On the olive oil trail in Italy, soaking up art, architecture,
gastronomy and culture in a bottle!
What is it about this place that has drawn me into its fold yet again,
so serendipitously? As we wind our way uphill from Rome into the upper Tiber valley and to that small but unutterably charming town called Spoleto, it’s a refrain in my head that refuses to go away. Spoleto and I seem to have some connection, if you believe in those things. It was here exactly a year ago, almost to date, that I had woken up from a metaphoric slumber of sorts, found an alternate calling and finally made my way to the centrestage of a life that I had once dreamt of.
But through the whirlwind 12 months that followed, I had scarcely given this pretty Umbrian town much thought. Until now.
Faced with the blinding glamour of Rome and the mythic Tuscany that is its neighbor, it is inevitable that the landlocked Umbria, the green heart of Italy, find fewer takers. Yet, if you wander off touristy maps and make an attempt to drive up this region, you’ll find almost all that you may have been looking from Italy right here. Spoleto, the small, medieval town in the region, for instance, has it all: geography, history, architecture, Rennaisance art, Roman amphitheatre, those narrow stone streets, a gorgeous, peaceful dumo, a 13th century bridge that gives you a bird’s eye view of the green landscape far and beyond and a rather intimidating 14th century hill fortress, which, despite its historic frescos, can be pretty spooky in the night when you look up at the chambers where a queen is supposed to have poisoned all her lovers…
On the night we go up to the hilltop fortress, the sky has clouded up so much that it reminds me of stormy seas and ghostly galleons and ballads from another time. And yet, Spoleto, when you do come to thetown centre is a much lived-in space. Old homes, modern retail and a surprising number of restaurants serving traditional Umbrian food
clutter up the town. The best known of the later is perhaps the Osteria Filippo di Matto, run by an entertaining mother-son duo (this is Italy, after all, and nothing is better than mama’s cooking); the premises full of quirky memorabilia, including a collection of Pinocchios.
But it is really my stay at Frantoio del Poggiolo that will be my abiding memory from this part of the world—if I don’t land up here once again next year! Surrounded by an incredible, ancient grove of olive trees, this is a “home” away from home cum olive oil press-and-research centre of the Monini family, one of Italy’s biggest
olive oil bottling companies, 100 per cent family owned. With its own resident cat, a fireplace and an attic in the tower, this is much more than a by-invitation-only “guest house”.
By some quirk of fate, I was precisely here in this home last year as well, almost at the same time. And have now returned as the guest of the Monini family. Fourth-generation owner Zefferino Monini still sits in his office everyday, personally tasting hundreds o olive oils that come to his company, selecting and blending these. That’s what we taste when we meet him for dinner at Frantoio del Poggiolo, and even more incredibly, taste the unfiltered oil — straight from the press the next morning. Bitter, strong, grassy, this is EVOO as I like it, giving a kick to just about any food: bread, hummus, salads, grills…
October to March-April is the olive harvest season in Italy. That’s when the best, freshest of oils is pressed—“just like fruit juice”, natural, bursting with polyphenols and flavour, and without any adulteration or chemicals to take away from its freshness. Nothing can be better than going from region to region, maker to maker, press to press and tasting all the different oils being made that year. It’s as good a way as any other of sampling and savouring Italy, because, after all, the olio here is so much more than a commodity. It is culture in a bottle. A way of life.
Umbria, of course, is known as much for its olive oils as it is for St Francis of Assisi, the university (chocolates and studenty partying) of Perugia, light red wines (we had a very drinkable one called Rosso Bustardo, and you don’t really need google translator for that!) and opera, music and dance (Spoleto hosts an annual summer festival for
these, very well known the world over).
Olive oil is equally the art form from here and we begin to appreciate that as we smell, sip, roll around in our mouths, and taste the different oils extracted from different olive varieties. Like wine, each of the monovarietals taste different. Some are young and taste like grass, others of green tomatoes and still others are fruity and well rounded. The only taste to avoid, we learn, is buttery, greasy and well, plain rancid. That’s oil gone bad. Quality olive oil, you can, well, always taste and easily discern. At the Farchioni mill and premises we do just that, dousing our beautiful meal with generous quantities of the produce from this top Umbrian maker that traces its history back to the 17th century.
