The end of the year holidays mark the busiest season for food producers, and none more so than producers of extra-virgin olive oil. Why? Because this is the time of year when fresh new oil becomes available and knowledgeable customers clamor for the clean, grassy aromas and bright flavors that it brings. In the U.S., growing numbers of people recognize the virtues and value of fresh olive oil.
Olio nuovo has always been prized in oil-producing regions of Italy where, from November through January, restaurants will often send out little bowls of fresh oil with bread to sample at the start of a meal. Pliny himself, writing in Book XV of his “Historia Naturalis” in the early first century AD, remarks: “The first oil of all, produced from the raw olive before it has begun to ripen, is considered preferable to all the others in flavor.” Italians seem to have been the first to bottle and market fresh oil as something prestigious in its own right. Sara Wilson, who owns Market Hall Foods in Oakland, Calif., reminisced that it was just 18 years ago that her colleague and co-owner, Rolando Beramendi, started promoting olio nuovo. “The entire explosion of olive oil is truly exciting and gratifying,” she told me.
When looking for high-quality fresh olive oil, there are a couple of things to keep in mind. First, no oil packaged in clear glass bottles is going to be any good at all so avoid it. Second, if it’s new oil, it will be so marked, possibly in Italian as olio nuovo or olio novello. Third, the bottle should carry a date, in fact two dates: a harvest date and a “use by” date — which in the case of olive oil will be 18 months to two years post-harvest. Thus, if a bottle is stamped “use by March 2010,” buyers can be certain it is oil from olives harvested in 2008 or 2009 at the latest. Caveat emptor!
I did some research on fresh olive oils to see what might be available in the U.S. The following list is by no means exhaustive but it gives a good sense of the range. Oddly, I didn’t find any fresh new oils from Spain or Greece, both prime olive oil producing areas, but I expect in the years ahead that both those regions will jump on the new oil bandwagon.
Caution: New oils are meant to be tasted and savored for themselves alone and definitely not used for cooking. They will make a grand vinaigrette for a simple green salad and are wonderful dolloped atop a bean or other legume soup. But the best way to taste them may be as old-fashioned Tuscan bruschetta: Simply toast a slice of good country bread, if possible over wood embers, and dribble generously with your olio novello. If you want, you can rub the toasted crust of bread lightly with a cut clove of garlic before glugging on the oil — but to taste the full flavor of the oil, leave the garlic out.
And do please keep in mind that the list below is not intended to be comprehensive; it is simply an accounting of what I’ve found:
California Olive Ranch Limited Reserve Extra-Virgin Olive Oil from Oroville in Northern California.
“Limited Reserve” is the producers’ new name for what they used to call Olio Nuovo; in any case, it’s new oil and available until late January or while supplies last. COR is a major promoter of “super high density” olive groves in California; their varieties are primarily arbequina and arbosana and, as with other similar super high-density planting, the olives are mechanically cultivated and harvested. The oil is simple and straightforward, with a pronounced flavor of fresh fruit, not much bitterness or pungency — a good choice for those who find most oil “too strong.”
$17.97 for a 500 ml. bottle (roughly one pint, or nearly 17 ounces); order direct from the producer at www.californiaoliveranch.com or (866) 972-6879.
Pianogrillo, produced by Lorenzo Piccione in Chiaramonte Gulfi, a town in the Monti Iblei, the hills north of Ragusa in the southeastern corner of Sicily.
Estate produced and bottled from tonda Iblea (aka cetrale) olives, date stamped 2010 harvest, to be consumed before 30 April 2012. The olives are harvested by hand, and the oil is extracted on continuous cycle machinery. Although the oil is not labeled organic, the producer does not use chemical fertilizers or pesticides, and, in fact, the farm is certified biologico (organic). This is a fine example of the best of Sicilian production, with a characteristic grassy, vegetable flavor reminiscent of fresh artichokes, and a lightly peppery finish.
$34.75 for a 500 ml. bottle from www.gustiamo.com or (718) 860-2949.
Cafaggio, produced at Castello di Cafaggio, an agriturismo estate in Impruneta in the Chianti hills due south of Florence.
Made from traditional Tuscan varietals — frantoio, leccino, moraiolo — Cafaggio is an absolutely classic Tuscan oil, with a typical balance of fruitiness, pungency and bitterness, plus a lovely fragrance and flavor of almonds. The bitterness lingers slightly on the palate, a refreshing afternote.
$41 for a 500 ml. bottle from www.gustiamo.com.
IlTratturello from Molise, one of Italy’s smallest Regions.
