Olive oil was the very first present we received from our neighbours Domenico & Italia, produced from their 100-year old olive trees which are a combination of regional types. Octogenarians, who are still both going strong, they may not prune or pick olives themselves anymore, leaving that very hard sweaty toil, where 100kg of olives are needed to produce 14-15 litres of oil to their son Gianluca and daughter-in-law Loredana, but their rustically cloudy oil beats the bottles lined up in my supermarket hands down in the tastiness department.
Opening the bottle, a whoosh of peppery grass and green tomatoes catapult you to Abruzzo’s wide blue skies, clouds that hang on high Gran Sasso mountain peaks and olive trees sat in bio-diverse terraced groves and valley meadows. Fed by the mineral rich waters that flow down from Apennine mountains, those rich olives let you close your eyes and memories of winter pour in with wood smoke & open fires and drizzling the new harvest’s oil over beautiful toasted bread, which quite frankly if the oil is good enough is all that bruschetta should be.
When used in cooking this powerful oil base manages to lick all ingredients from foreign shores into shape like a tough Sergeant Major. Even the simplest flavours that characterise the Abruzzo key dish, Pasta con aglio, olio e peperoncino, without a good oil can just end up tasting so so wrong; it’s this key ingredient that no matter how hard you try to recapture little Italy back home from a holiday, that can make something decidedly not quite right.
It is unfortunate that outside Italy you have to pay double the cost of what a good olive oil costs back in Italy, if indeed you do buy. In rural Abruzzo, most families have their own grove which will produce enough to see them through the year, which is the maximum a good olive oil should be left on the shelf so to speak. The opposite of wine, fresh is best when selecting olive oil. At our local farmer’s market in London the cost of 250 ml could buy 1 litre in Abruzzo, and the market’s oil is not the tastiest we have sampled. It makes me blush as well as my Abruzzi neighbours as they request again the London price of good olive oils in disbelief.
However, it does pay to invest and be fickle in your choice of olive oil. The stuff for £3 or US$ 3 at the local supermarket doesn’t deserve to embrace your pasta or any other part of you. Olive oil is great as an intensive moisturiser without all those gunky synthetic ingredients & chemicals and its the first thing I do after my hair’s been bleached at the hairdressers, rub some oil into my hair and scalp to soothe and recondition. As natives of a land where olives don’t grow naturally we really should learn if it’s not good enough to rub into your skin, neither is it good enough to make your pasta glisten.
To assist you in making the right choice in purchasing olive oil, check the label says DOC, so that it is local olives not part of the imported olives that literally Italy imports to export elsewhere, small estates are better than co-operatives as there is greater quality control, preferably hand-picked and stone milled pressed. If you buy from a shop make sure it is in a dark bottle, light and oxygen kill all the fine anti-oxidants in the oil.
There is NO difference in the colour, yellow or green, it depends on the tree variety and how ripe the olives were when they were harvested. There are some producers who add leaves into their oils at the mills to get the beloved green colour result – watch out!
For some taste definitions of Italian DOC olive oil:
Fruity – Strong olive taste
Pizzico – Peppery overtones
Rustic – Robust & hearty
Grassy – Spring meadows
If overseas, look out for the recommended Abruzzo Olive Oil, ‘l ‘olio Extravergine Nobile di Rocca’ by Della Fazia (Rocca San Giovanni, Chieti). It’s won plenty of the coveted ‘Tre Olive’ Slow Food award that is complied under an annual guide called Editore’s La Guida agli Extravergini. You can order it online and get it shipped internationally. The checkout process is in Italian but it’s very obvious for non-Italian speakers.