Thursday, August 25th, Marco Mugelli, a friend and teacher in the art of making real extra virgin olive oil, died. The words that follow are dedicated to his memory.
Apollo Olive Oil started operating in 1999. At the time, the milling was done using an old stone mill that was purchased in Italy. As Apollo’s production needs grew, I realized that I would soon be forced to start using new, more modern machinery. So, in the beginning of 2004, my research on other machines started. I contacted good producers I knew of, asking them their opinions of their machines and those of their competitors. I went to visit factories, so as to better understand the principles behind the extraction of high quality olive oil.
I was surprised to discover that the major concern was with quantity — not quality. Another surprise was the level of education: those I was meeting — some of the best producers in the world in terms of both olive oil and machinery for olive oil production — were not even vaguely interested in the quality of their oil, but rather entirely devoted to the extraction of the highest possible quantity.
Then, in the spring of 2005, I had a lunch with Daryl Corti, an internationally renowned olive oil and wine expert. During our meal, I expressed my concern and frustration with the lack of education on the extraction of quality olive oil. He suggested that I talk to Marco Mugelli, and gave me his phone number. Marco was a well known frantoiano (olive oil miller) near Florence, with more than 30 years of experience in making olive oil. Three weeks later, I was in Italy, at Marco’s house.
Within the first five minutes, I knew I had found my man (the first thing he said was, “If you are here because you want to extract the most oil possible from your olives, without putting quality first, there’s the door: you can go back.”) I came to realize that his knowledge and understanding of the production of the highest quality extra virgin olive oil was immense: my questions scratched the surface, and he responded with such a bounty of information that I got the impression that I could have learned ten times as much had I only been a little less naïve.
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In short, this encounter changed everything. I found out that Marco was leading a group of researchers, financed by the Chamber of Commerce in Florence, whose purpose was to extract the best olive oil possible, so as to make Tuscany the undisputed ruler of quality olive oil. They had been working for more than ten years, and had come to the point of building prototypes, but were having trouble finding a company willing to build them. All of the large firms that specialized in olive oil machinery were simply not interested in dealing with someone, like Marco, whose main focus was quality at the expense of quantity.
In 2003, Giorgio Mori, who had been in the business of making small, stand-alone olive oil mills for personal use, decided to start producing prototypes for Marco. When I arrived, they had tested a number of machines separately, and were ready to start testing a full milling system. I decided to take a leap: Apollo Olive Oil would purchase the first machine, and would be supplied with upgrades to the prototype free of charge, but would also take on the risk of providing olives to feed into the prototype, which was just as likely to produce a green mush as good oil. The company was assured of one thing, however, that the focus of the entire project would be perfecting quality over maximizing quantity.
This experience changed my outlook completely: previously, I imagined that, because I cold-pressed my olives and did everything “right” and without cutting corners or fraud, I made real extra virgin olive oil. I now know that there are thousands of ways that a producer, such as myself, can unintentionally produce a defected oil.
After working with Marco for a while, I realized two things: a) 90 percent of the world’s producers are completely uninterested in producing a higher quality olive oil, and b) the vast majority of large producers of olive oil, especially those that market oil below 6 dollars a liter, mix other oils — canola, hazelnut, soybean — into their olive oil. In fact, some are even entirely devoid of any olive oil at all, only to be promptly labeled extra virgin olive oil. Because of this, the knowledge of how to make real extra virgin olive oil was evaporating. But there is a silver lining: this fading knowledge was being defended, brought back, and preserved by a devoted few, an effort that was spearheaded by Marco Mugelli.
Marco devoted his life to bringing two things into focus in the world of olive oil. One was the ongoing experimentation, simplification, and improvement of systems for producing the highest quality olive oil. He was a leading example and an exhaustive researcher. Secondly, he relentlessly denounced the system that deceived consumers around the world, and filled 95 percent of markets’ shelves with “extra virgin olive oil” that was neither extra virgin, due to olfactory defects, nor pure olive oil, as the result of major fraud by the largest producers.
Among the things he did to promote these two things, he transformed a research group based in Florence into an establishment that continuously brought new ideas to the field of olive oil extraction, while simultaneously being a school for a new kind of frantoiani (millers). Every year, he taught a class on the theory and practice of extracting very high quality olive oil. He also founded a taster’s association in Florence with the aim to educate as many people as possible to detect the full range of defects that can be present in olive oil, from the most obvious to the most subtle.
Marco’s death leaves his work unfinished. He was a pioneer on a road that must be followed: all of us who have been taught and inspired by Marco now find ourselves with a simple task. We must continue to do what he started, and I believe that this act of perseverance is the best way to honor his memory.