How can anything be “extra virgin”? Olive dearest, either you have or you haven’t been pressed. And that’s the thing. Nobody around here talks about “virgin” olive oil. The olives get milled, the oil comes out, the pith gets discarded, or used, these days, as fuel in some new kinds of furnaces. The salient point, rather, is age, and “new oil,” the just-pressed oil available only in October and November, is everyone’s passion. Even though we have our own olives, if we spot a bottle of new oil for sale before we get around to making ours, we’ll buy it without a split second’s hesitation. It’s too good not to.
Throughout the year, that neon green, delicately peppery, fresh-cut-grass-smelling oil has week by week, almost imperceptibly become a yellower, less zesty condiment with a muted, leafy aroma. The new oil is like a drug, and we halt all culinary projects, health programs and weekly meal routines to gorge on it.
The first chance is at the frantoio, the mill itself, where we go with a loaf of bread and the crates of olives picked that day. Just the smell inside the building is enough to make our mouths water. The olives are ground up, pit and all, and the oil is centrifuged out in an electric-green stream that we pass a chunk of bread under when no one’s looking. Then, that night at home, we light the fire, and toast slice after slice of the saltless Tuscan bread seemingly created for this purpose. We rub it with garlic, drizzle it in oil and sprinkle it with lots of salt. They say “la bruschetta chiama il vino,” bruschetta calls out to the wine: a bite and a sip and a bite and a sip, on into the evening, on into the winter.
If the weather is sunny, picking olives is truly enjoyable work. We stand at the trees and, glove-clad, pull the fronds down through our fists, dislodging the olives into a basket on the ground. Of course, the bigger farms use nets spread around the tree trunk, and even mechanical “arms” that shake the tree’s branches. Olive leaves have razor-sharp edges, and multiple paper-cut like wounds are common, as are injuries to the eyes because we stand among the branches and leaves. But it’s still a marvellous moment: the children can help (or just climb the trees), the old folks too, every year retelling the story of the winter of ’85 when so many of the trees froze and died.
You can’t earn money, though, making olive oil this way. They say if you mechanise, you can, but I don’t know anyone who does, mechanised or not. As a rule, one grown tree (30-40 years old) makes one liter of oil. And the price for oil, in defiance of economic laws that would suggest a constant rise to reflect increasing demand, is essentially fixed, at the Euro equivalent of 16,000 lire (about $10) a liter. If any producer raises it, people go next door. If there is a shortage of oil, like last year, when an olive fly destroyed most of the crop, people do without (because no matter what their claims of distress, they’ve all got secret stocks). We keep last year’s oil, l’olio vecchio, for cooking, a liter a week per family give or take, and this year’s, l’olio nuovo, for dressing salads (no vinegar, please!), soups and bruschetta, or any dish that requires olio crudo.
By January, the new oil is gone, sold out, so you have to know your needs and stock up for the year in November. Everyone buys in 5-liter cans—the cheapest packaging possible, which also protects the oil from light and air. And then there are the Coop bottles, the two 5-liter jugs that each card-carrying member of this “cooperative” supermarket (think giant, maddeningly inefficient socialist retailer not Berkeley gourmet emporium) is permitted to buy, which any self-respecting Tuscan immediately sets aside for cooking (except last year when everyone transferred the Coop oil to a different container and set it on the table for lack of anything better).
Outside of Italy, olive oil talk is all about how it’s made. Cold pressed? I don’t really know what that means: those stainless steel machines surely generate some heat, though not enough to keep my feet from freezing standing around the frantoio waiting for my turn. In Tuscany, there’s a frantoio every few counties, and they all have the same equipment (thanks to EU subsidies and cronyism). There’s a new fad to divide the cultivars (the different kinds of olives–Leccino, Moraiolo etc.) and bottle them as “single varietals.” Another recent approach is to pit the olives before pressing them, thereby producing, it is claimed, a purer oil. Since new oil is for me a flavor that cannot be improved, the point of these techniques must be to justify raising prices.
Outside of Tuscany, they can talk all they want about process and packaging, but they are not what drive value, as a management consultant would say. That’s simply age. Il nuovo diventa vecchio, new becomes old. Right now, it’s time for the new.