I was all set to blog about making my own olive oil. But last week I had lunch with my good friend Pamela Sheldon Johns, and she kindly brought me a bottle of her newly pressed olive oil from her home in Tuscany. It got me thinking: since I enjoyed Pam’s oil so much, wouldn’t it be nice to hear from her about her olives?
If you don’t already know it, Pamela is the author of 14 cookbooks (which I use all the time) and has a lovely home in Tuscany, Poggio Etrusco, where she leads delicious cooking classes and culinary adventures.
Our first olive harvest in 2001 at Poggio Etrusco, my farm in Montepulciano, was an emotional event. After years of researching and writing about making olive oil, I had a good intellectual knowledge about the process, but being hands-on for my own production was a sense of fulfillment I had never imagined. We spread the nets under the trees and began picking. The weather was cool, crisp, and clear. The sight of the olives and the leaves against the blue sky was stunning and the work was pleasant.
I insisted that everyone pick only by hand, no plastic rakes as they could damage the olive and it could get musty in the crate while waiting for us to finish picking. Time was of the essence, and as we neared the end, I decided to skip one large tree that was full of tiny green olives that for some reason didn’t look ready.
I was no stranger at the frantoio (olive pressing mill), as I had been bringing my culinary workshop groups there for years to learn about making olive oil. The air was humid and redolent of olive must, a welcome environment after the cool days outdoors. A large fireplace was lit and people were toasting bread over the coals to taste the fresh oil at its ultimate moment. I stayed with my olives throughout the whole process of grinding on the granite stones, loading on the mats and pressing, filtering, and finally the centrifuge. When the bright green stream of oil emerged, I admit I was weeping and my mouth was watering in anticipation of the pizzico, the peppery herbal sensation that is at its strongest in freshly pressed oil. As I drizzled my extra-virgin oil on a slice of toasted bread, I savored the richness and the owner of the frantoio laughed at my tears, asking how I liked my oil. It is delicious-I said- but it doesn’t have as much pizzico as I had hoped. “That’s not a problem,” he told me, “you just need to plant more coreggiolo variety, it is a tiny, green olive that gives you the pizzico.”
In the past, farmers waited until the last possible minute to harvest, allowing the olives to mature as much as possible, and harvesting them just before temperatures turned to freezing, sometimes as late as December or early January. The oil may have been fruiter with a higher yield, but it wasn’t as fresh tasting as it is now. The trend these days is to pick earlier, striving for more of the pizzico, the burn in the back of the throat that is an acquired taste and a prized characteristic of Tuscan oil. The pizzico is present in a variety of olive called coreggiolo, but can also be achieved from an immature olive of any variety, hence the earlier picking. I had my “olive epiphany” a few years ago, when for reasons out of my control I wasn’t able to pick my olives until mid-November. It was a warmer-than-usual season, and the olives were all ripened to black, even the little coreggiolo that is usually still green. I supposed that my oil would not have much pizzico that year, but in fact, the little coreggiolo still spoke up loud and clear with a spicy burn, while behind it was the magnificent fruitiness I remember from my first visits to Italy twenty-five years ago.
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If you would like to buy some of Pamela’s oil, she is very organized and professional and you can order it online. The oil is the best! And the beautiful bottles with the labels designed by her husband Johnny (who is an artist) make them the perfect gift. If you are so inclined, you can even sign up for an olive picking week.