`Fabrizia Cusani and Giampaolo Sodano - Olive Oil Times

Fabrizia Cusani and Giampaolo Sodano

Oct. 12, 2010
Lucy Vivante

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Two Sardinian shep­herds owned the Nepi pas­tures before Fabrizia Cusani and Giampaolo Sodano bought the land in the 1990s. Now there are 7,000 olive trees on their rolling 20 hectares. Olivaia is the name of their olive farm, and Frantoio Tuscus is that of their mill, and brand of extra vir­gin olive oil. The groves are planted with two cul­ti­vars, the Caninese and the Bolzone, widely used in the area.

Their organ­i­cally grown trees are remark­ably healthy look­ing. Like a young cou­ple talk­ing about what they feed their chil­dren, Cusani and Sodano smile when they describe what they give their olive trees, the fish, the greens, the water – what they eat. Italian sum­mers are dry. Olive foliage can look brit­tle, and the grass around trees is often a scorched yel­low. Their groves are well watered, the leaves are soft and plump, the fruit is full look­ing, and any veg­e­ta­tion in the aisles, between the trees, is also green.

Nepi is a town north of Rome, out the Via Cassia, and the Olivaia is 42 km. from Michelangelo’s Campidoglio. The name Tuscus refers to the Etruscans who lived in the region, as does the Tuscia, the name com­monly used for the province of Viterbo. The Tuscia is a D.O.P. region and Frantoio Tuscus oil has that cer­ti­fi­ca­tion, along with organic certification.

Fabrizia Cusani, now retired, was a pro­fes­sor of city plan­ning at the University of Rome; and Sodano, an exec­u­tive at RAI (Italian pub­lic tele­vi­sion sta­tion), as well as a mem­ber of par­lia­ment. In the early 90s, when approach­ing retire­ment age, Sodano said that he and Cusani had the con­ver­sa­tion, “ What are we going to do when they expel us from the work world?’ We were ter­ror­ized. We did­n’t have other work and you can’t vaca­tion for 365 days a year. It’s not plea­sur­able.” He con­tin­ues about how they chose to farm, In a way it’s nat­ural to think of agri­cul­ture because we’re the sec­ond gen­er­a­tion not work­ing the soil. Three gen­er­a­tions ago every­body farmed. Until WWI every­one farmed, Italy was an agri­cul­tural enter­prise. And in a way, you could say that our DNA for farm­ing woke up.”

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They orig­i­nally thought of the farm not so much for profit mak­ing, but for its lifestyle value. Then, a fran­toio (olive mill) came up for sale in the nearby town of Vetralla. They bought it in 1999 and this is where they extract, bot­tle, and pack­age their 20 tons of olive oil, in addi­tion to press­ing another 100 tons. Frantoio Tuscus extracts oil from Leccino, Frantoio, Maurino, along with the Caninese and Bolzone cul­ti­vars. All of their oil is extracted within 24 hours of olive harvest.

At first things started slowly, Sodano was offered a job in cin­ema, mean­ing that he had to spend most of his time in Milan from 2000 to 2003, and that he was work­ing the olive busi­ness with my left hand.” Cusani stayed in Nepi and con­tin­ued the busi­ness. Sodano says his wife has a keen sense for busi­ness, is always look­ing to make improve­ments, and is good at mar­ket­ing. Their son, Gabriele Cusani Sodano, also works on the marketing.

The Frantoio Tuscus brand pro­duces five types of extra vir­gin olive oil which is sold at a shop that is open year-round at the fran­toio, and through large Italian super­mar­ket chains. They sell 50,000 bot­tles through super­mar­kets such as Esselunga with 170 stores in the north of Italy, Despar in Rome, and oth­ers. Their export busi­ness is much smaller, though they sell in Japan, and in the US through the Whole Foods stores in the state of Washington. US sales are dis­ap­point­ing because the olive oil, after the markups of the importer/distributor, and Whole Foods, makes the bot­tle they sell whole­sale at 5 euros into a $19 bot­tle in Washington – too expen­sive, they believe, to be sold in any quantity.

Cusani and Sodano approach olive oil with huge enthu­si­asm, the kind of enthu­si­asm that marks polit­i­cal or reli­gious con­verts. They’ve taken courses (she’s a som­me­lier, he’s a mas­ter fran­toiano), they read widely, they attend and par­tic­i­pate at fairs and events. The day I vis­ited, they were ready­ing a guide of fran­toios for pub­li­ca­tion by Sitcom (Society for Italian Communications), an Italian TV, pub­lish­ing, and media com­pany. Sitcom’s owner, who has an agri­cul­tural con­cern in Nepi, lured Sodano back to tele­vi­sion and media in 2008. They met for lunch and the owner asked Sodano to lend a hand, which he was happy to do, say­ing Working in tele­vi­sion is like a drug, after a while you need to do it.” He com­mutes to Rome dur­ing the week and come Friday lunchtime, he returns to Nepi to work on the olive oil business.

