There are few very cities I love more than Trapani. The place feels like a series of escalating good news. The city is on peninsula, the whole thing build on rock on sand. Turn a corner and where you expect the next street to be you find bobbing blue boats, their hulls waxy from fresh, sky-blue paint. Trapani is architecturally stunning, with a whisper of the baroque that puts me right at home. Culturally, it ‘s intriguing, with such a lasting and profound Arab influence, you won’t even flinch when you see Couscous as a staple dish on ever menu.
On a more quotidian level, the locals couldn’t be nicer. Just doing my research today took at extra 4 hours with all the small talk and invitations to coffee. Folks touch my arm when talking to me. Older women that have known me for 5 minutes keep kissing my cheeks goodbye. Bills are rounded down. Twice today, waddling toddlers stopped to ask me my name.
But that’s only the beginning, as I’ve said. It keeps getting better. It also produces more high-quality olive oil than anywhere else on earth, and just scanning the list of local producers has more awards than Hollywood on Oscar night. It’s been likened to Bordeaux, for the sheer number of high quality producers, lined up in rows next to each other. Which is convenient for me at least, as I’ve come for three days just to taste olive oil. Well, that and good things to eat it on.
You only really need to know two olives to grasp the oil from here: Nocellare Del Belice and Cerasuola. The first I loved instantly, the first time I had it as it reminds me such much of the local cultivars in Puglia (more on that when I actually reach Puglia).
Nocellare is famous for its artichokes and green tomatoes, ending with a peppery and bitter tough-love. It’s my kind of oil but not for the skittish. In fact, I suspect many new to high-end oils wouldn’t even like it. Cerasuola is more grassy an oil, with a pleasant toasted almond taste that goes well with fish, I think. The name likely comes from ‘cerasa’, the southern Italian word for ‘cherry’, as cerasuole tend to grow in pairs or threes, just like cherries.
If you’re new to olive oil as a subject, here is how I like to explain it: most of the world is still in the ‘jug of red’ phase of olive oil, where oil is just a banal-tasting fat added to food to bolster its heft: Imagine a salad without olive oil. Where as a single varietal is more like when you discovered cabernet sauvignon, the kind bottled in a 750-millilitre bottle. And you really, really liked it.
You liked cabernet or merlot or sangiovese or whatever your first favourite wine because it had distinctive, specific characteristics that other wines didn’t. And your favourite producers were your favourite producers because they made your favourite wine taste like itself, and not, just vaguely like ‘wine’. High-quality extra virgin olive oil is exactly the same. Have just ONE good one and supper market blends will never do again. The taste will be specific, pronounced. Distinctive. The price doesn’t need to cost a lot either.
Today we’re tasting 3 oils, only one of which is really expensive, ringing in at 48 Euro a litre, easily the most expensive oil I’ve ever tasted. In olive oil country, you could expect a world-shaking, smack-your-mamma-upside-the-head oil to start at around 10 euro a litre, where super market or consortium oils hover between four and five Euro a litre in Italy (consortiums always talk about oil about by the kilo, but it changes very little).
Few of us spend as little as possible on wine, yet when it comes to oil, we buy it from the supermarket shelves without thinking twice.
Giovanni Renda makes his own oil in something of a vanity operation. Renting all the equipment, from the pumps, tubs, tubes and tanks, he recently won Best in Show in the Spoleto extra virgin oil competition. Like so many in Trapani, he gave me hours of his time talking about his passion for high-quality extra virgin oil. ‘ I named the oil after my daughter’, he says with a shy smile. ‘My oil is the second best thing I’ve ever produced’, he says, tapping her picture.
After all the tastings I’ve been doing the last few days, I’ve been mailing the bottles back to myself in Lecce. If you’re coming to our spring olive course in late May, we’ll taste them together, many of which are some of my favourite oils ever. And no, none of them come in at 48 Euro a litre.