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Carol Firenze: The Passionate Olive

Dec. 14, 2010
Sophia Markoulakis

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By Sophia Markoulakis
Olive Oil Times Contributor | Reporting from San Francisco

Armed with copies of her book and bot­tles of The Passionate Olive branded extra vir­gin olive oil and olive oil soap, Carol Firenze is on a mis­sion to edu­cate the pub­lic about the holis­tic ben­e­fits of olive oil. With a youth­ful com­plex­ion and glo­ri­ously shiny hair, she’s a well-suited spokesper­son for nature’s most deli­cious elixir. Spend a few moments with Firenze and you might be hav­ing your daily dose of extra vir­gin olive oil straight from the bot­tle. Spend some time read­ing her book and you’ll be using olive oil to pol­ish your wood floors, lubri­cate your house­hold hinges, and deter skin infec­tions and diges­tion ail­ments.

Firenze is pas­sion­ate about olive oil, which is why she con­tin­ues to remain busy with speak­ing engage­ments and book sign­ings five years after The Passionate Olive: 101 Things to do with Olive Oil was first pub­lished. Not many other first-time authors of food-related books can make that claim. Nor, can they boast seven print­ings, includ­ing copies in other lan­guages like Turkish and soon Chinese. While work­ing on the book, my edi­tor assured me that it would grow over time’. And it’s true, it really has,” says Firenze. Every new print­ing gets an updated ref­er­ence and retail sec­tion as well as revised list­ings of both California and inter­na­tional pro­duc­ers.

It seems like Firenze was slightly ahead of the curve when she set out to write a book about the mul­ti­ple uses of olive oil, even though many of her sug­ges­tions and reme­dies have been around for hun­dreds of years. Now, with news of olive oil’s potent health ben­e­fits reach­ing the main­stream con­sumer, Firenze is poised to edu­cate those who will take the time to under­stand the impor­tance of olive oil in our daily diet. Since writ­ing the book, the indus­try has changed with the expan­sion of inter­est in extra vir­gin olive oil. People are becom­ing more health con­scious. People are also becom­ing aware of the impor­tance of the Mediterranean diet, and at the cor­ner­stone of that is olive oil,” says Firenze.

As the olive oil indus­try has changed over the last five years, so has the public’s palate. Firenze acknowl­edges that years ago when she was involved in a blind focus group, par­tic­i­pants actu­ally pre­ferred a low-grade sam­ple over a high-qual­ity extra vir­gin olive oil. Now that we have the inter­est in extra vir­gin olive oil, the next step in edu­cat­ing the pub­lic is to apply this knowl­edge and prac­tice it by tast­ing and dis­cussing. Tasting is an impor­tant part to under­stand­ing the dif­fer­ences in extra vir­gin olive oils, and an inter­ac­tive learn­ing expe­ri­ence is cru­cial to edu­cat­ing the pub­lic about olive oil. The tast­ing expe­ri­ence helps peo­ple talk about the prod­uct to oth­ers,” says Firenze. Like wine, people’s palates have become sophis­ti­cated. People are begin­ning to under­stand the nuances of extra vir­gin olive oil and are learn­ing the dif­fer­ences between cul­ti­vars.”

From a com­merce stand­point, the last five years have seen unprece­dented growth in emerg­ing mar­kets of the olive oil indus­try. Firenze is excited about New World oils and believes that any con­ver­sa­tion and inter­est in olive oil is pos­i­tive, and that rules and reg­u­la­tions are needed as pro­duc­tion grows. Olive oil is the most eas­ily adul­ter­ated of the oils. We need to police our­selves in regards to pro­duc­tion and qual­ity con­trol,” says Firenze. It’s a known fact that Italy exports more olive oil than it pro­duces; so to have com­pe­ti­tion from places like Australia is good.”

Her heart, though, is firmly planted in the Italian olive groves that pro­duce the oil on which she was raised. Growing up in an Italian-American house­hold, Firenze is very proud of her Ligurian roots. Her favorite olive oil comes from the Taggiasca olive, which, she claims makes the absolute best pesto.

This year Firenze orga­nized her first Olive Harvest Adventure in Umbria for trav­el­ers inter­ested in expe­ri­enc­ing a rus­tic Italian vaca­tion. Promoted through her web­site and com­pany, The Passionate Olive, the seven-day trip fea­tured vis­its to sev­eral local fes­ti­vals includ­ing a truf­fle and chest­nut fes­ti­val, and a fett’unta (lit­er­ally, oiled slice”) rit­ual that is cen­tered around the new oil, or olio nuovo, from the day’s har­vest. Guests stayed at a villa in the Tuscan coun­try­side and enjoyed cook­ing classes from the res­i­dent chef. The grounds sur­round­ing the villa are lush with Leccino, Frantoio, and Pendolino olive trees, which only a few weeks ago, were fully loaded with ripe fruit. Guests har­vested olives min­utes after enjoy­ing break­fast on the ter­race, know­ing that their evening meal would include the fresh oil that came from the day’s work.

Firenze’s upcom­ing book was inspired by the Renaissance-era alchemist, Isabella Cortese, and her work I secreti della sig­nora Isabella Cortese (The Secrets of Signora Isabella Cortese). Released in 1561, The Secrets’ was the only printed book by a female alchemist dur­ing the 16th cen­tury. Geared towards an aris­to­cratic audi­ence, the book con­tained instruc­tions on how to make per­fumes, cos­met­ics and oils. Firenze plans another book that will focus on olive oil and the role it plays in beauty, health and longevity.

With a text hun­dreds of years old inspir­ing Firenze to con­tinue her cru­sade pro­mot­ing the count­less ben­e­fits of olive oil, one can imag­ine that her book might inspire some­one many years from now to do the same.

Firenze is a for­mer board mem­ber of the California Olive Oil Council and serves as an expert for The Olive Oil Source. Visit her web­site to pur­chase her book or the Olive Oil Source to read her monthly newslet­ter col­umn.

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