The Storyteller: Nancy Harmon Jenkins
Maine native food-writer Nancy Harmon Jenkins, is one of America’s foremost experts on extra virgin olive oil. She’s written many cookbooks on Mediterranean and Italian cuisine, born from her experiences living in Lebanon and Italy. She’s contributed to some of the most important publications in the US, appeared in countless radio and TV shows and continues to energise her audiences with her love for EVOO.
Find out more at nancyharmonjenkins.com
What is your first memory of Olive Oil?
My first memory of Olive Oil is that it was kept in the medicine cabinet and used to rub on my baby sister’s scalp. That was my introduction to olive oil in Maine. It took a long long time to understand that it was something rather different! And that came about when I went to live in the Mediterranean, first in Spain in the mid 60s. At that time, because Spain was under a dictatorship most of the olive oil available was rancid and fusty. I think that’s because of the price controls that were imposed under the dictatorship. With a fixed price, there was no incentive for farmers to take the pains necessary to produce excellence. They got the same price, good or bad. But then I moved from Spain to Lebanon (my husband at the time was a foreign correspondent), to Beirut in 1970 where I discovered truly wonderful olive oil. My Beirut friends would go up to their family villages in the mountains and bring back olive oil, and I thought I had never tasted anything as wonderful and precious as that. It’s hard to believe after everything that has happened in Lebanon since, but in those years the country was beautiful, multicultural, and wonderful to live in, and it brought me the gift of olive oil.
You then moved to Hong Kong for 2 years.
Yes, and there wasn’t a drop of oil to be had, so we would buy tins of Kalamata olives that were packed in olive oil, drain the olives out, and use that oil for our salads! Hong Kong was a very different experience, much more segregated and rigid than Lebanon, and of course it was the last years of the Vietnam wars, so Americans were not seen in very positive lights. But then we moved to Rome.
Those years you bought your house in Tuscany.
Yes, in the hills above Cortona, a piece of land with a dilapidated house that I re-built over the years. It’s more Umbrian in style and spirit than Tuscan – we are only 10 kms from the border – and the way people speak, eat and act is very much Umbrian.
After divorcing my husband, I moved back to the US to work at the New York Times, and could only get to Italy for the meagre two weeks of holidays a year that you get over here. My neighbours were farmers and were supposed to look after the property, but in truth my place was understandably at the bottom of their to-do list. I wanted to put in a crop that they would recognize as valuable and in that way move my fields a bit higher on the list. I thought of putting in a vineyard like many people around, but it would require far too much attention, so I decided to plant olive trees, about 150 of the leccino cultivar. Everyone up there in the mountains told us olives would never survive at such altitude (we’re at 600-700 meters). But the olives proved so successful that my neighbours tore out their vines and planted olive trees as well!
In Italy since the 2000s there has been a great change towards making exceptional olive oil. What do you think has changed?
I would say that one of the incredible things about olive oil, is how little, in fact, has changed. The energy source has changed, so now it’s electricity to power ciclo continuo mills, whereas before it was animals or slaves, but you can go back to Roman agronomists, 2000 years ago, and they talk about the high quality of olive oil made by harvesting green olives and pressing quickly. It’s the same thing that we say today – harvest early and press quickly! That wisdom got dropped somehow but we have gone back to it in recent years. But the approach to good olive oil has always been there.
The moment to harvest is not when the olive is ripest – it’s the moment before that, when the phenolic content is at its highest. For many contadini it took a long time to understand, since you do get less oil if you harvest early, but you get much higher quality oil and more complex flavours, a balance of bitter – nutty – sweet flavours that reflects the higher concentration of antioxidants. You can experience this with other fruits as well, in oranges, for example: an orange tastes better, when it’s at its highest peak of antioxidants. Apples too… It’s counterintuitive, but you can really taste and smell the difference – and it’s much better for you too.
You spend a lot of time trying to educate US consumers to appreciate good olive oil. What can you share with our audience?
Many American consumers think all oil is Italian, made by the mafia, and not really extra-virgin at all! The choice at the supermarkets and the level of information is really appalling. So I tell consumers to look on the bottle for a harvest date, which is much more telling than a sell-y date. And I encourage people to use the stuff, not just keep it in a bottle by the side of the stove until it goes rancid. It’s so easy to dress a salad with 3 tablespoons of oil and 1 tablespoon of either freshly squeezed lemon juice or vinegar! Mix it right up in the salad bowl. You don’t need a degree from culinary school to make good healthy salad dressing. And use it consistently on freshly cooked vegetables – just some olive oil and they are ready to go on to the table. Or you bake a potato, open it up, add crunchy sea salt and olive oil, and it’s delicious. You don’t need anything more than that: you don’t need a fancy sauce, you don’t need sous vide equipment, you don’t need an instant pot: all you need are the basic things you have in your kitchen and a good bottle of olive oil. Even on some quality vanilla ice-cream, olive oil is wonderful.
You now live back in Maine. What is a good restaurant you could recommend our readers:
My daughter has recently opened a new restaurant in Rockport, called Nīna June which of course I think is the est. She introduced porchetta to New York City and also had a wonderful neighborhood trattoria called Porsena in New York. In her kitchen she combines her Italian roots (she grew up in Italy) with all the wonderful ingredients we have in Maine—and of course dresses a lot of it with fine Tuscan extra-virgin, our own or from friends and neighbours.