Explore Italy’s Olive Oil, Straight From the Source

New York Times writer Danielle Pergament takes us on a journey to learn more about our cuisine’s most central ingredient.

This story, written by Danielle Pergament, appears in the New York Times

The bottles were presenting a problem.

The stainless steel one was best at keeping out the light, but it conducted heat and it wasn’t cheap. The painted glass bottle was promising, but only if it was made with the right paint. Dark glass was still an option, though not ideal.

“The wrong container can ruin all of our work,” said Nico Sartori, our host, his hands shaking with feeling. It had been an emotional morning — and we hadn’t even gotten to the subject of corking.

I had been invited to Fattoria Altomena, an olive oil farm just outside of Florence, to meet six of the region’s most respected olive oil producers. Outside our rough-hewed tasting room, flaxen hillsides were teeming with plump rolls of hay, and the ribbons of road that cut through them were dotted with cars rolling patiently behind huge green tractors. Late summer was painting itself on the landscape of northern Tuscany. And the land between the geometric fields and canopies of grape vines was given to olive trees — hillsides populated with soothingly straight grids of trees, spindly branches giving way to tufts of pale green.

We sat around a massive wooden table in Mr. Sartori’s tasting room, the famously golden Tuscan sunlight spilling over our shoulders, three bottles resting on a tray in the middle, waiting for judgment. Every few months, these gentleman farmers — all of whom favor crisp, button-down shirts and elegantly trimmed facial hair — meet at one of their farms to discuss machinery, bottling, whatever is going on in their business.

“There is no competition; we all love olive oil,” said Francesco Biagiotti of Compagnia degli Oliandoli. “If the whole world used as much olive oil as we do, we would be very rich.”

Olive oil, they explained, is more than something to drizzle over a dish when you want to impress company. It is a lifestyle. It is a necessary ingredient at every meal. So none of them, I asked, have so much as a stick of butter in their refrigerators? They laughed. They guffawed. Butter! But then, slowly, quietly, Mr. Sartori raised his hand.

“It’s true,” he squeaked. “I use butter. I’m not from Tuscany — I’m from the mountains!” Someone actually crumpled a piece of paper and threw it in his face.

Olive oil is as old as time. Egyptians, Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans all cultivated it. And here, in this sacred conclave of olive oil producers in a small farmhouse on a hillside — and throughout Tuscany and more rugged regions to the south — it was almost a religion.

“A good wine lasts one dinner; a good oil lasts many meals,” said Michele Porcu of I Greppi di Silli. “Once you taste a high quality oil, you can’t go back to the other kind. It will taste rancid, like chemicals.”

I was in Italy to get exactly this sort of education. I love olive oil. Always have. I pour it on everything and it magically makes me feel as if I live closer to the Mediterranean. My trifecta of culinary joy could be summed up as: wine, cheese and olive oil. But while I have passing knowledge of the first two, my erudition of olive oil is limited to articles about its health benefits and which labels I like the best.

More than any time in recent memory, olive oil is an increasingly precious commodity. Last year’s harvest was severely damaged by extreme heat, torrential rains and hailstorms, as well as a devastating fruit fly infestation. But even worse, a few regions to the south, in Puglia, olive trees have suffered a catastrophic bacterial infection that has wiped out at least one million trees. It’s been a disastrous year. Some experts predict many olive farms will go out of business; others foresee skyrocketing prices. One thing is clear: We can’t take olive oil for granted.

With all this in mind, I had come to the old country, joined by my husband and two children, on a month-long quest to develop my American taste buds (and a quest to have a month-long vacation). People go on wine tours of Italy, why not an olive oil tour?  Read more at The New York Times, Travel.

Share your favorite recipe, and we may feature it on our website.

Join the conversation, and share recipes, travel tips and stories.