During the olive har­vest months of October, November, and December, he spends more time in Nepi and Vetralla. When they bought the fran­toio, they put in a new Pieralisi sys­tem. He makes the more high-end oils, some of which he says are so labor inten­sive that they are not remu­ner­a­tive. The fran­gi­tura” or crush­ing and knead­ing phase is where he focuses a lot of atten­tion. By slow­ing the rota­tion of the Pieralisi ham­mers, he can get an olive oil which is less bit­ter and piquant. He’s think­ing of intro­duc­ing an Alfa-Laval crusher, whose action is more cut­ting than crush­ing to make a sweet oil. He says that a num­ber of fran­toios have both. Sodano is a vice pres­i­dent of AIFO, the Association of Italian Oil Millers. Because of his par­lia­men­tary and man­age­r­ial expe­ri­ence, AIFO has grown in mem­ber­ship (another milling asso­ci­a­tion decided to merge with AIFO) and is now rec­og­nized by the Agricultural Ministry. I asked him if what I’d read, that there were 6,000 fran­toios in Italy, was true. It turns out there are 4,997 and about 1,500 of those are phan­tom fran­toios, left over from when fran­toios were sub­si­dized for each liter they pro­duced by the European Community, and were pro­duc­ing what he calls fraud­u­lent paper oil.” Before that pack­agers were sub­si­dized by the bot­tle, and they pro­duced, what he terms bot­tles of air,” mak­ing huge for­tunes in the process.

The asso­ci­a­tion with Sitcom allows Cusani and Sodano to get the word out on olive oil. In addi­tion to the guide, they’ve pro­duced a fic­tional TV film, Pane e Olio” about a ter­mi­nally ill Irish woman writer who returns to Italy, where she had spent her child­hood, and olive oil plays a major role. They gave me a CD of a TV piece, Two or Three Things I Know About Him,” the Him” is olive oil, which will debut in the com­ing weeks. The TV show’s aim is to pique the curios­ity of view­ers (many Italians sim­ply take it for granted), and how to go about buy­ing olive oil. It goes into how it should be tasted, and an impor­tant take away is that view­ers should iden­tify ter­ri­to­ries with extra vir­gin olive oils to their lik­ing. Cusani presents and nar­rates the piece. In it we learn that Volubilis, the Roman city in Morocco, had 50 fran­toios. There’s a hand­some chemist talk­ing about olive oil’s squa­lene, hor­mones, and the sex­ual per­for­mance ben­e­fits. A chef makes an amaz­ing look­ing choco­late mousse with olive oil at 40% of the choco­late, and with olive oil streamed over the top. There’s a man mak­ing face cream the color of cream, instead of stark white. It’s made with every­thing organic – squa­lene from olive oil, organic beeswax and other ingre­di­ents. Cusani tastes the face cream, and the obvi­ous mes­sage is that if you can’t eat it, you should­n’t put it on your skin. Refreshingly, Cusani does not plug her own brand of olive oil.

I’ve met a num­ber of Italians involved in the olive oil busi­ness who enjoy talk­ing about the way seed oils are processed. What Sodano says is scary – and he kind of shiv­ers in the deliv­ery – but it is also amus­ing. He thinks it should­n’t be called oil at all. It should be called fat extracted from seeds. It’s an indus­trial process. They make it with hexane and caus­tic soda, what they use to take stains out of clothes. It’s a black, or a dark brown paste. It stinks. They have to add caus­tic soda to remove the color.” He says that American multi­na­tion­als and Unilever unleashed it on the world, con­vinc­ing leg­is­la­tors to allow it to be termed oil. (He takes a sim­i­larly crit­i­cal view of big olive oil con­cerns and their influ­ence on law­mak­ers.) Visitors to the fran­toio are made aware of how seed fats are made, as a coun­ter­point to how olive oil is produced.

There is a tast­ing room at the fran­toio, where Fabrizia Cusani is the som­me­lier, and vis­i­tors are wel­comed. I taste their excel­lent oil once I’m home. It wakes me up – it might be the vol­canic soil on which the olives are care­fully tended, or all of that hard-wiring for farming.

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With thanks to Cristina Ruscito, Sitcom Press Officer, for facil­i­tat­ing the visit.

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