“Lightly fruity and delicately spicy” is what the importer’s web site says of this oil. I was puzzled because I failed to recognize any of that, but a careful examination of the label revealed that I had been sent a bottle from the 2009 harvest by mistake — a perfectly good oil but without the outstanding qualities that mark a fresh new oil. (This is further proof of the overwhelming importance of labeling both harvest and sell-by dates. I won’t invest in an oil for which the producer lacks sufficient confidence to date his or her product.)
Il Tratturello has won almost universal acclaim from everyone who’s tasted it, including New York’s new Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Given the quality of the year-old oil, I look forward to the opportunity to taste the new season oil because I’m sure it will be exceptional.
New harvest oil (Note: I didn’t try it, but I have faith) is $42 for 750 ml. from www.gustiamo.com.
Tiburtini, from an estate situated in Tivoli, the hill town just west of Rome, famous for the Villa d’Este with its great fountains and the handsome villa erected for the Emperor Hadrian.
All oils, it seems, have stories to tell, but this one is even more interesting than most. It’s the result of efforts made by two architectural historians who discovered the virtues of the oil while documenting the emperor’s villa over the course of a decade. Made in part from brocanica olives, a curious variety that is grown only in and around Tivoli (and is said to have originated in Egypt, which I credit less to fact than to folklore), Tiburtini is an extraordinarily soft, round, almost buttery oil—quite lush in its effect, surprising in a fresh new oil.
$33 for a 500 ml. bottle from www.zingermans.com or (888) 636-8162.
Olio Verde Novello, from the Becchina family estate, Tenuta Pignatelli, outside Castelvetrano in southern Sicily.
Made exclusively from nocellara del Belice olives, harvested by hand very early in the season and processed right on the property within hours, Olio Verde is nutty and complex, with a pleasing flavor of bitter almonds. It’s often taken for a Tuscan oil by unwitting connoisseurs (including this writer), but it is 100 percent Sicilian. Alas, the supply at Market Hall Foods in Oakland is sold out but you might be able to find the new oil at other outlets, including some Whole Foods markets and Amazon. Or check with the importer, www.manicaretti.com.
$41.95 for a 500 ml. bottle at www.amazon.com.
Pasolivo, from Paso Robles, midway between San Francisco and Santa Barbara in California.
Made from a combination of estate-grown, hand-harvested olives, mostly Tuscan varietals but also including some typical Californian (e.g., manzanillo), this is a more complex oil than most I’ve tasted from the Golden State. Pasolivo has a lingering bitter edge that adds great interest. Moreover, it is not bottled; rather it comes in a tin, which is excellent news for those of us who really care about keeping good oil away from destructive sunlight. (Astonishingly, the Pasolivo website says the company saved 30 percent to 40 percent of their shipping costs by switching to tin. I hope more conscientious producers will join this effort.)
$40 for 500 ml. from Zingermans.
McEvoy Ranch Olio Nuovo from Petaluma in California’s Marin County.
Back in the 1990s, Nan McEvoy was a pioneer producer of very high quality California olive oil on her 550-acre Petaluma ranch. Under the guidance of Tuscan olive oil expert Maurizio Castelli, the property produces a certified organic blend of typical Tuscan varietals, frantoio, leccino, moraiolo and pendolino — and the oil, as a result, has a recognizably Tuscan balance of fruitiness, bitterness and pungency. The 2009 McEvoy Ranch received a coveted Tre-E designation (more on that in a later post) and I expect the 2010 will merit the same distinction. Like most new oils, unfiltered Olio Nuovo from McEvoy is available for a limited time only.
$22 for .375 ml. directly from the producer, www.mcevoyranch.com/_product_6781/Olio_Nuovo.
Nancy Harmon Jenkins is the author of several books, the latest of which is her newly revised “The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook.” Her other food books include, “Cucina del Sole: A Celebration of the Cuisines of Southern Italy” and “The Essential Mediterranean,” which looks at a dozen foods key to understanding Mediterranean cuisines. She also wrote “Flavors of Tuscany,” “Flavors of Puglia” and “The Mediterranean Diet Cookbook.” She is working on a book on Atlantic salmon. A former staff writer with The New York Times, Nancy continues to contribute to the Times in addition to writing for The Washington Post, Saveur, Food & Wine and other national publications. She currently divides her time between a Tuscan farmhouse and a home on the coast of Maine where she was born and raised. She has lived and worked throughout the countries of the Mediterranean, at various times making a home in Spain, France, Italy, Lebanon, and Cyprus as well as in Hong Kong and England. You can read more of her food writing on her site, NancyHarmonJenkins.com.
Photo: Olives from a harvest in Titone, Italy, about to be pressed.
Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins