`For Family Making Olive Oil for 425 Years, Practice Makes Perfect - Olive Oil Times

For Family Making Olive Oil for 425 Years, Practice Makes Perfect

Jul. 23, 2010
Lara Camozzo

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In the first of a two-part series, Lara Camozzo vis­its the renowned Frantoio Santa Tea in the Chianti Classico region of Tuscany, where the Gonnelli fam­ily has been mak­ing olive oil since 1585.

On an impos­si­bly hot sum­mer day in Florence, I make my way along the Arno to a small cafe where I’m to meet Signore Gonnelli’s son, Giorgio. After order­ing a caffe mac­chi­ato, I spot him — tall and hand­some, just my luck. We get into his beau­ti­ful new BMW and my heart starts beat­ing faster — there’s air con­di­tion­ing!

We’re on our way to Reggello, a small town in the province of Florence, where he grew up among rows upon rows of olive trees and still comes to escape from the heat of the city dur­ing the sum­mer months. Sure enough, the tem­per­a­ture drops about 6 degrees as we approach Santa Tea, home to the Gonnelli fam­ily since 1585 when they first pur­chased the oil mill.

The mill itself was founded in 1426 — the orig­i­nal stone engraved with the date can still be seen on a side wall among ter­ra­cotta pots and ancient machin­ery. Thanks to the sales con­tract pre­served in the archives by the Stato Notarile di Firenze, we know that the broth­ers, Francesco, Lorenzo and Giulio di Taddeo di Michele di Lorenzo Gonnelli bought the Santa Tea Farm from the monks of the Carmine Convent in 1585.”

The estate sits 400 meters above sea-level; its expo­sure to the south and its sandy, well-drained soil makes it an ideal place for the cul­ti­va­tion of olives. Beginning in October and last­ing until the end of December, Santa Tea is a busy place; every­one is hard at work har­vest­ing the olives by hand — dur­ing what is known as La Raccolta.

Giorgio leads me through their mod­ern mill explain­ing the pro­duc­tion process step by step. During the har­vest, all of the con­tain­ers of olives arrive here,” he points to a large fun­nel-like tank, where they are unloaded and trans­ferred to the olive press.” As we walk around a con­veyor belt that car­ries the olives to the wash tank, Giorgio shows me a wall stacked high with con­tain­ers hold­ing empty olive oil jugs and bot­tles. Generally, dur­ing har­vest sea­son, the oil mill is over­flow­ing with these con­tain­ers,” he explains.

The har­vested olives are then washed in a machine designed by Giorgio’s father, Piero Gonnelli, which removes with forced air all of the dirt, stones, leaves and twigs, until all you’re left with is the olive, e basta.” Next the olives are passed through the tem­per­a­ture con­trolled press. We have two lines of pro­duc­tion — one is smaller, the other big­ger. The smaller line is used prin­ci­pally for pri­vate pro­duc­tion.” The olives are then turned through four long, rec­tan­gu­lar tubs for an hour, until a type of pulp con­sist­ing of aqua nera, or dark water, olive oil, and the pit has been achieved. Pointing to the last machine in the room, Giorgio says, This is the final phase of the press­ing process — a bit like the refine­ment of wine — where the dark water is divided from the extra vir­gin olive oil. We want to elim­i­nate the cloudy water in order to achieve an oil with a bright, clear color and a strong fla­vor.”

This oil is then passed through under­ground tubes into stain­less steel hold­ing tanks that are kept in another build­ing where the bot­tling and label­ing takes place. Giorgio knocks on sev­eral of the tanks caus­ing a hol­low sound to rever­ber­ate back at us, We’re at the end of the sea­son, so most of these are empty.” The tanks come in vary­ing sizes and can hold any­where from 80 to 115 kilos of olive oil. Unlike wine, which gets bet­ter with time, Olio ha un tempo.” Oil should be enjoyed within two years of pro­duc­tion. Throughout the sea­son the oil is bot­tled as it is needed, to keep it as fresh as pos­si­ble.

The Gonnelli’s pro­duce ten dif­fer­ent types of extra vir­gin olive oils made from sev­eral dif­fer­ent olive vari­eties grown through­out their prop­er­ties in the Arno Valley. Their selec­tion ranges from Fruttato Intenso — Intense & Fruity, to Dolce Delicato — Sweet & Delicate, to Il Tradizionale.

I’m excited to learn that they are one of thirty olive grow­ers involved in the pro­duc­tion of Laudemio, one of my favorite Tuscan oils known for its supe­rior qual­ity, herbal, grassy fla­vor and clean, pep­pery fin­ish. They also pro­duce Piazza del Palio, from the region just out­side of Siena, in addi­tion to a DOP cer­ti­fied extra vir­gin olive oil that hails from the Chianti Classico region. This DOP cer­ti­fi­ca­tion guar­an­tees that the oil has passed a qual­ity process based on the ter­ri­tory from which it came — from har­vest to bot­tling. Their Fresco di Frantoio olive oil is made from green and black olives picked dur­ing the mid­dle of the har­vest period, and is bot­tled with­out fil­tra­tion — its neon green color is matched by its lively fla­vor. However, at a cer­tain point in the sea­son any unsold oil is pulled from the shelves due to a thin white sed­i­ment that forms in the bot­tom of the bot­tle — per­fectly edi­ble, but to con­sumers who don’t know the dif­fer­ence, they find it dis­gust­ing,” Giorgio says. All of their other oil vari­eties go through a final fil­tra­tion process to achieve the crys­tal green color con­sumers expect to see from a good qual­ity extra vir­gin olive oil.

Giorgio lifts the lid to reveal the inside of the small­est machine I’ve seen yet. This,” he says, fil­ters the olive oil.” At first glance, I see that the white fil­ters are still stained with the last crop. As I lean in I am sud­denly and over­whelm­ingly hit with a wave of the essence of olives — it’s so vibrant and pure, it actu­ally smells green. I take a big gulp­ing breath and am imme­di­ately trans­ported far away from this sum­mer heat, to a sea­son when leaves crunch under­foot and the warmth of your breath hov­ers in the crisp morn­ing air. As some­one who grew up eat­ing and cook­ing with Italian olive oil in the States, I think to myself, This is what it’s all about — this is the real deal.”

I sup­pose I had imag­ined a huge fac­tory after learn­ing that the Gonnelli fam­ily pro­duces 500,000 bot­tles of extra vir­gin olive oil every year, yet their entire pro­duc­tion is con­tained within two build­ings. The sec­ond build­ing houses bot­tles and cans of every shape and size — this is where the bot­tling and label­ing takes place. The bare bot­tles arrive on a belt and are filled with olive oil from a tube that is con­nected to the steel tanks just around the cor­ner in the stor­age room. They are then capped, labeled and sealed with a 100% Italian guar­an­tee. This entire process, from press­ing to bot­tling, is air­tight, with­out the pres­ence of oxy­gen, in order to main­tain the fresh­ness and longevity of the prod­uct.” These bot­tles are then sold to super­mar­kets and restau­rants through­out Italy, Europe, Japan, China, Russia, Korea, and the United States.

After receiv­ing a bag full of good­ies includ­ing six of their ten olive oils, Giorgio takes me down to the orig­i­nal mill where the devel­op­ments in olive oil tech­nol­ogy over the cen­turies are all appar­ent — the actual press and stone was pre­his­toric com­pared to the mod­ern mill I’ve just toured. Standing there, under­ground, I can hardly imag­ine some­one turn­ing this wheel by hand through the frigid win­ter months, and am relieved to learn that the hard labor was shared in part with a mule. It’s clear that the world of olive oil has changed, and I’m amazed that the Gonnelli fam­ily has suc­ceeded in keep­ing their mil­l’s his­tory so alive and present for so many years. But in a coun­try where the tra­di­tion of food is almost as impor­tant as the fam­ily that gath­ers around the table to eat it, is it really any won­der?

In the final seg­ment in this series, an inter­view with Piero Gonnelli.


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