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.
And just like wine again, sadly, there are no Cinderella stories. Little Giovanni up on the hill never just happens to make a wine or oil that is so good that it surprises everyone. It’s a series of small decisions, and he either decided to make great oil or wine from the beginning or he didn’t. Just like no single note can make a a great song, no single act can make a great wine or olive oil. It’s deliberate, conscientious, and it starts from the beginning. And each little step costs time and money.
But let’s assume that sound olives are picked at the peak of ripeness (whatever ‘ripe’ happens to mean in the part of the world where we’re making our imaginary oil). And let’s assume they are rushed to the mill, the day they are picked (or gathered from the ground, or ripped from the tree, or smacked with bamboo poles or shaken by those machines that used to shake the thick thighs of fat ladies back in the 50’s).
Let’s make some olive oil.
Let’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.
‘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.
‘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.
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-creater of our olive course, 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.
Statistically, you’ve never tasted Italian olive oil but a massive multinational’s melange of tanker and tanker of various oils from all over the Mediterranean and beyond. That they buy small boutique producers and use them as fronts, funneling low quality oil through them like pipelines, only gives us a false sense of security and consumer savvy. Do we really think that those 400 trees outside the walls of Lucca can produce enough oil to line ever grocery store shelf in the entire country? Really?
Rather than create yet another ineffectual committee to combat this problem, we decided to educate the consumer, one grass root course at a time. We hope to enter triple digits by 2012, thoroughly informed consumers than not only eat better, enjoying it more, but also those that can help get the word out.
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.