`In Memory of Marco Mugelli - Olive Oil Times

In Memory of Marco Mugelli

Aug. 29, 2011
Gianni Stefanini

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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.

Marco Mugelli (left) and Gianni Stefanini

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.

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.


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