`Seeing Green: Harvesting a New Love for EVOO in Tuscany

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Seeing Green: Harvesting a New Love for EVOO in Tuscany

Apr. 26, 2011
By Jaclyn Einis

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I remem­ber my first trip to Boston’s Regina Pizze­ria at age nine. As I watched a few din­ers pour olive oil on top of their piz­zas, I was per­plexed. They wanted their pizza greasier? As a teenager I did­n’t think much about olive oil, aside from the fact that if I cooked with too much of it, BAM!” I’d look like Emeril Lagasse.

After col­lege, my inter­est in food grew deeper and with it, my appre­ci­a­tion for olive oil blos­somed. I’d been toy­ing with the idea of vol­un­teer­ing through the orga­ni­za­tion World­wide Oppor­tu­ni­ties on Organic Farms (WWOOF), for a cou­ple of years when I wan­dered into an O & Co. in Manhattan’s Grand Cen­tral Ter­mi­nal.

I walked in with the inten­tion of sam­pling sweet, syrupy bal­samic vine­gars, but the sales­man insisted I also try a few of his favorite oils. As I swooned over the fruity, grassy liq­uid gold, I learned that each year the sales­man would visit one of their Ital­ian pro­duc­ers for the olive har­vest. Some­thing clicked. I knew my des­ti­na­tion! It took another year or so to drop every­thing to travel, but I finally made it out to Italy for the 2010 har­vest.

After a month of pick­ing wine grapes and chest­nuts in north­ern Italy, I made my way down to Tus­cany. My hosts Enrico and Luisiana, Milano natives, left the city smog for the hills of Ripar­bella, a vil­lage near the Lig­urian coast of Pisa. For about twenty years, the cou­ple has pro­duced organic olive oil from some 1,200 olive trees sur­round­ing their home and agri­tourism, Le Serre.

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Each Novem­ber, Enrico and Luisiana enlist a team of about seven WWOOF vol­un­teers to help pick the olives when they’re in their prime. They get four­teen extra hands on deck, while the vol­un­teers get an authen­tic Ital­ian expe­ri­ence in the breath­tak­ing coun­try­side, a place to sleep in the agri­tourism and deli­cious, abun­dant meals. In fact, the meals were so deli­cious, so abun­dant, that I don’t imag­ine they are sav­ing an enor­mous amount of money as WWOOF hosts. They’re largely in it for the same rea­son as the vol­un­teers are: cul­tural and edu­ca­tional exchange.

Much of this edu­ca­tion took place out in the field. As we alter­nated pick­ing, col­lect­ing olives in crates and mov­ing nets, we’d chat, joke, prac­tice Ital­ian and Eng­lish and gape at the land­scape. In between social­iz­ing, I’d find moments of pure seren­ity pick­ing the hard-to-reach olives under a canopy of leaves. As I picked by hand and comb (and occa­sion­ally hand-held elec­tric har­vester), I’d ask Enrico and the other Ital­ians work­ing with us about the art, sci­ence, busi­ness and pol­i­tics of organic farm­ing and olive oil pro­duc­tion. I learned about the impor­tance of press­ing the olives within 24 hours of pick­ing, what extra vir­gin” really means and about the unique char­ac­ter­is­tics of Tuscany’s count­less olive cul­ti­vars. I dis­cov­ered the glo­ri­ous fran­toio, both the olive and the build­ing.

When Enrico let me tag along to the fran­toio, or olive press, I wit­nessed the olives’ jour­ney from whole, to paste, to bright, almost neon, green liq­uid. Feel­ing faint from the incom­pre­hen­si­bly rich smell of olive oil envelop­ing me, I fol­lowed Enrico out­side the build­ing. He pointed to the grow­ing pile of olive pomace (the pits, stems and pulp that remain after press­ing) out back. This, he explained, would be pressed once more for ordi­nary, unrvir­gin” olive oil. That’s where peo­ple throw their cig­a­rette butts,” he told me as we loaded up the truck with fresh bar­rels.

I had the honor of try­ing the vibrant new oil – and com­par­ing it to last year’s oil – with each meal. Apart from the olive grove, the din­ing room played host to our cul­tural exchange, most of which revolved around food. I baked choco­late chunk banana bread with the other Boston­ian; the Israeli cou­ple made a Mediter­ranean feast, replete with home­made pita, cous­cous and apple cake; and the Swedish WWOOF vol­un­teer, who just so hap­pened to be a chef, made her own send­off din­ner of Swedish pan­cakes with berries and bacon. On most, days, how­ever, the cui­sine was pure Italy.

Most dishes came with sug­ges­tions on how to best enjoy them, and these sug­ges­tions almost always involved olive oil. A sim­ple salad required no cream or corn syrup-laced dress­ings to sat­isfy, merely a bit of oil and per­haps a splash of bal­samic and sprin­kle of salt. More sur­pris­ing to me, soup that was once deli­cious popped with bril­liance after a driz­zle of oil.

Whether just any extra vir­gin olive oil would pro­duce the same magic on a bowl of soup is doubt­ful; after all my tast­ing and trav­el­ing was through, Le Serres oil always came out on top. What made their oil taste so incred­i­ble? Was it the mix of olive vari­eties? The care­ful prun­ing, the coastal Tus­can envi­ron­ment, the organic prac­tices or cold press­ing? I’d say all of the above, and the fact that those olives were har­vested by some very happy hands.

Pho­tos: Daniel Pin­tus

World­wide Oppor­tu­ni­ties on Organic Farms

Le Serre Azienda Agri­cola Bio­log­ica — Agri­t­ur­ismo
56046 Ripar­bella (PI)
Tel/Fax: +39 0 586 699100

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