In India, of course, we only get EVOO blends riding on the back of a huge interest in health-promoting products —- not the monovarietals prized for their flavour. Like the best of old world wine, these can be quite the connoisseur’s items. Indeed, in Italy, this time of the year, it is possible to stumble upon competitions where the oils are to be judged and rated for their distinctive flavours in blind tastings. Bitterness, pungency and fruitiness are good attributes.
Robust ones go well with seafood, in marinades and paired with pepper and garlic. Medium intensity ones for dipping bread and pouring on your tomato-mozzarella. While mild ones often go into breads and cakes. As we go from pizza to hand-rolled pasta, from deep fried patties to crostini, veggies to spelt, fresh EVOO is the god that is evoked everywhere.
The thing about doing an olive oil trail in Italy is that it will take you to some of the prettiest, most unlikely towns you could ever stumble upon. The countryside of Puglia is an example too. In the sunny south, the “heel” of Italy’s boot produces 40 per cent of the country’s olive oil and has over 60 million trees. Naturally, gastronomy here in this beautiful region bordering the Adriatic and Greece, is all oil-rich. You can drive down from Brindisi, soak in the Mediterranean, pause and gorge on those fabulous olive-infused breads, fritattas and fish, and taste hundreds of different oils.
We see the harvest , and visit the fascinating, humungous packing facility at Pantaleo, a big company with a tie up with Dalmia Continental, the biggest distributors of olive oil in India. And the next day, we hit the road again. From Brindisi to Bari, to the Conte Spagnoletti Zeuli farm. The erstwhile count of Andria and his family have been people of the earth for long – producing both grapes and olives, the two main products of Italian countryside. And while their DOC wines are quite well known (Montepulciano, Bombino, Nero di Troia), the EVOO is top-quality DOP too (Terra di Bari).
From there to Trani is just a couple of kilometers—the prettiest port in southern Italy. Just a boatride away from Greece, Trani is a town that dates back to the 9th century even though it ostensibly played a role in the crusades too. The sea is an incredible blue, the architecture quintessentially white, the 13th century fort distant and imposing. We have a flight to catch and leave the town just as it is beginning to come to life. Quite suddenly at 5 pm. It’s going to be a long night—café, wine, oil and all.
Be the extra virgin olive oil connoisseur: How to buy and taste
>EVOO is expensive. It is meant to be because it is expensive to produce. So be suspicious of anything where the price looks too good to be true. There have been cases of some labeling fraud abroad, where oil that wasn’t EVOO—sometimes not even olive oil—has been retailed as such. India, as yet, needs to come up with a much firmer policy framework to prevent such duping.
>Look at the year of making (not bottling): Since EVOO is freshly and mechanically extracted “juice of olives”, it is best consumed fresh—like any fruit juice. That’s when you get the best polyphenols and antioxidants, linked with all those health benefits. Quality makers will often put the date of pressing on the bottles (since old oil can be bottled too). Consume it within two years of that date. In case you have been travelling around Italy and are lucky to pick up a bottle or two of unfiltered oil, straight from the press (you can get this at many olive oil mills around the time of the harvest), do consume it within one year.
>Keep your olive oil bottles away from heat and light to store them well.
>The taste of EVOO depends on the variety of olives used and their ripeness (oil from young green olives is bitter and full of polyphenols; from very ripe ones, loses its antioxidants and potency).
> If you want to be a discerning gourmand, taste the monovarietals (EVOO made from single varieties of olives) and determine what is your taste. Or taste the blends and then determine which suits your palate best. It is pretty much like wine or coffee. In general, oil from the Italian coratina olives (my favourite) is potent, bitter and grassy, from the Spanish arbequina fruitier and good for grilled meats; while from the Greek koroneiki, is well rounded and can be drizzled on salads and fish.
(The article appeared in Exotica magazine, Jan 2013)