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