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It’s an old story — you’ve heard it before, and not just from me — but it’s coming around again. Predictably, just as U.S. specialty markets begin to trumpet the arrival of fresh new-harvest, extra virgin olive oil comes the warning that it ain’t what it seems.
According to journalist Tom Mueller, speaking on the popular CBS News program “60 Minutes,” an astonishing 80 percent of the extra virgin olive oil sold in the United States does not meet the standards for extra virgin.
That statement requires some clarification. To be characterized as extra virgin, legal parameters must be met. They are set by the International Olive Council, and they are liberal. The oil, for instance, must have only 0.8 percent free oleic fatty acid and a peroxide content of 20 milliequivalents, or meq.
But there’s more. To qualify as extra virgin, an oil must be free of defects, with perfect flavor and aroma. And that’s where a lot of extra virgin oil on sale in the U.S. falls down, usually because it is too old (Unlike wine, olive oil does not improve with age.) or has been exposed to damaging light, heat and/or atmosphere. The finest extra virgin will deteriorate very quickly. I know firsthand because once in Tuscany I deliberately exposed a glassful of extra virgin, milled just days earlier from my own olives. Within a week of exposure, it was unrecognizable, pale in color and with almost no flavor or aroma except for the slight development, as yet inchoate, of rancidity.
Much of the 80% of substandard extra virgin oil cited by Mueller (if indeed the figure is accurate, which I tend to doubt) was probably legally produced, bottled and shipped. But once it left the producer’s hands, all bets were off.
Let me give a disturbing example: In my local Whole Foods I bought a bottle of oil from a Sicilian producer whom I know well, one who makes his award-winning product with scrupulous care. And it shows: The oil has a robust flavor you associate with new oils made from barely mature olives and picked just 12 to 24 hours before pressing. Yet, the oil I purchased was pale yellow, indicating exposure to too much light, and it was unmistakably rancid, so much so I had to spit it out at the first taste.
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So buyer beware, or caveat emptor, as they said back in Rome.
The conclusion of this somewhat misguided “60 Minutes” report was simple: The problem with Italian olive oil is a creation — like so many Italian problems — of the Mafia, a catch-all for everything wrong with Italy. And we Americans, who sometimes seem to fear the Mafia as much as we fear ISIS, certainly don’t want to give any support, financial or otherwise, to the dons. So should we all stop buying Italian olive oil?
Hang on a minute. If Italy is ground zero for olive oil fraud, the country is also recognized as ground zero for fraud protection, with not one but three national police forces responsible: the Carabinieri (like state police only national), the Guardia di Finanza (the tax police) and the Corpo Forestale, park rangers who also have the responsibility of investigating counterfeit foods and pursuing anti-Mafia activities. It was the Carabinieri in Turin last November who charged seven top olive oil companies with commercial fraud, among them Carapelli, Bertolli, Sasso and Coricelli. All were accused of selling as extra virgin, at extra virgin prices, oils that barely qualified as second-tier virgin, resulting in a 30% rip-off on the price.
Do the names sound familiar? They should. All these brands are in wide distribution outside Italy (as well as within), and especially in the U.S. through supermarkets and big-box stores. Although media have targeted the brands as “Italian,” in fact Carapelli, Sasso and Bertolli, which all began life a century or more ago as Italian family companies, are now owned by the Spanish multinational Deoleo. On its website, Deoleo promotes itself as “the world leader in the olive oil market.” That’s no stretch — Deoleo owns seven of the most widely sold olive oils in the world, including the abovementioned.
As frauds go, I have to confess, I don’t find this one all that shocking. Selling oil that barely reaches the cheap virgin qualification as more expensive extra virgin? It’s a bit like selling cheap toilet water as Chanel No. 5, and it’s tempting to fault consumers for their ignorance. If you can’t tell the difference between eau de toilette and a Chanel classic, it’s your problem, honey, not mine. Nonetheless, fraud is fraud. While this may be fairly entry-level fraud, it is still deceptive. And illegal. And possibly dangerous to the health of people who consume a great deal of what they believe is heart-healthy extra virgin olive oil.
The core of the problem is that, even in Italy and other regions known for producing fine oil, most consumers, including experienced chefs, have little or no idea what top-quality extra-virgin olive oil ought to taste like. Here’s a simple tip: It should leave your mouth feeling clean, not the least bit greasy, and it should have the fresh, herbal fragrance and flavor of just-cut grass. You’ve never actually tasted fresh-cut grass? Get out there behind the lawn mower and try it. It’s not going to kill you!) The flavor and aroma of fine, fresh olive oil can get a lot more subtle than that, and experienced tasters will detect nuances, from roasted nuts to citrus to green tomatoes and tomato leaves, but basically if you keep in mind the adjectives fresh, grassy, herbal, clean, you’ll be on the right track.
What to look for in olive oil
A well-made olive oil will have a good balance of three basic characteristics: the fruity flavors of sound, healthy olives, and the bitterness and piquancy (pepperiness) that are indications of the presence of antioxidants that make olive oil the fat you want on your table for all its great health benefits. What should be avoided is oil that has a flat, tired flavor, that tastes of rancidity, that leaves your mouth feeling coated with fat or that tastes like a jar of commercial tapenade that was opened three weeks ago and got lost in the back of the refrigerator.
Fortunately, now is a perfect time to educate your palate with the outstanding flavors of fresh, well-made olive oil. From the Mediterranean — especially Italy — and from California, producers are rushing olio nuovo, new-harvest oil, to market. It is expensive, but worth investing in, if only to give you a firm base-line sense of what excellence is all about. Once you’ve tasted it, you will never again mistake bad oil for good.
Here are just a few I have tasted and liked. Please note these are not by any means the extent of fine extra virgin olive oils; these are specifically new oils that I have tasted recently.
From Gustiamo in New York:
Pianogrillo from Sicily, $38.25 for 500 milliliters.
Tratturello from Molise, $44.50 for 750 milliliters.
Rio Grifone, organic from Tuscany, $39.50 for 500 milliliters.
From Market Hall Foods in Oakland, California:
Séka Hills, top-ranked Californian oil, $18 for 250 milliliters.
Titone, award-winning Sicilian organic, $28 for 250 milliliters.
Olio Verde from Sicily, single cultivar, nocellara del Belice, $38 for 500 milliliters.
From Olio2go in Fairfax, Virginia:
Capezzana from Tuscany, $44.50 for 500 milliliters.
Frescobaldi from Tuscany, with the prestigious Laudemio seal, $32.95 for 250 milliliters.
Villa Zattopera from Sicily, single cultivar, tondo Iblea, $36.95 for 500 milliliters.
Direct from the producer, California Olive Ranch:
COR Limited Reserve, $19.99 for 500 milliliters.
Main photo: Freshly milled oil. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nancy Harmon Jenkins
There’s a phrase Mainers use when they really, really like something: “Wicked good,” they say. Right now they’re saying that about Maine sea scallops, harvested from the cold, clean waters in the state’s deep bays and around its widely scattered islands.
These are scallops from day-boat fishermen, who forage only inshore (within 3 miles of shore), leaving port before dawn and returning in the early afternoon with their 10- to 15-gallon allotment of fresh-shucked scallops. (A gallon of scallops weighs about 9 pounds.)
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The season for these beauties just opened, and, with luck and a little help from Mother Nature, it will last through the winter, providing sweetly succulent seafood with a flavor and texture that put scallops high on a gourmet’s pinnacle. Unfortunately, they are also in short supply and the catch is tightly regulated. Maine sea scallops represent just about 1% to 1.5% of all the scallops consumed in the U.S. each year. Back in the 1980s, Maine fishermen harvested 4 million pounds of scallops annually, but that figure declined to an all-time low of just 33,000 pounds 10 years ago. Now, thanks to a combination of efforts from fishermen, along with the Penobscot East Resource Center, a prominent fisheries NGO, as well as the state’s Department of Marine Resources, the scallop population is being restored to sustainable levels, and a project is underway to give Maine sea scallops the same cachet as Maine lobster, a recognizable and sought-after treat for a festive winter table.
What makes Maine sea scallops so desirable is both their texture and flavor. That requires a brief lesson in physiology. The part of the scallop we consume is the adductor muscle, which connects the two shells of this bivalve. Most bivalves — clams, mussels and the like — are immobile, sitting in one place throughout their entire life cycle, patiently waiting for food to float by. But scallops are unusual in that they actually swim, clapping their shells together to propel themselves away from predators as their adductor muscle grows into a meaty chunk, as tender and tasty as filet mignon. As for the flavor, Maine sea scallops have a distinctive sweet nuttiness that experts say comes from the cold salt waters in which they thrive. Unlike scallops from other areas, they are as tasty raw as they are seared in a skillet or baked in a sea pie.
Moreover, because this is entirely a day-boat catch, the scallops arrive in port within hours of harvest and are usually shipped out within a short time frame, as fresh as a Maine morning. Deep sea scallop fishermen pack their catch in ice and frequently also in a solution of sodium tripolyphosphate. Scallops are like little sponges, absorbing moisture and, of course, increasing in weight. These deep sea scallops are sold — or they should be sold — as “wet” scallops, and they are to be avoided. If you try to sear off “wet”scallops, they exude a milky liquid into the frying pan and will never brown properly. Consumer alert: Even if you can’t find Maine sea scallops, you should only buy “dry” scallops, which have not had anything added to them.
Once you have the best-quality scallops in your kitchen, you should use them quickly, within a day or two. In Maine we often freeze scallops in order to prolong the season, but otherwise, we eat them raw (a squeeze of lime juice, a pinch of chopped green jalapeño and a little fresh cilantro will give them a delightful Mexican touch) or we cook them up in a variety of simple ways. Here is one, adapted from my “New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook.”
But first, a couple of tips in the kitchen:
- Be sure you get dry scallops.
- Remove and discard the thick, opaque bit attached like a strap to the side of the muscle — it’s tough.
- Dry the scallops thoroughly with paper towels before you start to cook.
- Don’t crowd the scallops when you sear them — they need plenty of room to brown perfectly.
Seared Maine Sea Scallops in a Tomato-Pepper Gratin
About 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil, divided
1 cup yellow onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, finally chopped
1 sweet red pepper, cored, seeded and slivered
4 to 6 canned plum tomatoes, drained and chopped (1 ½ cups)
1 tablespoon mild Spanish or Hungarian paprika
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/2 to 3/4 cup dry white wine
1 1/2 pounds “dry” Maine sea scallops
1/4 to 1/2 cup instant flour (Wondra, for example)
1/4 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
1/2 to 3/4 cup fine dry bread crumbs
- In a deep skillet, combine 2 tablespoons of olive oil with the onion and garlic and set over medium-low heat. As the vegetables start to sizzle and soften, lower the heat and stir in the pepper slivers.
- Stir to mix well and let cook until the pepper slivers are soft, then stir in the tomatoes, paprika, salt and pepper and let cook 4 to 5 minutes longer. If the vegetables start to stick to the pan, add a couple of tablespoons of wine to loosen them.
- When the vegetables are done and have reduced to a thick sauce, set aside. (These steps can be done well ahead.)
- When you’re ready to continue with the recipe, lay the scallops out on paper towels and pat dry on both surfaces. Turn on the broiler.
- Sprinkle the flour on a plate.
- Smear about half a tablespoon of oil over the bottom of a gratin dish or another type of shallow baking dish.
- Add 3 tablespoons of oil to another skillet and set over medium heat. When the oil is very hot, dip each scallop in the flour, dusting both sides lightly, then add to the hot oil. Sear on both sides until golden-brown, turning with tongs — about 2 minutes to a side.
- As the scallops finish cooking, remove each one to the oiled baking dish. (You may need to add more oil to the skillet before you finish with all the scallops.) Ideally you will cover the bottom of the dish with a single layer of scallops.
- When all the scallops are done, add 1/2 cup wine to the skillet and boil rapidly, scraping up any brown bits, then stir the tomato-pepper mixture into the wine and cook briefly, stirring to mix well.
- Spoon the hot sauce over the tops of the scallops, then top the sauce with a combination of chopped parsley and bread crumbs. Dribble a thread of olive oil over the top, using about 2 tablespoons of oil, no more.
- Transfer the dish to the broiler, keeping it 3 to 4 inches from the source of heat, and broil until the top is lightly browned and sizzling, about 5 to 7 minutes.
- Remove and serve immediately.
Where to find Maine sea scallops
You can get Maine sea scallops, fresh or frozen, from the following locations. Note that prices vary depending on the harvest.
- Stonington Seafood, Stonington, Maine: Flash-frozen fresh. 207-348-2730.
- Downeast Dayboat Scallops: Fresh scallops. 207-838-1490.
- Port Clyde Fresh Catch, Port Clyde, Maine: Fresh and frozen. 207-372-1059.
- Ingrid Bengis Seafood, Stonington, Maine: Supplies chefs and restaurants only (for example, French Laundry, Blue Hill Stone Barns, et al.), not private customers, with fresh diver scallops. 207-367-2416.
Main image: Seared Maine sea scallops. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nancy Harmon Jenkins
With the considerable help of family and friends, we finished in record time the olive harvest on our Tuscan farmlet high up in the hills behind Cortona, Italy.
It was not the best harvest we’ve ever had, though the yield, at 12.8 percent, was high. Translated into real terms, that means that for every 100 kilograms (220 pounds) of our plump, shiny, black Leccino olives that went into the press at the Landi mill on the road to Arezzo, we got back almost 13 kilos (28.6 pounds) of oil. And that meant we were blessed with a little more than 70 liters of fine, fresh, blissfully spicy and fragrant oil with a hint of lush fruitiness that will emerge more fully in the coming months.
Celebrating the harvest
Back home with our treasure, we broke open the champagne, Franciacorta and prosecco for a bubbly salute, and of course we toasted thick slices of bread in the fireplace, rubbing them with cut cloves of garlic and lavishing the new oil on top for the original bruschetta (called fettunta around Florence). We also made bean-and-farro soup, traditional for the harvest, and garnished it with a healthy glug of new oil and tossed pasta in new oil with chopped garlic and broken chilis in the family favorite ajo-ojo-peperoncino (garlic-oil-hot red peppers), and we had a wonderful olive salad (see recipe below) made by our friend chef Salvatore Denaro with green olives he had cured earlier in the season.
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Denaro is Sicilian, though he has lived in Umbria for most of his adult life. He remains Sicilian through and through, and it was he who introduced me to the old Sicilian idea that you must harvest olives to cure before the Feast of San Francesco on Oct. 3. “Later on,” he explained, “they’re too full of oil.”
So, in keeping with tradition, his were quick-cured green olives, olive schiacciate, or smashed olives, cured in a salt brine with bunches of wild fennel, then tossed in this salad, which makes a terrific antipasto as well as a great accompaniment for any kind of roast or grilled meat, or even in one of those Sicilian fish platters where a whole fish has been roasted in a combination of tomatoes, olives, capers and other tasty things.
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: None, although the olives benefit from resting about 30 minutes before serving
Total time: 15 minutes, plus resting time
Yield: Makes 1 1/2 to 2 cups olive cunzate
Even in Sicily, cured olives are often dressed up (“cunzate”) to present as an antipasto salad. Try this with the plain green olives you buy from a supermarket bin, but taste them first (despite the sign that says “No snacking”) to make sure they have good flavor. And do not even contemplate using the kind of green olives in a jar that come stuffed with pimientos or the like.
This treatment will bring ordinary supermarket olives to life in a whole new way. You can do it ahead of time, too, and let the olives marinate in the mixture for a day or two, even up to a week, before serving. Keep the salad on hand for healthy holiday snacking along with bowls of almonds you’ve blanched and toasted in olive oil in a 350 F oven.
About 8 ounces brine-packed green olives, with their pits
2 to 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, preferably Sicilian
1 small fresh green or red chili pepper, thinly sliced
1 medium stalk celery, coarsely chopped
2 or 3 whole garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley
1 teaspoon wine vinegar (optional)
Sea salt to taste (optional)
1 tablespoon finely minced flat-leaf parsley
Pinch of dried Sicilian or Greek oregano
1. Rinse the olives in a colander, tossing gently under running water. If you wish, remove the pits, but the olives themselves should remain as whole as possible. Some brine-cured olives have vinegar added to the brine to give a tart flavor. Taste an olive to see how salty and/or tart they are, then decide whether to add vinegar and/or salt to your marinade.
2. Transfer the olives to a bowl. Add 2 tablespoons of olive oil and toss gently. Reserve the remaining tablespoon of oil to use at the end if necessary.
3. Add the chili pepper, celery, garlic and parsley and toss again. If the original brine for the olives was not perceptibly tart, add a teaspoon of good wine vinegar, along with a sprinkling of sea salt if necessary.
4. Let the olives sit, covered, at room temperature for 30 minutes or so, then taste. Adjust the mixture at this point, adding more or less of the ingredients mentioned. If the mixture seems too dry, add the remaining olive oil. At this point, you may cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate for two or three days.
5. When ready to serve, bring the olives in their marinade back up to room temperature. Transfer to a serving platter and sprinkle with the minced parsley and oregano, crumbling the oregano with your fingers to bring out the flavor. Taste an olive and adjust the seasoning once more, adding a little more vinegar and/or salt as needed.
Note: Denaro is a purist, but some Sicilians toss into the mix a few thin curls of lemon or orange zest or even a few pieces of fresh orange or lemon segments, the outer membrane carefully cut away.
Main image: Olive Cunzate. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nancy Harmon Jenkins
Every time I come back to Italy, which I do as often as I can, I learn something new. Take pasta, for instance.
The subject is very much on my mind these days because I’ve just published, with my daughter Sara (chef-owner of Porsena Restaurant in New York), a book called “The Four Seasons of Pasta,” in which we present recipes for pasta around the year. A few of the recipes are for handmade pastas, but most are for the kind of pasta we’re familiar with in Italy — so-called pasta secca or pasta asciutta, the boxed pasta that Italians eat happily and eagerly every day of the year.
The best pasta is made from durum wheat
Pasta is truly a marvelous food product — healthy, tasty, easy to prepare, loved by almost everyone, young or old, gourmet chef or harried home cook, and to my mind the single greatest contribution Italy has made to the modern table. It comes in a dozen or more different brands and hundreds of shapes and sizes, but its greatest virtue is that, if it’s made in Italy, it’s made from hard durum wheat, one of the most protein-rich of all grains. A cup of cooked pasta contains more than 8 grams of protein and, depending on the sauce that accompanies it, is low on the glycemic index, with a good amount of fiber and more than 15 different vitamins and minerals, some of them, admittedly, in small quantities.
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Pasta can be made fresh or it can be dried — but whatever the form, it is cooked by boiling or steaming over water, i.e., it’s not baked and it’s not fried. Theoretically, it can be made with almost any flour, but wheat flour is far and away the most typical. That’s because when wheat flour and water are mixed together, gluten develops, and it’s gluten that gives elasticity and extensibility, two characteristics fundamental for both bread and pasta.
