Monday, September 6, 2010

Olive Oil

Have you ever tasted something incredible, at the source, then wrinkled your nose (in recognition of, and maybe disappointment with) the mass produced version? Once you've had a fig the size of a baseball, in Umbria, you wonder what the heck is in a fig "newton." It's like comparing a homemade chocolate chip cookie to a Chip's Ahoy...which clearly has less taste, and is filled with preservatives. It's not likely that you'll NEVER eat a packaged cookie again, but you definitely know there's a DIFFERENCE.

My food senses were awakened here and there in childhood, and while working summers at a farmstand. More recently through cooking classes that I've taken at the Institute for Culinary Education in NYC (formerly Peter Kump's Cooking School) and on a less formal basis, with Chef Faye Hess, my neighbor when I lived in Long Island City, NY. One sense that needed awakening is BREATHING more deeply, something I've been working on. Subway = bad. Fresh herbs and cooking aromas = good.

Beyond her classes, Faye teaches in Tuscany and France, has a site/blog and a book called Faye Food, a blog called BacktoBetty, and has a collaborative instructional video/show called Dinner Confidential. She cooks in silver Birkenstocks but does not recommend that. Wife to Jonathan, mother to Ferdinand. Busy, fun, frazzled in a low key way, if that makes sense. Totally attuned to food--feel, sense, smell, texture, flavor---she LIVES it.

In one of Faye's classes, we did an olive oil tasting. We learned (gasp!) that many mass produced olive oils are colored oil, with other ingredients. Filipo Berio, which I like, uses a mix of oils from Italy, Greece, Spain and Tunisia. Not sure why it takes 4 countries, but at least there are no other ingredients. Good advice: read the labels, then decide.

The final 'shot' in our tasting was reserved for an olive oil that we'd seen Faye cradle like a baby, and swoon over in the kitchen. La Macchia, from Italy.

Pure, with the scent of fresh cut greens. Extra virgin, highest quality, first pressing, no preservatives or chemicals. Better advice: if you can, get olive oil directly from a grower or a small batch brand from a specialty store...whether it's from Spain, California, Italy, etc...  Taste them, test them, find one you like!

Click below for a quick primer on Olive Oil, courtesy of The Mediterranean Foods Alliance.

I travelled to Tuscany for Faye's class last summer, and I've blogged about it a bit. I'll be in the Loire Valley for her class this November, and can't wait to experience the people, the chatueax, the countryside, the wine, the food, the flea markets, the, the, the...  Oh, and PARIS!

In Tuscany, one of our day trips was to Faye's friend Emilio Carlotti's olive grove, a side business of his. Now I know why she was swooning in that kitchen in New York. One tree yields one liter of olive oil, one time per year. I would like to see the 'trees' that produce the truckloads of grocery store olive oil ;-(

The dog stopped and turned around, as if to say, "Hey, a mudslide." There was a huge rainstorm the day before.

When I was a 21 yr old backpacker in Greece, I saw for the first time, gnarled gray trees with netting on the ground and old ladies shaking the silvery-leafed branches. "So THAT's where olives come from!" I had only seen them in our fridge, in jars, with or without pimentos. It only took 27 more years and a couple of farmer's markets in between to bridge that gap between groves in Greece and Italy--but I'll never tire of learning and appreciating.

Grapevines and fig trees are planted among the shimmering olive trees.

Our group's olive oil orders! I'm down to my last liter ;-(

 The olive oil Emilio presses there is named La Macchia, after his family's home, Villa Macchia. It dates from the 1300's. The farmhouse (pictured below) where I stayed and took classes is part of the property.

One night the 12 of us dined at the Villa with Emilio, his mother Countess Chiara Scarpaccini and his sister, Francesca Carlotti. Wow, is too small a word. I didn't bring my camera, because I respected their home as their home, it's not a tourist attraction. Imagine a massive stone house, big iron gates, cool dark interior, deep fireplaces, centuries old books, visible electrical wiring wrapped in fabric, worn marble stairs, huge wooden pocket doors, paintings that you'd see in a museum... The history that Chiara relayed, the dinner that Francesca made...chick pea appetizer, salad, pork swimming and marinating in Emilio's olive oil--yet not at all greasy, dessert, wine, toasts, stories, laughter, hugs, the walk home through the dark woods. And, and, and...

..I'm down to my last liter.


  1. Ah Dale, such wonderful telling of your story. I truly enjoy your ending. Are you picking up more in November?

  2. Kreg--I have friends taking the class in Tuscany this month, so I will have them "make the drop!" Of course, they can't fly home with more than 3oz, which is in itself, a CRIME.