I’m starting to wonder if it’s my fault that he’s upset, that this is the fourth time today I’ve had some old man in tears. I’ve seen anger too, and profound frustration, the kind that borders on the suicidal. And all of this has come about from the same question, a question that I thought was so innocuous that no one would really think to answer it, that no one would take me seriously. My question has been this: How long have you been working these olive fields?
Making olive oil, is a lot like making wine (See important note below). It’s actually a LOT like making wine, in that it’s a simple process, but really easy to mess up. Like wine, those that make oil need to master a series of small steps, each based on a local culture, a local world view and even the individual personality of the producer. Which olives to plant? How close should the trees be to one another? How big should they be allowed to grow? If and when you prune them, how, exactly, and how much? When are you going to pick, that is, at which level of ripeness? And HOW are you going to pick them, once you’ve decided they’re ready? And like wine again, locale tends to dictate tendency, to the point that oils from certain parts of the Mediterranean TEND to taste like other oils from that same zone.
Easy. You’re already doing it with other foods. You just need to treat olive oil the same way you would as something from a farmer’s market. In short, you need to cut out all the middle men. Here’s how.
1) Most of the scandals involve large multinational companies, the kind that live on your olive oil shelf in your local supermarket. Scan the shelves and these are the ones to avoid. No little producer that puts his or her name and address on the label would adulterate their oil, as their reputation is all they have. Be skeptical of anyone big enough to have a marketing department. Ideally, you’d visit an olive producing region, taste their oils and choose one you like. Make a human contact. Arrange for the producer to ship to you directly. Yes, the shipping will cost more because of the small order, but the savings on the back end will be so significant as to be worth it. Other tips include buying a bottle from the producer and taking it home with you but then ordering oil in five liter cans, lighter and more break-resistant that bottles (and you’ll already have one to refill left over from the trip anyway). Send a thank you card upon acceptance of the oil and tell them you’d like to order again next year. And if you’re happy, then do. The fact that you’re subscribed to the newsletter probably means that you’re already aware of the beauty of meeting the folks that produce your food. If you won’t be travelling in an olive region anytime soon, talk to a friend that will be. But that’s about as far away as you want to go, two generations.
2) Learn to hear ‘Ware’ ‘House’ ‘Club’ as three words that virtually guarantee the scams will continue (as long as there is an enormous, price-driven, under-informed buying pool, this is not going away anytime soon). Be willing to pay more, but only if that money goes directly to the producer.
3) Host an olive oil party, where folks bring a bottle (ask some to bring some hand-made oil and others to bring supermarket oil). Taste blind, preferably in small glasses, coloured blue if at all possible (the greenness forms opinions but is not a good indicator of freshness, fruitiness, etc., and blue masks the colour). You can find tasting notes online. We do this at the school a lot and it’s shocking how a favourite quickly stops being so when tasted against others. Don’t be intimated or slow down conversation by talking about how little you know. Taste. Really, really taste. You’re ahead of the game more than you think. Southern Europeans tend to be horrible comparative tasters as they tend more towards place-based chauvinism and social inertia (‘I don’t have to taste others, I know ours is best’). New Worlders tend to be remarkably good at not only noting differences but stating preferences.
And that is more or less it. I buy my oil from the same people that make it, and occassionally I make it myself. It’s always one of the proudest things on my table and it enriches my life considerably, that I’m that close to the source. In the end, it’s up to each of us.
These are the pictures I took the next morning, over the course of about 20 minutes, just after the hour of six am. My legs were still stiff but I never recall a more beautiful morning, the entire town smelling of fresh baked cornetti, rich, foaming milk and the way we roast espresso down here, when the flavours leave coffee and start to head towards that of bitter chocolate.
Palazzo Sticchi betrays the often oriental leanings of this part of Italy, when Moorish, Turkish and even Persian elements no longer bother to stand out as foreign or even non-Italian.
Wet cement often captures a moment, a simple gesture, a distinct and unrepeatable act that otherwise would have been forgotten as insignificant.
A flock of starlings flew together in formation, in low, gutsy patterns, every bit as impressive as an air show put on by muscle-y fighter jets.
I’m often asked what is that I like so much about Southern Italy, when other parts of Italy are more famous and tourist-ready. As I rolled around the torn pieces of cornetto in my mouth and smelled the nubby little cigars of the nearby fisherman, the smell of the briny sea, the sounds of a puttering Ape, remembering the dinner I had the night before, I thought this: If you have to ask, you’ve probably never been here.