But what about that gluten? I have friends who swear that a gluten-free diet has led them to lose weight, gain friends, improve their digestion and their disposition, and generally make life better — I have enough friends who swear this to want to pay some attention myself. But (you knew this was coming, didn’t you?) I have failed to find any hard evidence for the claim that gluten is responsible for their former woes. (I’m not speaking of those with celiac disease, a well-recognized condition that can be deadly if not identified and managed — but only about 1 percent of the U.S. population is diagnosed with celiac disease.)
Some have suggested that so-called gluten intolerance has nothing to do with gluten itself but is instead related to modern wheat and the way it is grown. Others have speculated that it has something to do with modern bread — which would omit pasta from the list of suspects.
In any case, I’m not here to argue with you. If you feel you can’t tolerate gluten, all I can say is too bad for you because you are missing out on one of life’s greatest and easiest pleasures — a steaming bowl of pasta topped with a sauce that might be as complex as a meaty Bolognese ragu or as simple as aglio-oglio-peperoncino (garlic, extra virgin olive oil and a sprinkle of red chili peppers). I call it the little black dress of the food world, to be dressed up or dressed down, as often as you wish.
A fresh take on pasta for Thanksgiving
My latest discovery in the ever-unfolding world of pasta is a dish our friend chef Salvatore Denaro calls amatrigialla. No, not amatriciana, the quick-and-easy Roman trattoria dish that we know and love — and included in our book. But faced with a crowd of hungry olive pickers, for whom amatriciana is an ideal lunch, and equally faced with an inexplicable dearth of tomatoes in the farmhouse pantry, Salvatore said, why not squash, which was available in abundance. So we peeled and seeded the available squash, which came in several varieties, and chunked it up so it would cook quickly in the big black-iron skillet, and amatrigialla (gialla, or yellow, from the bright colors of the squash) was born.
Might I add that this would be a terrific take on traditional squash for a Thanksgiving table? Use any good squash available (butternut, delicata, Hubbard) or pumpkins made for eating, not for Halloween (cheese pumpkins, rouge vif and the like). Long, hollow bucatini are traditional for Roman amatriciana, but you could use any robust pasta shape, including spaghettoni, penne rigati or rigatoni.
Here’s how to do it:
Prep time: About 15 minutes
Cook time: About 15 minutes
Total time: About 20 minutes, with some cooking done during the prep
Yield: Makes 4 to 6 servings
1 large garlic clove, minced
1 medium yellow onion, finely sliced
2 ounces pancetta or bacon, diced small
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 small dried red chili pepper, crumbled (or a pinch of crushed red chili flakes)
3 to 4 cups squash or pumpkin cubes, about 1 inch to a side
One sprig fresh rosemary, leaves only
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
About 1 pound (500 grams) pasta, preferably imported artisanal
Freshly grated aged pecorino cheese for serving
1. Combine the garlic, onion and pancetta with the oil in a skillet and set over medium heat. Cook gently, stirring occasionally. When the meat just begins to brown along the edges and render its fat, add the chili and stir in, then add the squash cubes and the rosemary leaves.
2. Stir to mix well and add a very little boiling water — a tablespoon or two, just enough to keep the squash from sticking to the pan. As the squash cooks down it will soften and release some liquid, but if necessary, be prepared to add a little more boiling water from time to time until the squash is softened. This should take about 20 minutes. When done, remove from the heat and add salt and pepper to taste.
3. Meanwhile, bring about 6 quarts of water to a rolling boil. Add salt and the pasta, stirring it in well. As soon as the water comes back to the boil, start timing the pasta, following the directions on the package but testing at least 2 minutes before the prescribed time.
4. As soon as the pasta is al dente, drain it and turn immediately into a warm serving bowl. Pour the sauce over it and serve, turning the pasta and sauce together at the table and passing the grated pecorino.
Main image: Delicata squash pair nicely with pasta for a Thanksgiving dish. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nancy Harmon Jenkins
Extra virgin olive oils made in hot climates have not had a great reputation. Oils from Sicily and Puglia in Italy and Andalusia, Spain, and other Mediterranean regions, where harvest temperatures are often searing, are frequently dismissed by exacting consumers. And with good reason: Far too many suffer from a major defect called fustiness.
What does fustiness taste like? I know it on my palate, but I can’t always summon words to describe it. To me, it tastes like badly preserved black olives and smells like moldy hay in a neglected corner of the barn. (But few people recognize that aroma in this day and age.) Fusty oils lack the complex bitterness, pungency and rich fruitiness that characterize good, fresh, well-made oil. And they usually leave an unpleasant, greasy feeling in your mouth.
The cause of fustiness
But fustiness is so common that for many people it remains the true taste of olive oil. All too often, in rankings of extra virgin olive oils in national publications, it’s the fusty ones that win top honors. Nevertheless, fustiness is a defect, and a major one.
How does this happen? Usually fustiness develops because of a delay between the harvest of the olives and the conversion into oil at the mill. In the days before the use of continuous-cycle, stainless-steel equipment to process olives and produce oil, that delay could last many days, even weeks. In addition, many farmers were convinced that olives left to “rest” after harvest actually yielded more oil. They don’t, and the oil they do yield is defective because olives piled up in a corner of the frantoio (mill) or packed into burlap bags undergo anaerobic, or lactic acid, fermentation, and that’s what produces fustiness. That fermented effect is almost endemic in hot-climate oils where temperatures at harvest are intense, as they often are in October and early November in regions of southern Italy and Spain, as well as North Africa.
A change for the better
Now, growing numbers of smart, usually small-scale producers are changing that hot-climate flavor profile for the better. How? Simply by speeding up the gap between harvest and pressing — the best producers make oil in a matter of hours rather than days — and maintaining a pristine milling environment, sometimes even using air conditioning to cool the mill and storage areas. What that means for discerning consumers is more and better oil from places in the world that were not known for excellence.
I’m a big fan of many southern oils. I’ve written in the past about Pianogrillo from the Monte Iblea mountains in east-central Sicily, a perennial favorite, as well as Olio Verde from the Belice Valley down near the sea on the south coast of the island, and Titone from the west coast between Marsala and Trapani.
Many regions producing quality oils
But recently I’ve been introduced to several other Sicilian oils, including Mastri di San Basilio, made by the Padova family in the Val d’Ispica, a region of southeastern Sicily that is, somewhat surprisingly, south of the city of Tunis. Their riserva is a blend of moresca and rare verdese olives with lots of fresh green almond flavors that make it an ideal garnish for summery vegetables, whether raw or cooked.
Another Sicilian newcomer is Barbàra from the same western region as Titone, made primarily from cerasuola olives mixed with mild biancolilla and the local cultivar nocellara del Belice. Barbàra’s round, fruity flavor ends with pleasantly marked bitterness in the aftertaste. I liked it with a few drops of lemon juice as a garnish for simple grilled fish.
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And then there’s Puglia, the heel of Italy’s boot, with a climate akin to that of Greece. Olio di Melli’s Re Manfredi oil from the Gargano peninsula, the spur on the heel of the boot, is a lushly piquant oil made from ogliarolo and coratina olives. Another candidate among top southern climate oils is Crudo, made by the family of Gaetano Schiralli from ogliarola olives in Bitetto, not far from Puglia’s Adriatic coast. The name says it all: Crudo means raw. This is an oil to use in its raw state on the fabled platters of raw fish and shellfish that are the specialty of the region. A plate of raw oysters with a drop of raw Crudo on each one is a revelation.
(The Puglia region was hard hit by a vicious Xyllela bacterium last year, but it has not so far been detected in the areas described, and authorities hope to confine it to the Basso Salento.)
Not to be outdone, the Spanish region of Andalusia seems like one vast olive grove stretching across southern Spain. It’s a hot region where the bulk of Spain’s low-cost, highly commercialized production takes place, but it is also home to some extremely astute growers, including Melgarejo, whose oil is highly touted, though I have not tasted it recently. One of my favorites is Castillo de Canena, which wins awards for its growing portfolio, the latest of which is a smoked olive oil. While I hold no brief for flavored olive oils, I think Canena makes some of the finest olive oils in Spain, including especially its picual, which I tasted again very recently — and was once again bowled over by the effect it has on a fresh-from-my-garden tomato, exalting the fruitiness of the tomato without overwhelming it. Just a simple raw tomato, sliced, sprinkled with sea salt, with a glug of Canena’s picual, is a perfect summer lunch at my house. Try it on toast for breakfast!
Olive oil recommendations
Here are some contacts for sourcing these oils. Note that Mastri di San Basilio is shipped from Italy via UPS. The producer, Francesco Padova, has had no problems with this system and ships, he says, all over the world.
Main image: Despite a reputation to the contrary, you can find good quality olive oils from hot climates. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nancy Harmon Jenkins
Sun, Sea & Olives: By now, lovers of extra virgin olive oil have heard the unhappy news of this season’s harvest in Italy, Spain, and France.
Severe, ongoing drought cut the Spanish harvest in half, which is even more drastic when you consider Spain is responsible for almost half the olive oil consumed worldwide. In France and Italy, it was the dreaded olive fly, Bactrocera oleae (formerly Dacus oleae), that wreaked havoc. Both countries had significant losses. French oil, a minor player on the world scene but beloved by many, was harder hit — a 50 percent loss over previous years, according to the usually authoritative Olive Oil Times. With few exceptions, much of the Italian peninsula was devastated. Central Italy, including Tuscany and Umbria, where much high-quality Italian oil is produced, was particularly hard hit. Total national production is expected to drop by 35 percent over the previous year.
