` Not Your "Run of the Mill" Olive Oil Tour - Olive Oil Times

Not Your "Run of the Mill" Olive Oil Tour

Nov. 18, 2010
Lara Camozzo

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On the sixth con­sec­u­tive day of rain in Tuscany, gray clouds rolled in and a clap of thun­der woke all of Florence. I was already well on my way over the ris­ing Arno River and out of the city lim­its, head­ing towards the 12th cen­tury Castello del Trebbio, birth­place of the failed Pazzi con­spir­acy.” The Pazzi fam­ily were Tuscan nobles who stemmed from Pazzo, the mad­man,” a sol­dier famous for his ser­vice dur­ing the First Crusade. Once suc­cess­ful bankers, yet always sec­ond-best to the pow­er­ful Medici, the Pazzi are now bet­ter known for their failed attempt to mur­der Lorenzo de’ Medici, while suc­cess­fully killing his brother.

Giuliano de’ Medici was stabbed to death dur­ing High Mass in the Florentine Duomo on Sunday, April 26th, 1478 by a gang of Pazzi con­spir­a­tors. Within days, the con­spir­a­tors were seized and bru­tally exe­cuted, many hang­ing from pub­lic build­ings through­out the city of Florence. The Pazzi fam­ily was stripped of its nobil­ity, and their pos­ses­sions and almost all fam­ily crests were destroyed, save for one, out of respect to the artist, Donatello.

Today the cas­tle is inhab­ited by Anna Baj Macario, daugh­ter of a wealthy Italian Count and his Austrian wife, who share a unique his­tory of their own, although theirs is a love story. The two met and fell in love while on a train cross­ing the Italian-Austrian bor­der. Anna’s mother, Eugenie Spiegel, was in her early twen­ties and was com­ing to Italy to study the lan­guage. Her father, Conte Giovanni Baj Macario, was in his six­ties, a wid­ower with no chil­dren. They were mar­ried within weeks, and over the next six years they had five chil­dren. The Count thanked his wife for giv­ing him a sec­ond chance at life by buy­ing Castello del Trebbio as their sum­mer home. Before long, they had moved in full time, and began pro­duc­ing wine and olive oil from the pros­per­ous sur­round­ing Chianti landscape.

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At 82, Conte Macario passed away, and in a twist of fate, his wife was unex­pect­edly killed in a car acci­dent soon after, at just 43 years old. Anna, a very ambi­tious and ded­i­cated woman like her mother, decided to keep the cas­tle and carry on her family’s busi­ness, while pay­ing off each of her sib­lings for their share of the estate. Anna over­sees all of the olive oil pro­duc­tion while her hus­band, Stefano Casadei, the wine­maker, over­sees their vine­yards on three dif­fer­ent estates. Cousin Alberto Peroni man­ages tourism at Castello del Trebbio, where he takes pri­vate groups on a tour of the cas­tle, can­tina and under­ground dun­geon, and guides them through a tast­ing of the wine and olive oil.

As a recent tour guide myself, hav­ing worked dur­ing the grape and olive har­vest sea­sons on a nearby villa in the Chianti Classico sub­re­gion of Tuscany, I was look­ing for­ward to being the tourist for once. Hoping to dig deeper into the castle’s sin­is­ter past, I found myself in a dun­geon, uncov­er­ing a very dif­fer­ent story than I had expected, yet every bit as disturbing.

Traditionally, fresh pressed olive oil was pumped into terra cotta pots called conca, which allow sed­i­ment to set­tle, and was then trans­fered into orcio, another vari­ety of terra cotta pots where the oil was stored year round. Oil doesn’t like light or heat,” Alberto explains. However, in recent years, this prac­tice has been out­lawed, Terra cotta was for­bid­den 8 years ago by the European gov­ern­ment. Now you must use stain­less steel tanks — orci are only used for pri­vate pro­duc­tion, not for sale.” This comes as a sur­prise to me, hav­ing just wit­nessed the use of orci for pub­lic pro­duc­tion at the fat­to­ria where I’d been giv­ing tours. Terra cotta doesn’t change the fla­vor very much. Honestly, I think it’s for eco­nom­i­cal rea­sons, because the gov­ern­ment wants to push stain­less steel,” Alberto admits.

At this point, the tour had taken a turn toward a dis­cus­sion about the harsher real­i­ties of the olive oil indus­try. I don’t know if you want to pub­lish some of the things that I’m going to tell you now, because it’s some­thing very hard,” Alberto warned me. The more con­sumers want to know about olive oil, the less infor­ma­tion they get. The Italian olive oil indus­try is con­trolled by a few big com­pa­nies that, in agree­ment with the gov­ern­ment, don’t give peo­ple infor­ma­tion. The same hap­pens in the wine busi­ness. It hap­pens in every busi­ness; when com­pa­nies are big they are pro­tected. If you really knew what hap­pens in the olive oil busi­ness, you wouldn’t buy cer­tain brands any­more. That would be a prob­lem not just for the brands, because they have hun­dreds of peo­ple work­ing for them, but for the coun­try and for the economy.”

So the big­ger the com­pany the lesser the qual­ity?” I ask. Not always,” Alberto replies. He goes on to explain three main sce­nar­ios in which pro­duc­ers have been com­mit­ting olive oil adul­ter­ation for quite some time. First, cer­tain brands pro­duce Italian Extra Virgin Olive Oil” made from for­eign olives. Second, com­pa­nies blend a small per­cent­age of extra vir­gin olive oil with vir­gin olive oil and sell it for top qual­ity prices. Third, infe­rior seed and nut oils are passed off as extra vir­gin olive oil and sold to the unknow­ing con­sumer. In addi­tion, lit­tle to no infor­ma­tion is offered on the label, mak­ing it next to impos­si­ble for con­sumers to avoid being duped.

If you con­sider that Tuscany makes between 5 to 10 per­cent of all Italian olive oil, how can you explain that in every shop in the world you can find Tuscan oil? Between 5 and 10 per­cent — it’s noth­ing, it’s a really small pro­duc­tion. Think about it — you can’t explain it.” And you can’t explain that after the hor­rific frost in 1985, which destroyed olive groves all over Italy, these big com­pa­nies still man­aged to pro­duce and sell thou­sands of bot­tles of extra vir­gin olive oil. So the ques­tion is, where do the olives come from?

When you go to a shop and you see three bot­tles of Tuscan olive oil, the same size, dif­fer­ent brands, but the same words writ­ten on the label Extra Virgin Olive Oil from Tuscany’ — one costs 5 euro, one costs 10 euro, one costs 15 euro — you don’t under­stand why there is this huge dif­fer­ence in price. Why does our oil cost 12 euro per liter, and in the super­mar­ket you can find Tuscan oil for 3 euro? People don’t under­stand this, because the com­pa­nies don’t say why.”

What’s hap­pen­ing with these three bot­tles? First, it’s impor­tant to under­stand that the fun­da­men­tal rule in pro­duc­ing healthy, top qual­ity oil, is to pick and squeeze the olives within 24 hours. Why is that? Because press­ing the olives within 24 hours gives you the pos­si­bil­ity to keep the acid­ity very low — between 0.1 to 0.2 per­cent. People have been told for a long time that extra vir­gin means first press, and this is com­pletely wrong. Extra means low acid­ity — just that.”

Now, how can you find the acid­ity? You look on the label, right?” Wrong again. People don’t find this infor­ma­tion on the label — they’re find­ing more and more on the inter­net, from olive oil books and blogs, but not on the label. The Italian gov­ern­ment doesn’t ask pro­duc­ers to write the acid­ity on their labels. They allow pro­duc­ers to have an oil of up to 0.8% of acid while still call­ing it extra vir­gin — mean­ing 0.1% or 0.79% is the same for the government.”

Here lies the first big dif­fer­ence in price: In order to pro­duce an olive oil with low acid­ity by pick­ing and press­ing the olives in the same day, com­pa­nies can either rent a machine from some­one, or they can buy their own olive press. That’s what we did. When we decided to buy our own press, we knew that we wouldn’t make a profit for 10 years. The prob­lem with the olive press is not just the high cost, it’s the use that you make of it; only 4 weeks out of the year. So, we bought this machine for 40,000 euro, which is the small­est one on the mar­ket, and it will take us 10 years to pay for this machine that we will only use 4 weeks out of the year — it’s a lot of money. But this gives us the pos­si­bil­ity not to squeeze the olives within 24 hours, but to squeeze them within 2 hours — we don’t have to wait, we don’t have a line, it’s our machine.”

When you’re rent­ing you have to pay every­day, and you get to use the oil press when the own­ers want, not when you want. Once we were given the use of the mill between mid­night and 2 a.m. Can you imag­ine, after pick­ing olives all day long hav­ing to press them every night and then in the morn­ing hav­ing to start all over again? That’s killer for the peo­ple work­ing here. So we decided to make this invest­ment, but many pro­duc­ers don’t do this — they choose to save money. Instead of buy­ing a machine or rent­ing every­day, they rent just once a week after they’ve gath­ered a large quan­tity of olives.”

Harvesting by hand hardly exists any­more, so the olives get dam­aged by the machines. If they get squeezed the same day, it’s ok, but when the olives sit for a week with­out press­ing (which could cer­tainly be the case if the olives are trav­el­ing to Italy from a for­eign coun­try), bac­te­ria builds up, there’s fer­men­ta­tion, and this makes for a higher acid­ity — but this is not a prob­lem for these pro­duc­ers, because you will never read the acid­ity on their label. They’ll save money even though their acid­ity is higher; as long as it is under 0.8% it’s still con­sid­ered a top qual­ity oil by the gov­ern­ment. Understand that between 0.1% and 0.2% and 0.8% there’s a huge dif­fer­ence. People see this word, extra, and they think good qual­ity.’ No! It’s just a start.”

You lose the word extra and it becomes only vir­gin olive oil if you pass 0.8% of acid. That’s checked by the cham­ber of com­merce; they take a sam­ple and if you have 0.9% it becomes vir­gin olive oil. You don’t usu­ally find vir­gin olive oil in stores, because the big olive oil com­pa­nies buy all the vir­gin oil on the mar­ket and mix it with 15% extra vir­gin olive oil; so they reduce a lit­tle bit the acid­ity of the vir­gin olive oil and they sell you every­thing as extra vir­gin. What does vir­gin mean?” Alberto asks me. Pure,” I say, to which he responds, untouched.”

One day I was upstairs talk­ing about La Bella Giardiniera…” (Ironically, this orig­i­nal and sacred paint­ing by Raffaello Sanzio, to which there is only one other mate in the world, hangs in the his­tor­i­cal con­spir­acy room where the Pazzi hatched their failed plan.) I looked at the Virgin Madonna, and I thought, this is not what vir­gin means” any­more. Virgin should mean that the oil was not refined, not processed, not mixed with other oils — just pure olive juice.” Virgin has lost its orig­i­nal mean­ing because the Italian gov­ern­ment has allowed olive oil pro­duc­ers to bas­tardize the essence of the word.

When I say that the gov­ern­ment sup­ports these com­pa­nies, I mean that, imag­ine what would hap­pen if the gov­ern­ment said, Do what­ever you want, but write every­thing you do on the label; that you have a high acid­ity, that you mix vir­gin with extra vir­gin, that you buy your olives in Tunisia’ — peo­ple wouldn’t buy these brands any­more. If they don’t buy our oil it’s only our prob­lem. If they don’t buy oil from a com­pany that pro­duces 10 mil­lion bot­tles a year, it’s a prob­lem for Tuscany as well.”

Olive oil — not extra and not even vir­gin — is rub­bish. You are only allowed to call it olive oil because there are some olives in there. It is so bad that in order to sell it pro­duc­ers have to refine it, process it, use addi­tives, chem­i­cals, and mix it with other oils not from olives. That’s why it’s not vir­gin, it’s not untouched any­more and it’s not extra because the acid­ity isn’t 0.2% but can be up to 3% — 10 times more acid. That’s not good for you; maybe it’s good for your car.”

Mixing with infe­rior nut and seed oils is an old story in the his­tory of Italian olive oil pro­duc­tion. Tom Mueller shed light on the adul­ter­ated olive oil trade in his reveal­ing arti­cle titled, Slippery Business,” pub­lished by the New Yorker on August 13, 2007. Mueller reported that in 1991 a tanker arrived in the port of Barletta, Puglia from Ordu, Turkey, con­tain­ing 2200 tons of hazel­nut oil clas­si­fied as Greek Olive Oil.” Italian olive oil pro­ducer Riolio bot­tled and sold the oil to com­pa­nies such as Nestle, Bertolli, and Unilever, which dis­trib­uted the coun­ter­feit extra vir­gin olive oil to con­sumers all over the world, while col­lect­ing $12 mil­lion in E.U. sub­si­dies intended to sup­port the olive oil indus­try.” In 1992 the Finance Ministry’s mil­i­tary-police force began inves­ti­gat­ing this crime with the help of the E.U.’s anti-fraud office. By 1998, adul­ter­ated olive oil was pro­duc­ing prof­its, com­pa­ra­ble to cocaine traf­fick­ing, with none of the risks,” as one inves­ti­ga­tor told Mueller.

Feeling rather hope­less, I ask Alberto, How can I be sure that what I find in the super­mar­ket is qual­ity Italian extra vir­gin olive oil, and not diesel oil more suit­able for my car?” Alberto gives me three guide­lines, First, look for a dark bot­tle — this pro­tects qual­ity extra vir­gin olive oil from oxi­da­tion, which is caused by expo­sure to light. Second, check the date on the bot­tle. Olive oil must be con­sumed very young. Wine can have a short life or a long life; first it goes up in qual­ity, then it stays at the top, and then over time it goes down in qual­ity. It can keep for 3 years to 12 years to 20 years, doesn’t mat­ter. Olive oil goes down from the very first day. It’s impor­tant to com­mu­ni­cate to peo­ple when they ask how long you can keep olive oil — don’t ask how long, buy it and use it dur­ing the pro­duc­tion year. Third, pay atten­tion to price.” In other words, if the price is too good to be true, it
prob­a­bly is.

Before leav­ing Castello del Trebbio, I sit down with Anna and Alberto to taste their extra vir­gin olive oil — a blend of 80% fran­toio, 13% lec­cino, and 7% moraiolo. They also sell each vari­etal sep­a­rately, allow­ing the con­sumer to taste the char­ac­ter­is­tics unique to each of these Tuscan olives. Frantoio,” Alberto tells me, is the soul of Tuscan oil; it’s spicy and smells dis­tinctly of arti­chokes. Leccino on the other hand, is more ele­gant and less pun­gent than fran­toio, while moraiolo is rather bit­ter on the back of the tongue.” It’s the sea­son for olio nuovo — new oil — so I get to com­pare the plasma green olive juice, ripe with aro­mas of fresh cut grass and raw arti­chokes, along­side last year’s pro­duc­tion. While it’s spicy enough to get your motor run­ning, I’m cer­tain that this hasn’t been cut with infe­rior oils or olives from who knows where — this olive oil is as pure and untouched” as the Virgin Madonna.

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