It was beginning to look like we were jinxed. As a reminder, one of our main objectives in coming to Italy in the Autumn was to witness, and perhaps even participate in, the vintage and the olive harvest and processing of olive oil. But the cards have seemed to be stacked against us.
First we discovered that the summer weather here had been atrocious and that the grape and olive crops were severely stunted as a result. So much so that our hosts, the Astones, decided not even to harvest the grapes but to buy from a purveyor in Puglia instead. Well, that was a disappointment, but of course we understand. Rolando and Filo are in their seventies, still vigorous, but no spring chickens, and the work is intense at the best of times. Fortunately Rolando set me up with two of his brothers and I managed to help with a home-winemaking operation with Ciccio and Francesco. Then Fernando kindly connected us with a friend, Carlo Polito, who owns a local commercial vineyard and winery, and we had a blast pretending to help with the harvest and vintage of some of their Aglianico. Please refer to a previous blog. And then, there was always the olive harvest, right?
Well, not so much. The Astone’s olive crop is even punier than the grape crop, and clambering up ladders into trees for little or no reward is a fool’s errand, especially for us oldsters. Worse yet, the olive crop has been dismal almost everywhere in the Cilento, and lots of small orchardists are throwing up their hands and waiting for next year. Olives are naturally biennial producers anyway—they’ll produce a bumper crop one year and a much smaller one the next while they store up energy—but this year has been a real fluke. Fernando called our mutual friend, Roberto Volpe, up on the slopes of Monte della Stella at San Mauro to see when he was harvesting and Roberto delivered the shocking news that the total production for the year at his co-op frantoio (olive oil processing plant) was 50 liters. Not 50 liters of Roberto’s oil, you understand. Fifty measly liters for the whole community!
Fernando is nothing if not persistent, and he sent out queries far and wide, and, mirabile dictu, not only did he find a zone over on the foothills of the beautiful Monti Alburni that has had a wonderful crop, but he discovered that our friend Antonino Mennella would be processing periodically for the next two weeks. And Antonino makes, hands down, the best oil in the Cilento and one of the best in the world!
A quick refresher course from an earlier blog: the ancient Romans had a special mechanism on their olive mills that allowed them to completely macerate the flesh and skins of the olives to release that precious nectar without crushing the pits, which contain intensely bitter tannins and glucosides. The old Roman system was pretty much ditched in late antiquity, but about 15 years ago, a small number of adventurous processors began experimenting with special mills that accomplish the same end using ultra-modern technology. And discovered that Roman-style oil, called denocciolato, is a superior product! Not dramatically so, but noticeably so, even by someone like me with a pretty mediocre palate. So two years ago we went to see one such producer, Antonino Mennella, at the Azienda Agricola Madonna dell’Ulive over in Serre, a gorgeous little Medieval village perched at the foot of the Alburnis. Antonino generously showed us his operation and explained the process, but of course this was in June, and olive processing, like the vintage, is a one-off thing. And so, we could imagine the process, but not see it.
|Azienda Agricola Madonna dell'Ulive|
|The Santuaria from which the business takes its name|
|Twin trunks of a common tree, 2000 years old|
Until yesterday. Wow, was it worth the wait! We arrived at the frantoio about 5pm and were warmly greeted by Antonino and offered espresso while we waited for a load of olives to arrive. Meanwhile, we took a stroll through part of the orchard, where Antonino explained that we were probably looking at one of the earliest sites for cultivation of olives in all of Italy. From Serre you look down the Calore and Sele River valleys for a good 25 kilometers, all the way to the coast and the famous Greek colony of Poseidonia, later Roman Paestum. Here in Serre, just above the Sele Plain, with a beautiful western aspect, was ideal territory for the olives Greeks had been cultivating in the mother country for at least 700 years before Poseidonia was established in 600 BCE. Antonino showed us a number of pairs of trees and explained that these were not really two separate trees but in fact dual trunks from a single root system. Olive trees can be killed back to the ground by fluke freezes, but their roots are almost indestructible, and, like redwoods and sequoias, they will generate new sprouts from the cambium of seemingly dead trunks, sprouts that often will eventually coalesce to form one giant trunk. Or not, as in the case of our twinsies. Which, it turns out, are probably the regenerated parts of trees at least 2,000 years old.
The olives arrived, hauled in a large trailer, hitched to a standard car and wrangled by two young men who assist Antonino at the frantoio. These were gorgeous olives: fat little porkers in a range of hues from intensely yellow green to pink to violet to purple to almost jet black, and ranging in length from 3/4” to 1”. Antonino explained that the variation in color is a good thing, since the green olives are the most intensely flavored but have the least oil, while the darker berries have subtler, rounder flavors and much more oil. So in mechanical harvesting, olive growers look for that perfect ‘sweet spot’ between quality and quantity and let each little berry contribute its voice to the glorious oratorio which is intensely flavored olive oil.
The load consisted of 6 large crates, roughly 4’ X 5’, and we learned that this represented some 1,000 kilograms of berries, a bit over a ton. Ernesto, one of the ragazzi, quickly manned a small forklift and expertly carried one of these crates to the waiting hopper of the cleaner/crusher, located in a covered portico before the frantoio. This was an amazing piece of technology. The hopper feeds the berries onto an escalator conveyor, at the top of which a powerful fan blows foliage and dust off the olives and out through a long vent pipe to a composting pile. Then the berries are blasted with cold water to clean them and conveyed horizontally before two powerful fans which dry them completely. Antonino explained that it is absolutely essential to highest quality oil that the berries be processed in cold water and then completely dried to achieve the intense aroma of great oil. Commercial producers, on the other hand, wash their berries in hot water and macerate them wet, which strips them of most of their aroma. At the end of the conveyor, our other ragazzo, Paulo, manually plucked out defective olives before they were delivered to the crusher. The hopper of the machine was large enough to contain one crate, and as each was nearly completed, Ernesto brought another and carefully tilted it in.
|A ton of olives is delivered|
|Ernesto loading the hopper|
|leaves and stems removed|
Meanwhile, the crushed olives were delivered via a large plastic hose into the laboratorio of the frantoio, with tiled floors and even tiled walls up to about 6’, and an array of stainless steel vats and apparatus, all so that spotless cleanliness can be maintained. In the laboratorio the crushed olives went into one of two large mills, but in this case not the stone roller mills that are traditional, but a cylindrical vat containing a rotating, helical paddle which breaks down the flesh of the olives and more or less completely macerates it into an almost uniform paste, allowing the liquid element in the olive flesh to escape from the berries’ cells. This paste is then pumped through a closed pipe, not to a press, but to the horizontal centrifuge, which can be calibrated so that elements in the paste with different densities can be extracted differentially. First out are the solids, which fall into a hopper behind the centrifuge and are pushed by an augur outside to be composted and used as fertilizer. Next out is the watery element which contains the bitter glucosides which make unprocessed olives inedible. And lastly, that gorgeous, chartreuse nectar began to slowly ooze from a stainless pipe at the front of the centrifuge and pour through a cloth filter into waiting receptacles. As these filled, the pipe was rotated to another and the precious oil decanted into a 200-liter stainless canister. Antonino explained that this 2,200 lb. load of olives would yield about 100 liters of oil. The oil would rest in the canister overnight to allow suspended solids to precipitate and then be sent through a filtration system to remove remaining solids and any remaining water. Then the oil would be decanted into stainless storage vats, hermetically sealed, and the ullage purged of air with inert nitrogen to maintain the quality of the oil. He noted that the oil can easily be stored for two years and maintain its organoleptic qualities, but that the polyphenols and antioxidants which make olive oil so healthful will slowly degrade.
|Berries move up the conveyor to be cleaned and sorted|
|Paolo culling defective berries|
Antonino showed me a large bank of gauges and explained that the frangitore, as the macerator mill is called, can be adjusted for various levels of quality. The finer the paste is macerated, the more oil is extracted, of course, but also the more of the volatile esters and polyphenols that produce those heady aromas we were smelling would be lost. And, of course, if the fractioning was very great at all, the more the pits would be crushed. All of Antonino’s oils are top-quality, but he produces four grades even here, and today we were producing Itrano. I noticed several canisters which were marked as Persano as well.
|Macerated 'paste' is delivered to the centrifuge|
|The centrifuge extracts elements of the paste|
|Antonino controls the quality of the oil|
|Out flows liquid gold|
|Paolo decants new oil into a canister|
How can I describe the intensity of the aromas we were smelling in this frantoio? They pervaded the whole building. Speaking of oratorio, it was like a chorus of scents had been trapped in prison for a whole growing season and, released from bondage, had spontaneously burst into song. But not just any song; think "Hallelujah Chorus." The smell was delicious, incredible, almost intoxicating. That is because those same esters and polyphenols are extremely volatile, and they were floating on the air of the room right to our nostrils. But exposure to air for any length of time strips oil of most of its aroma. Antonino explained that it is very important that the processing go as quickly as possible for this reason, and I was stunned by the efficiency of the operation; by my reckoning, Madonna dell’Ulive processed over a ton of olives in a bit over two hours. Now think about even 50 years ago, when raw olives often sat for days in warehouses, turning to a putrid brown mush before being processed, then milled for hours between stones and pressed using simple lever presses. Then the oil and aqueous element would be allowed to slowly separate themselves over several hours. The whole process could take days. No wonder so much oil from the middle of the last century was intensely acidic, rancid and almost inedible. These are glorious days for lovers of fine oil!
Antonino cut open two whole berries, one green and one deep purple, and had us take a sniff. The green had intense notes of green tomatoes and fresh-cut grass. The mature berry had far more subtle notes of licorice and red peppers. Then Antonino brought out small plastic cups to sample the unfiltered oil. He showed us how to roll the cups to release the aroma, just as in wine tasting, how to 'taste' with our noses first, and then how to ‘swoosh’ the oil into our mouths to aerate it and release the aromas and flavors. The aromas were a wonderful combination of those we had smelled in the whole berries and many more besides which I cannot even pretend to be able to identify. I just know this oil has all the complexity of a great wine. The taste was incredibly peppery—Red and Fernando actually had a bit of a coughing fit—as well as slightly bitter from the unfiltered solids. That and what I can only describe as intensely ‘olivy’ . Like Colavita on steroids.
|Tasting new oil|
|Large vats of oil in storage|
Antonino was kind enough to gift us with a half liter of Itrano, and one way or another we are going to wangle that boy home. But if customs grabs it back in the States next week, I will not despair. Antonino’s oil is available on-line from a great purveyor of artisinal foods called Olio2go, in Richmond, Virginia. And I have inside information that there will be a consignment available there in the next few weeks. Better yet, do us both a favor and order it all up before I get home. We all need to support people like Antonino who have chosen to dedicate themselves to excellence rather than mediocrity.