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I witnessed much of this from the mini-farm my family maintains high in the hills between Tuscany and Umbria. We have just 150 trees and ordinarily count on producing upwards of at least 125 liters of superb oil. But this year, our resa (yield) was down to 8 percent (in other words, 100 kilos of olives will produce 8 kilos of oil). We usually expect a resa of at least 12 percent — and our total was lower than expected. Not devastating, no, and the oil was exceptional. We were lucky, though, probably because at our altitude, about 2,000 feet, the olive fly has a hard time surviving.
Let me sidestep quickly to explain the olive fly, la mosca. It’s a chicken-and-egg story, so I’ll plunge into the middle. When the soil warms, between March and May depending on climate and weather, tiny adult female flies emerge from their underground pupal stage and soon start seeking maturing olive fruits in which to deposit eggs. The larvae are monophage, meaning they can only subsist on olive flesh, so mother flies solicitously seek the right environment for their babies. A female may deposit 10 to 12 eggs daily, one per olive. And one female may deposit several generations throughout the warmer months. That’s all it takes. The eggs hatch, the maggots feed on the olive fruit — tunneling through it and exposing the fruit to oxidation and rot — and then they drop and burrow into the earth to await another cycle.
La mosca, we were always told, cannot survive at higher altitudes. I interpreted that to mean something about elevation being so displeasing to the bug that it would not climb to our high mountain valley. Olive fly damage, we believed, was restricted to low, marshy, coastal areas of Italy. But this year’s devastation put that theory to rest. Turns out it’s not the altitude but the climate — cold winters with freezing temperatures, which we normally experience in the mountains, kill off any olive grubs before they hatch.
Unfortunately, the 2013-2014 winter was exceptionally mild, the kind of weather that led us to say, callously, “If this is global warming, I’ll take it!” We congratulated each other on our good fortune.
That turned out to be a big mistake, although we were still lucky in the mountains. Our olives were damaged, but not as devastatingly as other growers even 100 feet lower.
Skeptical, I picked a sample batch and took it to the frantoio, the mill where we take our olives. Should we pick, I asked, or just not bother. “No, no,” said Mr. Landi, the miller. “These are fine. These are the best I’ve seen anywhere around. Go ahead and pick!”
And he was right. I saw cartloads of olives turned away from the mill, in such bad shape — shriveled, moldy, half rotten, destroyed by the mosca — that Landi refused them. The frantoio, which usually operates 24/7 from roughly Oct. 20 till the end of December, closed down in early November. There were no olives left to press.
The inevitable question is: What can be done to prevent this from happening again? There are many suggestions, some fantastical and some deeply realistic, but simply waiting for the climate to re-regulate itself is not on the boards. The climate has changed, irrevocably, as it has throughout the world, and farmers have to live with it.
But an even more pressing question comes from consumers: What can we buy? Whom can we trust? Where can we get reliable oil? Or is there none available at all? (See the list below for my recommendations.)
Once we had our new oil back from the press, we celebrated as usual with an old Tuscan tradition, the zuppa frantoiana, a combined bean and farro soup that is a most elegant way to enjoy fresh, new oil. Coupled with bruschetta (or fettunta), a toasted bread crust liberally bathed in the new oil, it is as close to heaven as a Tuscan olive farmer ever hopes to get.
Tuscan Zuppa Frantoiana (Farro and beans with new oil)
If fresh oil isn’t available, use a robust, well-flavored oil from Tuscany or Umbria; a Picual from Andalusia or a Coratina from Puglia would also be a good choice. This recipe is from my new book, “Virgin Territory,” published in February by Houghton Mifflin.
Prep time: 20 to 30 minutes
Cook time: 1 1/2 hours
Total time: About 2 hours
Yield: 8 to 10 servings
1 1/2 cups dried beans, preferably speckled cranberry beans or borlotti, soaked for several hours or overnight
1 medium carrot, chopped
2 small yellow onions; 1 chopped, 1 left whole
1 or 2 bay leaves
1 1/2 cups farro (emmer wheat berries)
4 garlic cloves, divided
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
8 to 10 thin slices dense, grainy Italian country-style bread, preferably at least a day old
4 to 6 tablespoons olio nuovo (fresh new olive oil), if available, for serving
2 tablespoons finely minced flat-leaf parsley, or more to taste
1. Drain the beans and transfer to a large saucepan with carrot, the chopped onion and bay leaf. Cover with fresh water to a depth of 1 inch, bring to a boil, lower the heat and simmer, covered, until the beans are very soft, 40 minutes to 1 hour, depending on the age of the beans. Keep a kettle of water simmering and add more water to the beans as they absorb the liquid. They should always be covered with water but not swimming in it.
2. The farro should not need soaking, but rinse it briefly in a colander to get rid of any dust. In a medium saucepan, cover the rinsed and drained farro with boiling water to a depth of 1 inch. Bring to a simmer and cook, covered, for 20 to 30 minutes, or until the farro is tender.
3. When the beans are very soft, set aside about 1/2 cup whole beans. Discard the bay leaf and purée the remainder of the beans with all their liquid and the vegetables cooked with them. Use a food processor, a stick blender or put them through a food mill.
4. Drain the farro, reserving the liquid, and add to the puréed beans. Stir in the reserved whole beans.
5. Chop the remaining onion with 3 of the garlic cloves until finely minced. Sauté the onion and garlic in 1/4 cup of the oil over medium heat until soft. Add to the pureed beans and mix well. Taste and add salt if necessary and plenty of black pepper.
6. Lightly toast the bread slices. Halve the remaining garlic clove and rub the slices well with garlic on both sides. When ready to serve, set a toast slice in the bottom of each soup plate and dribble a liberal dose of fresh new oil over each slice. Spoon hot soup over the bread and add another dollop of new oil to the top, without stirring it in. Sprinkle with parsley and serve immediately, passing more fresh new oil to pour over the top.
What should I buy?
Despite this year’s calamity in major olive oil producing countries, there is good oil, even excellent oil, available from producers who were able to control the fly or were sufficiently protected by their microclimate. I’ve tasted these oils and can attest that they are superior, although almost universally a little bland compared to years’ past.
Keep in mind that oil from a year ago, the 2013-14 season, if it has been properly handled, is also still excellent. As you should do with any fine food product, check the labels, read the fine print and make sure you’re getting what you pay for. Stricter European Union labeling laws enacted in December 2014 require greater transparency and make it easier to determine where products originate. Dealing with online suppliers (see list below) is often better than going to a local gourmet shop, where they may not know much about fine extra virgin, even though they talk the talk.
Here are the oils I’ve tasted recently and unhesitatingly recommend:
Frescobaldi Laudemio: one of the few good Tuscans available this year, Frescobaldi is part of Laudemio, a consortium of top Tuscan producers of fine extra virgin. Imported by Manicaretti.
Titone: certified organic, from western Sicily, consistent award-winner in international competitions; imported by Manicaretti.
Olio Verde: Castelvetrano, southwestern Sicily, made uniquely from nocellara di Belice olives, harvested very green; imported by Manicaretti.
Pianogrillo: made from Tondo Iblea olives in the hills north of Ragusa in east central Sicily; available from Gustiamo.
Il Tratturello: from Molise, made with Gentile di Larino olives along with other varieties, and harvested very early (usually late September); available from Gustiamo.
Cru di Cures: from Lazio, made with a variety of olives, including relatively rare Raja and Carboncella cultivars; available from Gustiamo.
Benzas: made in Liguria, with traditional taggiasca olive that produces a much sweeter oil than most Italians; available from Gustiamo.
Castillo de Canena Picual: certified biodynamic and organic, made in Andalucia and a good example of what can be done with Picual, a problematic but widely used cultivar.
Castillo de Canena arbequina: made in Andalucia with Arbequina olives; like taggiasca, arbequinas tend to make a softer, sweeter oil.
California Olive Ranch, Limited Reserve: first new harvest oil from California, often sold out by March or April, but other COR olive oils are available in retail outlets and from California Olive Ranch’s online shop.
Séka Hills: made from Arbequina olives grown and produced by the indigenous Yocha Dehe Wintun nation in the Capay Valley, Yolo County, northwest of Sacramento; Seka Hills is also packaging in a 3-liter bag-in-box, a great, convenient way to maintain extra virgin in top conditions — see its website for more information. Available from Market Hall Foods and other retailers.
Morganster, Stellenbosch: a Tuscan-style oil from South Africa, imported by The Rogers Collection, available from retail outlets and online at Amazon.com. Southern Hemisphere oils, harvested in spring, are available in the U.S. usually in summer.
Finally, while writing this I received a sample of RAW, an excellent Palestinian new harvest oil, unfiltered and with great spicy flavors, produced by Canaan Fair Trade in Jenin in the northern West Bank. The Eastern Mediterranean has a long history of coping with hot weather problems such as the olive fly — this may be where Italian and French producers need to go to figure out how to work with new climate challenges. Available from www.canaanfairtrade.com.
Trustworthy olive oil importers and distributors
The following are importers and distributors whom I’ve learned to trust over the years. Some are online purveyors, while others distribute through retail outlets.
Gustiamo imports Italian food products, available through the company’s web site and in retail outlets.
Manicaretti imports and distributes Italian food products, available in many retail outlets.
Market Hall Foods retails fine food products, including imported and California olive oils.
Olio2go imports mostly Italian olive oils, selling through its website and at a retail shop in Fairfax, Virginia.
The Rogers Collection imports and distributes high-quality oils and other food products from Spain, Italy, Greece, Tunisia and South Africa.
Main photo: Despite a bad harvest, plenty of quality olive oils are available if you know where to look. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins