Friday, September 4, 2009

Ten Things You Can't Hate About Italy

Olio Extravergine Di Olivia

There is a palpable feeling of excitement in the air here in Tuscany. That’s because olive season is almost here. The trees are heavy with olives in the groves and the harvest could begin in three weeks time and continue on into January.

Here’s a few things to know about olive trees:

They need regular pruning to maximize health and yield. An unpruned tree looks like this...

and is susceptible to fungus and other diseases because of the lack of airflow and unbalanced exposure to sunshine.

A well-pruned tree has a distinctive vase shape and its fruit bearing branches fall gracefully to the outside like this:

We have just made our first olive oil purchase ever. I mean a real purchase, not just picking a bottle off the shelf at the local grocery store. We bought our oil from a local producer called Mauritzio. He has a small shop in Sasso Fortino that is mysteriously never open. In true Italian style, you need to know that you have to call him and get him to come and open the shop just for you. Awkward, yes, but well worth it.

Once we were ushered into the tidy little shop, with its arching stone ceilings and chestnut beams, Mauritzio started pouring different oil types into small serving cups. To our horror we realized we were going to have to taste the oils and somehow differentiate between them. Not easy for the untrained Canadian palate. In addition, Mauritzio started filling his mouth with oil, swilling and gurgling and making all sorts of other alarming noises out the side of his mouth by drawing in air in large sucking hisses. It was unclear how to participate. However... under his expert guidance (with some simultaneous translation going on in the background) we quickly found that we could indeed taste the differences. After several tastings we settled on a very fine olive oil with a lovely peppery aftertaste. It is made from olives that are hand-picked (ie. not allowed to fall into the nets and risk bruising) early in the season (ie October, before the olives are fully ripe and before a particular fly may infest the crop and require spraying) and the oil is pressed on the same day that the olives are picked. No pesticides or other chemicals are used so the oil is certified “biologica” and has won all sorts of awards and distinctions as well as an honourable mention in the “slow food” winners book published here in Europe. A huge honour for a small producer.