.
Primo, from Frantoi Cutrera, has its own denomination of protected origin, DOP Monte Iblei, meaning exclusively made from locally prized tondo iblea olives. Green tomato flavors are always present in a well-made oil from this variety, but Primo also is characterized by a pleasant bitterness on the palate that makes it an ideal contrast for the sweetness inherent in typical Sicilian pasta colle sarde (fennel-flavored pasta with sardines, pine nuts and golden raisins).
Main photo: A selection of quality Italian olive oils. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins