It’s olive picking time in Umbria. Olive picking, followed by pressing is fragrantly joyous; there is something comforting about knowing you will have oil. It means there will be food on the table and it will be good.
This past weekend, a small group of us were invited by Mario Ciampetti of Hispellum, Terre Rosse to participate in an olive oil weekend in Spello, Umbria. It was an eye-opeining experience to hear first hand why Mario is so committed and passionate about his particular olive oil. Mario only grows and produces the ‘moraiolo’ olive, that is indigenous to Umbria. It’s a small olive, with a big pit, and big flavor. He grows his olives under biodynamic conditions and believes that his oil speaks directly and passionately about where it comes from.
He is right. His oil is unlike any oil I’ve tasted before. It is unique. The freshly pressed oil is an amazing bright emerald green color. When I first saw it on bread, I thought the bread had pesto on it, but it was just the oil. The initial flavor hints of artichoke leaves, and this eventually gives way to a spiciness that leaves a tickle in the throat.
Sunday morning Mario brought us to his olive grove to do a little olive picking. His experienced workers had already spread the nets on the ground. Thanks god, because net management is really a pain. It’s an ongoing battle to lay the nets so there are no holes or places for the olives to escape, and so you can channel those runaway olives to stream downhill into the crates.
The guys all got to use the ‘shaky’ machines to do their harvesting. Picture a long handled, long-tined pitchfork that does very fast 90 degree turns and literally shakes the olives out of the trees.
The girls were given small hand rakes to comb the lower hanging olives out of the trees. That worked for me, it was a much quieter and more peaceful experience than going Olive Busting!
Olive picking is communal. My guess is that it has always been communal just by the nature of needing lots of olives, all picked at the same time. It feels like you are tapping into something mystical and eternal.
After picking our 143 kilos of olives, we headed down to the mill. The machinery or layout may change from mill to mill, but the process is essentially the same. Separate out the leaves and twigs. Wash the olives. Mash the olives into a paste, extracting the pits. Then a whirl around in a centrifuge to separate the water from the oil, and voila....extra virgin olive oil! It’s a little more complex than that, and temperatures need to be carefully monitored, but that’s the basics.
I’ve said this before, but it is high time that chefs and cooks learn more about the olives in their olive oil. There are huge flavor differences from one variety of olive to another; from one region to another.
As part of the weekend experience, we had a guided tasting where we compared the Umbrian Terre Rosse oil to a Sicilian oil. It’s like the difference between tasting a merlot and a chardonnay...different planets, different reasons for using one or the other.
If you’ve read this far, you care about food.
So here’s your homework assignment...go out and taste olive oils. Pour a little bit into a cup, warm the cup with your hand. Then inhale deeply, take a sip, and bring some air into your mouth. Pay attention to what is going on in your mouth. Now start imagining what dishes would work best with that flavor.
And if you are fortunate enough to find Terre Rosse olive oil..snap it up! You won’t be sorry..it speaks of wind swept hilltops, rocky soil, hot summers and cold winters. And you won’t be able to find this particular flavor anywhere else.
Grazie mille, Mario per un weekend incredibile!
Azienda Agraria Hispellum
Via Vitale Rosi 42, 06038 Spello (Pg) Umbria IT - Tel/Fax (+39) 0742 302274 - [email protected]