I had noticed that the helicopter marked Polizia was flying low, and that I was zooming pretty fast. I’d also noticed that traffic was honking at me, in ways they usually don’t. Then there was a police car behind me. And another. Then one in front of me. There were sirens and before I knew it, I was on the side of the road, handing over my documents, my eyes still stinging from the wind, my heart pounding from all the police attention, and the fact that one cop actually unfastened the thin white leather strap on his pistol as he walked toward me.
Would you like to make a declaration, asked the police officer. You know, as Italian law dictates that everyone that is arrested can make a statement.
Arrested? I was lost, but clearly not doing anything intentionally wrong, right?
He flipped through my passport yet again as they all scanned my bicycle and my packs sitting on the gravel like a lumpy archipelago along side the road, the traffic flying by so fast that each passing car caused us each to shake and wobble at exactly the same intervals, sort of like watching the pieces move if you wiggled the base of a board game.
And although it took over two hours, here is the condensed version of conversation, all yelled over the roar of traffic:
Cop one: You can’t be on this road on a bicycle, you’ll get killed.
Me: Yeah, I see that now. I was trying to get on the auto-strada 113
Cop one: Yeah, you should have taken that one.
Me: I tried to but they are not marked. The maps aren’t clear. And there are no signs.
Cop one: Yeah, you should have read the signs. Why are you travelling by bike so far?
Me: There aren’t any signs. Last year I rode even further. Trieste to Lecce.
Cop one: Really? Well, either way. You shouldn’t be on this road with a bike. You could get killed.
Me: I see that now. I thought I was on the 113. I’m travelling the entire South of Italy to get a better understanding of the wines here in the south. And there aren’t any signs on many of the roads.
Cop one: Yeah, how come you didn’t take the 113? You could have gotten killed on this one. So are you staying in hotels or in a sleeping bag?
Me: Hotels. Eating in a lot of nice restaurants too.
Cop One: Really? My brother owns a restaurant near here. In the future, you should read the signs. You could get killed on a road like this one.
The simple fact that I was spotted by the police helicopter, dictated that I had to be given a ticket. I was fined, held for a few hours on the side of the road, chatted with the entire time, joked with and then given a police escort not only off the road, but actually up to, taken inside, and presented to the proprietor of the best local restaurant, Da Pino in the small town of Capaci. We all shook hands and then each officer took turns playfully hitting the top of my helmet, taking my business cards and planning tentative trips to Lecce to visit the wine school. They recapped, yet again, saying that I shouldn’t have been on the road, that it was dangerous to be such a road, that I could have been killed, then we all shook hands again and each car churned gravel onto the open road. And just in case you’re wondering, I had the fish.
Long before I crossed over into Puglia I had started making phone calls to well-connected food friends, asking about la Burrata di Andria. One name kept coming up, the producer that tops everyone’s list.
A few more phone calls later I found myself in the back of a caseificio, a cheese-maker’s work shop, where four generations work together in perfect silence.
To say that fresh cheese is made of just milk, salt and rennet is a bit misleading, the way you might say that fine porcelain is just made from fired earth.
Milk is heated, rennet from a veal’s stomach is used to coagulate it and salt is there to give it flavour. This is basic cheese-making and up to this point, it’s the same with every cheese maker I’ve ever visited, which by now must be in the hundreds.
But if you stretch the curd, you can begin to make pasta filata cheeses, or stretch curd cheeses, such as these cute, happy little provole.
La provola, o la scamorza as it’s most often called where I live in the Salento, is widely-consumed, both as it is- at the table- or altered by heat in the kitchen. Grill one of the smoked versions and you’ll think you died and gone to heaven. Sprinkle it with a little sea salt and a dash of bitter, extra virgin ogliarola and you’ll have one of best three-ingredient dishes in all of Italy, a nation famous for our three-ingredient dishes.
The most famous fresh cheese in Italy is fior di latte, although you the reader most likely know it as mozzarella. Here though, mozzarella used to be made from the milk of the Asian water buffalo, as the animal gives milk with a higher fat content. Fior di latte was the version made from cow’s milk. The line has been blurred nowadays, and court cases have been won and lost on both sides.
I asked Domenico to walk me through the making of the most sought after fresh cheese in the entire South of Italy, La Burrata di Andria.
It was one of those moments, when you realise you’re seeing something that wouldn’t be easy to repeat: The son showing me how to make one, the father narrating the cheese’s history.
For a brief moment, I was living inside a documentary.
Francesco explained that burrata doesn’t go that far back, roughly 100 years, and that it was started in the country farm houses nearby. ‘It was a poor person’s cheese’ he said, ‘with strong cultural prejudices, probably because the cheese was formed with human breath’.
Fresh cheese is stretched and formed into a ball.
Francesco shows me a ball of handmade butter, which may have been the original filling for the first burrate, as the name would seem to imply (burro means ‘butter’). Like all cheese makers I’ve ever met, his hands were waterlogged to the point of looking painful, an image you can’t really ever shake off.
First a bubble is formed using a jet of air. Then, using a special nozzle, la burrata is filled with water, just like a balloon.
At this point, you could easily mistake it for a cuttlefish. Maybe even a squid.
Cream and ‘rags’ of cheese are mixed together until they form an almost egg-drop consistency. This is the filling.
The filling goes into the little satchel and tied closed. ‘How long will this keep like this’, I asked Domenico. He placed the little drunken-snowman-of-a -shape on the stainless steel counter as if it were his first. ‘I guess it could last 3 or 4 days but I don’t think they ever do’. And indeed at the school, that is way we treat them as well, as perishable as fresh bread.
Before I realised it they had filled several bags of fresh cheese and had loaded my arms with them, my mention of bike travel never seeming to register.
As I scratched my last notes in my book I watched as the father and sons continued to talk about the cheese, clearly in a way they never had before.
I wish I could say that I ate their burrate on the side of some mountain over looking some silvery lake speckled with bobbing birds but it didn’t happen that way. It was an impromptu picnic. In a tiny park. Wine from the bottle. Fresh bread torn rather than cut. An old worn dishtowel on my lap. A bent fork that had recently spent time repairing a bike.
I wish I could say that I appreciated the cheese for its artisanal merits, for its hand-made-ness, as it were. But it didn’t happen that way.
If you would have passed in your car you would have seen a man in dirty bicycle clothing, sitting on a park bench, eating from saddle bags, a bottle of wine at his heel, his forehead sandy with evaporated salt.
That would be outside though, looking in. For me, it was the first time in a month that I had filled my mouth with the flavours of home, my eyes spilling as I ate.
I’m nearing the Salento. It won’t be long now.
You only have to mention Aglianico del Vulture and my mouth begins to water. And I’m not alone.
It’s such an impressive wine that each year as I plan my bicycle trip, the mountain of Vulture -and the cities that around it- sizzle in my brain when I lay open the maps.
The region has been famous for wine since Pre-Christian times, when the Greeks brought a grape to Italy that came to be called simply the ‘Greek’ one. But in Greek. So, ‘Hellenistic’. And then, over time, the name slowly changed in the mouths of each new wave of invaders, leaving it ‘Aglianico’.
If you believe the history books, it made their mouths water as well.
Even today, the caves cut into the sides of the hills are used to make wine: Riding past, it’s the unmistakable smell of red wine on cold rocks.
And this year, as I planned, one name kept topping my list of places to visit: Elena Fucci.
I expected her to be in her 50’s, serious, maybe even snobby.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
I was already in the cantina when she arrived, a tiny, young, well-dressed woman who was eager to hear my story before she told me her own.
She took me out into her fields and pointed the vine age of various sites and how that would affect her wine, once blended.
Squinting in the noon-day sun, she pointed to her competitors’ fields. There was x. Over there was y.
It could have been Bordeaux. The amount of serious, world-class wine makers nearly sitting on top of one another was dizzying.
Her current cantina was a standard issue ‘Vulture’. So humble that you wonder where all the good wine comes from.
Her fields though, are stunningly beautiful the way so much wine country is. So beautiful in fact that you can begin to see the perceived link between making wine, and nobility.
A ginger-red fox trotted across the path in front of us as we walked: Elena never broke from her concentration in answering my question. She graduated in Wine Science from Pisa, and then returned to Vulture to improve her family’s wine. Staggering in her knowledge of wine, she is justifiably passionate about Agliancio and its growing zone. From pointing to changes in the soil, to the budding leaves to the smells in the air, you could not find a better representative for the New South Of Italy. Accomplished. Extraordinarily well-informed. Passionate. Eager to engage the outside world about the cultural and culinary wealth of Southern Italy.
‘What would you tell those that drink Italian wine but have never tried an Aglianico di Vulture’, I asked.
‘Try my wine’, she said. ‘Just once. One sip and you’ll convinced that these are some of the best wines in the world’.
As she spoke the words, her voice was free of the braggadocio you often hear in wine makers. It was the voice of pure conviction.
She walked me through the new cantina she and her father were building.
‘Here, this will be the tasting room’, she said, her eyes bigger than the simple raw cement base would merit. ‘Here is where we’ll barrel-age our wine’, pointing to a trickle of water in mud. She was showing me the new cantina still under self-funded construction but in her mind the building already there, so strong her conviction.
We said good-bye and kissed and I continued on, reeling from the incredible natural beauty of Basilicata. I thought about her as I rode off. Like the wines of Vulture themselves, Elena stands out as headstrong and disciplined, in a land of stunning natural beauty.