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Part 2: Let’s Not Forget That Giorgio Smells Sulpher.


io lavorando nei campi

Every so often I’m interviewed in the regional newspapers, mostly, I think, because of all the talks I give on the local olive oil, and for my constant stance that we should be raising the quality but not at the expense of changing our local style. Journalists find this fascinating, for some reason, and I’ve discussed it with them in so many times that I eventually came up with a memory aid for the stages of making olive oil in Italy. Let’s Forget Giorgio Smells Sulfur. It’s not pretty, but it works. I know what you’re thinking: It’s shocking that I ever even made it through school.

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.

olive nel manoLet’s Forget that Giorgio Smells Sulfur starts with L, or il Lavaggio. Unlike grapes, olives need a good washing, where there is no danger of washing away any important skin mold, nor diluting the must. Rocks, insects, leaves, branches and buckets and boatloads of dirt are rinsed away, leaving behind nice shiny fruit, in various colours. Why the various colours? Because different species ripen differently, and when you pick, exactly, is part of the ‘local style’. Even washing can be skipped, as it is in parts of Greece where there isn’t enough water come winter. (Remember that olives are most often harvested in winter, even if quality producers are harvesting earlier and earlier, pressing less ripe fruit with the intention of producing la pizzica, or ‘the bite’ in the back of the throat, a very,very sought after characteristic). But go ahead and take an imaginary look down at the discharge water and remember where birds and insects do their morning reading. I’d consider this step a must in our batch, even when pesticides aren’t in question. (Ever notice those plastic bottles swinging from some olives trees your last trip to Italy? There markers for shepherds, indicating which trees have been treated, and which are safe for his flock). So what’s to avoid with the washing? That the water begins to ferment on the olives, creating both heat and pickled flavours.

le ruote del frantoio‘Forget’ is ‘frangitura’, or ‘the rupturing’, where ‘frantoio’ comes from, the Italian word for ‘mill’ (in Puglia they are called lu trappitu, and historically they were often underground). The cleaned olives are smashed, most often under giant stone wheels. Even if you don’t come from an olive culture, you can close your eyes and see the wheels, just the same. There are three principal elements to an olive and rupturing them is the best way to separate them out.

The pungent smell of the baking of bread in wood-fired oven, a thick, thick cut of beef sizzling on a grill, a really good red wine in the perfect glass, this is what heaven must smell like, and in this step of the production, this is what the air is like in the mill, the smell of fresh olives almost jarring. If you could bottle this fragrance, you’d probably call your perfume, LUST!, and both sexes would buy it. This what olive oil must smell like…. If YOU were the bruschetta. Your knees quake. You’ll be tempted to rush out and buy a loaf of crusty bread, just to go with what’s in the air. You don’t forget smells like this. Those that don’t speak Italian will find this charming too: the black pap is now called ‘la pasta’.

La ‘Gramolatura’, or the ‘mixing’,or ‘grating’ is ‘Giorgio’ and I best like to describe him as tossing a pile of refrigerator magnets onto a roulette wheel: if you rolled them around long enough, you’d get all the magnets to all line up together, based on the positive and negative charges. Only with olives, it’s that nature likes similar liquids to form droplets. And that’s what happens. Water goes with water. Oil with oil. Yes, ‘gremulata’ comes from the same base word, although through the French. A step to screw up? Allowing the friction to generate heat.

i fiscoli ‘Smells’, is ‘spremuta’, a word every visitor to an Italian bar will instantly recognise, even if this time it’s not oranges for orange juice. Spremuta is the ‘pressing’, the ‘expressing’, the ‘squeezing’. It’s when the two liquids are separated from the solid, which is left behind, and will very likely sold off and turned into a lower grade oil by someone else. It’s called la sansa, and believe it or not, a lot of the Mediterranean uses special home furnaces based on the stuff. ‘La Spremuta’ is now a controversial step, no longer practiced as widely as it used to be.

But imagine a circular jute doormat. A layer of ‘pasta’. Doormat. Pasta. Until you have what cider makers call a ‘cake’, a veritable column of olivey goodness. Now add pressure. A lot of it. And the juices just run. I’ve been involved in the olive oil making process all over Italy, Spain and a tiny bit in France and I never find this part as anything less than magical.

I personally tend to clap like a five year old and say, ‘Oh Boy, Oh Boy, Oh Boy’! I can often be seen ‘Cabbage Patching’ around the machines, with or without the White Man’s Overbite. Even the most seasoned farmers tend to smile shy grins as the yellow-green trickle turns to a turrent . You remember the nipping-cold fields, all the sniffles, your frigid fingers, the aching, sore backs, and then, maybe like they say about child-birth, you forget it all for what comes out of that tube.

Not that it’s done. It still needs to be, ‘Sulfur’, ‘Separazione’, or Separated. You can do this one of many ways but now days it often involves a centrifuge. The faster the dark and nasty water is separated from the fruity oil, the better. You can pump this down a drain or back over the fields, depending on the local culture. What remains, my friends, is pure gold.

olio uscendo Only it’s not really gold. It’s electric yellow. It’s sonic green. It’s the colour of anti-freeze. Or Gatorade. Or those plastic glow-sticks used at campgrounds and night clubs. It’s now olive oil, and depending on strength of the crop and your processing of it, it’s one of several grades. You find out that by chemically testing, and if we made our imaginary olive oil in Europe, then tasting too.

And here is where things turn as murky as the vegetal water. From the time our imaginary oil leaves the tube until the time it hits a consumer’s table, there are an awful lot of shenanigans that are going to happen to it, statistically, on a scale virtually unseen in any other product. If they did this to our wine, we’d have journalists out there in minutes, police officers in hours and the place would be closed the same day. Yet, this isn’t a single producer but a massive industry. Most likely you have these products in your kitchen right now.

Chris Butler, my friend and co-host of this year’s Olive week in June, always says, ‘I couldn’t even MAKE oil for that price”, when hearing what our students pay for olive oil at large chains in Australia, Northern Europe and North America. What’s implied, are the shenanigans. Someone is cheating along the line. We’re being swindled.

On Tuesday February 12th, in our next newsletter, the final installment, we’ll discuss olive oil quality and what it should mean to you. We’ll teach you how to become a better consumer, how to spend your money more wisely. But for those that are truly passionate about their food, wine and of course, olive oil, we still have space in our class in June, held at the castle. Click here to learn more: Calendar.

Notes: Not everyone thinks that olive oil is like wine, especially Chris, who has a profound knowledge of the subject, borne from years of consulting on more continents than I could point to on a map, working with everything olive-related, from grove selection to teaching Tuscans themselves to prune their own trees. Here is his take on the similarities between wine and oil: ‘ I strenuously disagree that making olive oil can be liked to making wine and, in fact, I stress the difference in all the lectures I do. The making of olive oil is merely and totally the mechanical separation of the oil from the pulp and vegetal water and requires no other human intervention other than attempting to maintain this initial integrity through prompt and adequate storage. The oil maker works on the knowledge that enzymic degradation has begun and the oil’s future is numbered even prior to extraction.’ Our differing opinions on the metaphor of the simularlities with wine making come from the fact that we have such different audiences, his professional olive oil producers that want to improve their quality, mine, serious homecooks that are approaching the subject for the first time. By the way, not only does Chris really does know his field, but he’s also a lot of fun, forever on my short list of favourite dinner companions, as he truly loves food and wine and olive oil, on the same level that I do.

io nel albero

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