CULTIVAR

 

There are around 800 different Olive Cultivars in Italy alone, many of which are used for Olive Oil. Similarly to grape varieties in wine, the Olive cultivar influences the flavour profile of your oil.  Different cultivars, depending on size of fruit, thickness of the skin, composition of the pulp can produce different yields, varying concentrations of anti-oxidants and overall different quality levels.

LOCATION AND CLIMATE

 

As you might expect, olives grown in cooler areas where there is more moisture (rainfall and dew) exhibit leaner, more restrained characteristics.  This doesn’t however mean that great oil can now be made in Iceland – you need a minimum amount of sunshine to make your Extra Virgin Olive Oil taste remarkable, similarly to tomatoes or stone fruit.

Olive trees are sensitive to winter freeze (the Casaliva cultivar is more resistant to cold, hence being grown in the Garda region).  It is also easier to farm organically where the climate is more stable and less chemical sprays are required to keep the trees healthy.

OLIVE MATURITY

 

Here’s the thing – all olives are green.  When they become fully mature, they turn black.
Olive maturity at the time of harvest is a major factor in flavour and quality: olives harvested earlier (green olives) feature more bitter, grassy characteristics, with lower yields and with the highest anti-oxidant content.  The oil is a much more intense green colour and has a longer shelf-life.  In terms of production, milling can take longer with green olives (a longer malaxation - the action of slowly churning milled olives to release droplets of oil - is needed and can be more complicated) but the results are far superior!  Don’t choose olive oil from over mature fruit: it lacks all the potential goodness and flavour.

ATTENTION TO DETAIL IN GROVE AND MILL

 

People who care passionately about what they make and follow it personally every day have the capacity to create products with far higher quality, with integrity, and that taste of where they come from.  They are also able to do this by caring for the environment they inhabit.

FRANTOIO DI RIVA BOX

This box contains 6 bottles of extra virgin olive oil made exclusively by Frantoio di Riva from groves on the banks of lake Garda.

Frantoio di Riva, 46°PARALLELO green label x 3 bottles (50cl)
Frantoio di Riva, 46°PARALLELO organic white label x 1 bottle (50cl)
Frantoio di Riva, 46°PARALLELO blue label x 1 bottle (50cl)
Frantoio di Riva, ULIVA Garda Trentino DOP x 1 bottle (50cl)

In Search of Ligurian Ingredients

Liguria is the land where dramatic jagged mountains meet the turquoise sea.  This moon-shaped Italian province is a real delight as we discovered this summer whilst visiting Paolo Cassini and his family at their frantoio just outside Isolabona near to the French border.

 

For many, Liguria’s main pull is the beautiful fishing villages of the Cinque Terre and Portofino.  In high season however, they are over crowded for our liking so we stepped off the track and spent more time in Bordighiera (a delightful seaside town), and up the valley in Isolabona and Dolceacqua.  We also visited gritty Genova and thanks to these places, we put together a wonderful picture of the Ligurian kitchen.

 

The Taggiasca olive and indeed its extra virgin olive oil is the common thread throughout the regional cuisine.  This small, sweet olive has a delicate flavour, very little bitterness and is grown on the steep, terraced groves that pepper the Ligurina hillsides.   With notes of freshly cut grass, almond and green bean, it weaves its way in to the local recipes, a few of which stood out for us.

 

Pasta is of course very much at home with its local side-kick pesto.  If you want to get it totally right, trofie is the most common choice with its tiny hand-rolled twirl that catches the sweet intense sauce.  Other brilliant pasta from Liguria includes the triangular pansotti as well as a sort of linguine called trenette, particularly good with seafood that also features highly.

 

We found vegetarian dishes in abundance, particularly those based on tomatoes, artichokes, olives and garlic – away from the glamorous fishing villages, this region is still relatively undeveloped and unflashy and this is reflected in the food, much of which is home-grown.

 

Meat is not a huge feature in Ligurian cuisine because the hilly terrain doesn’t allow for even moderate scale livestock farming.  Rabbit however is popular and it has a capacity to pair brilliantly with small taggiasca olives when slow cooked.

And focaccia is a major deal in these parts and whilst you can find this bread throughout Italy, this is it’s true home.  A slight crunch on the outside but with a soft centre, it is typically laced with olives or rosemary and generous quantities of Olive Oil.  Put a slice of the local prescinsêua cheese in the middle and you get a divine focaccia di recco – amazing for a mid morning put you on.  We also encountered the traditional farinata di ceci, which is a sort of dense pancake made with chickpeas and delicious topped with black pepper and olive oil.

 

All of this is of course elevated when you get the oil right.  We have tasted extensively and I can assure you that the very best of the region is Paolo Cassini.  He is a true food hero in our eyes, very few people take EVOO this seriously and as we write this he is starting up the frantoio and facing the most intense few weeks of 18 hr days of insanely hard labour.  Paolo, we salute you.

 

As we drove out of the frantoio, Paolo’s mother caught us in the drive way and thrust a bottle of Extremum in to our hands (their single grove selection).  We were heading to France to continue our gastronomic adventure.  “Take this,” she said “You can’t find good food in France, they have no idea about food.” We laughed.  But you know what, when we got to France, the butter-laden dishes just didn’t do it for us in the way French food had in the past.  Have we lived in Italy too long?  Or was it just because Liguria had surpassed all our gastronomic expectations.

How to Eat like an Italian

Italy is full of quirks, there are many untold rules and etiquettes and you often get the feeling there is a strong national ‘way to do things’.  This applies to food with some serious rigour as you might imagine – food is not flippant for Italians.  Here we codify what it is to Eat like an Italian.

  1. Talk about food: Italians love food so much, they will talk about it whilst waiting for and eating their meals. They will exchange recipes; food stories and you often hear ‘my Nonna used to make it like this’. Food is what you talk about at the table.
  2. Mix it up: only because it’s labelled Secondo (main course), doesn’t mean you can’t have it as a starter. At the seaside for example we like to have a fritto misto as a starter, before a pasta alle vongole. If you want some cheese and cold cuts after your pasta, that is also ok.
  3. Don’t mix it up: don’t put salad or veggies on your plate of pasta. No one wants to taste amatriciana sauce on top of cicoria ripassata. Food is eaten as it’s served – individually by type.
  4. Food is seasonal and thus is should be eaten: don’t ask for asparagus in August, porcini in July, strawberries in November. Eat food when it’s meant to be eaten.
  5. No cheese on fish. Don’t draw scorn from the waiting staff and fellow eaters by asking for parmiggiano on your pasta alle sarde.
  6. A latte is a glass of milk; peperoni are bell peppers. The former is acceptable for adults only before 10am and the latter are a little difficult to digest on a pizza.
  7. Italians are very much in-touch with their digestive abilities and will openly talk about it whilst giving you tips on how to make Ziti alla Genovese (an onion rich traditional Neapolitan dish) easier to digest by salting the onions over night.
  8. Bolognese sauce doesn’t exist. It’s usually called Ragù and it is particularly good in Bologna. In Tuscany it’s just called sugo, because that is the default sauce.
  9. Food in Italy is hyper regional. Some classics have spread their wings (pizza, pesto, spritz), other have not. Eating like an Italian really means eating like a Calabrese or a Piemontese or Sardinian – each have their own food style and tradition. While you travel across the country, if you eat hyper local you are eating like an Italian.

Under a Mulberry Tree

Family histories and the culture of the land are uniquely entwined in Italy.  It is something that interests us profoundly and adds depth to every relationship we enter in to with the families we work with.  The Librandi family gave us countless insights in to their fascinating story when we visited them last month in Calabria.
One such story was recounted by Michele Librandi as we tasted windfall mulberries from the beautiful tree that shades the terrace of their agriturismo overlooking the village of Vacarizzo Albanese.  They use the berries themselves to make jam or to flavour granita (sorbet), but the really interesting part of this tree is the leaves.
The leaves from a mulberry tree happen to be one of the silkworm’s favourite food.  This hungry little white caterpillar loves to fill itself with mulberry leaves and when it is sufficiently large, it starts to build its silk cocoon to begin metamorphosis.  Silk was an important part of a family’s resource, so the cocoons would either be dunked in hot water or baked in an oven (both in order to remove the insect), the cocoon was then cleaned and unravelled to make long silk strands, taking care to allow some moths to hatch in order to breed.
Throughout the seasons families would work on various parts of their land holdings: olive groves, fruit orchards, fields of grain, livestock and in some places such as Vacarizzo Albanese, the symbiosis between the mulberry tree and the small white caterpillar was a part of the cycle and it is a tradition that has been handed down through the generations.

Barocco & Tonnare – South East Sicily

As the heat swells from the south, blurring the view of the Med with the Sahara sand, we realise we are at more than 700m above sea level, crossing the Monti Iblei on our way to visit Frantoi Cutrera on a very hot summer’s day. The altitude is something the local olive cultivar, Tonda Iblea really seems to appreciate – it’s cold and often misty in the winter, while the summer heat swells the fruit and gives it a stupendous lusciousness and importantly, there is typically a big day to night temperature range and this preserves the aromas in the fruit.  All of this culminates in Primo, one of our benchmark oils from the Cutrera family.

Being at the heart of Sicilian olive oil production allows us to get an understanding of how geography has so profoundly shaped this, the biggest island in the Mediterranean. The highlands in the south east have huge crevices, where some of the jewels of baroque architecture have emerged – places like Ragusa and Modica, made famous by the recently deceased Sicilian author Camilleri’s most recognisable character, Montalbano. They emerge, unexpectedly, through the rock almost like a mirage, in all their grandeur, confounding the visitor, not expecting such wealth, after the harsh land surrounding it.

The coast is a far more gentile affair, with incredible cities, such as Siracusa and its magnificent island of Ortigia; Noto, another jewels of Baroque architecture, and going south, the charming old tonnare fishing towns, such as Marzamemi, from where they used to fish tuna, and then canned, jarred or air dried it, to be able to trade it across the distances. Now, they are alive with delicious restaurants, children chasing each other happily, music and beyond that, the intense and inviting sea.

As the productive landscape changes across Sicily, with the growing tourist economy and agriculture gaining sophistication, the juxtaposition of the old hard sea-life, as well as the harsh interior landscape with the magnificence and richness of the cities makes for a perennial contrast, and grows our admiration of this land. In the words of Camilleri: “Sicily has suffered 13 foreign dominations from which she has taken both the best and the worst. The sequence of different cultures has made Sicily a fascinating place, quite unlike any other.”

Places not to miss: Ortigia, Ragusa, Noto, Marzamemi, the beaches in the reserve of Vendicari

Places to eat: Ci Vulia, Avola; Liccamuciula, Marzamemi; La Loggia near Frantoi Cutrera; Il Veliero, Ortigia. 

If you want to visit Frantoi Cutrera to see how the best olive oil in Sicily is made, please get in touch and we’ll be happy to facilitate it.

A House for One Euro

Few headlines allow you to dream quite like the announcement of ownership of a house in an Italian village for just 1 Euro. Is it too good to be true?

It is genuine, and has been evolving for the last few years in Italy, although this year it seems to have grown in popularity. The catch? You need to invest to renovate the property and can’t resell it for a number of years. But there is a reason why these small towns have decided effectively to give away these assets – gradual depopulation as more and more local people chase opportunities in larger cities. Towns were left almost ghost-like, with an ageing population and decaying housing, which the municipalities didn’t have the budget to support and maintain.

The first initiative of this kind was carried out by maverick art critic and outspoken celebrity turned politician, Vittorio Sgarbi. For the past 30 years Sgarbi has been seen weekly on various talk shows on a number of the endless Italian TV stations professing his opinion on anything and everything in-between dance skits of wannabe young starlets. For anyone who has seen the Oscar winning movie La Grande Bellezza or has been stuck in a hotel room flipping the remote in search of something half decent to watch on Italian television, this should be familiar. If you’ve ever found yourself in such a situation, chances are you saw Sgarbi, given how ubiquitous his presence has been since Berlusconi decided to take to the field of Italian politics back in 1994. In one of Sgarbi’s lower profile appointments, he was elected mayor of the small town of Salemi, in South-West Sicily, where to encourage the revival of the town centre, the 1 euro house policy was trialed. Salemi had experienced a terrible earthquake in 1968, but the physical damage to the housing infrastructure became far worse once the local population started to leave – they say few things are harder than maintaining an empty house. The 1 euro house policy was introduced to restore and revitalise the housing as much as to revive the town centre.

And perhaps this is the key to decide if a 1 euro house is too good to be true. Do people who will buy these houses actually go to live in these towns? Does it really impact repopulation? While some towns have been successful in gaining interest (such as Gangi in Sicily or Ollolai in Sardinia), it is hard to imagine that places that lost 50 percent of their population over a few decades will be transformed by the influx of a few dozen expats. If you are looking for an inexpensive change of life however, this could be an amazing solution.

Salemi incidentally never managed to get the 1 euro house policy actually operative despite much interest, and Sgarbi was endited (though eventually acquitted), and left his position to further his tv fame. But his idea continues to grow across more and more towns in Italy and beyond.