Friday, October 28, 2011

Olive Italy

And so we come to the end of our 2011 Food and Wine Tour, having said goodbye a day early to some of our guests, but adding an extra day for others as compensation.  And we get ready to welcome tomorrow our guests for our 2011 Food and Wine II Tour, a second week of eating, drinking, chattering, laughing and smiling in English and Italian.  We’re looking forward to it.

But there is some unfinished business to take care of on week I.  There is still food to be tasted, smelled, studied, looked at and learned about.  There is still wine to be sniffed, swirled, squinted at, slurped and quaffed.  So yesterday we set off in search of olive oil and cheese.

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Alberto Cipolloni is the multiple award winning olive oil made in a crumbling building a few kilometers past Spello, on the hills near Foligno.  We “discovered” Cipolloni several years ago, or rather they discovered us, when its owner Dr. Carlo Pagliacci and his aide de camp Lucio Maltempi paid us a visit at the villa seeking to spread the gospel of their oil.  At that meeting we were struck by two things – their absolute passion and belief in their product, and how right they were to be passionate about it.  Our relationship with Cipolloni was born that day and scores of our Washington, D.C. customers are thankful for that.

A visit to Cipolloni  has become a staple of our Food and Wine tour.  Olive oil plays such a prominent role in the cooking in Umbria and the olive oils produced in the area from Spello to Trevi to Spoleto are the most highly regarded in the area.  And this time of year, harvest time in Umbria, sees the production of the first oil of the year, what the Italians call olio novello, or new oil.  Novello is made from the earliest picked olives, which tend to be less mature and therefore greener.  The resulting oil is fruitier, greener and more intense than oil picked from olives that are harvested later in the season.  Novello is a novelty and a prized one at that.  Restaurants throughout the area proudly serve it and show it off on their tables from now until December.  Our visit to Cipolloni promised to result in the tasting of this liquid green gold.

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There is little magic that goes into the production of olive oil.  Olives are harvested from the tree and transported to the frantoio, or olive mill.  Bins of olives are dumped onto a conveyor belt that shakes and blows at the olives to remove the stems and leaves, and the hard green and black fruits are conveyed to a washer that cleans them and readies them for the crusher.

The hallmark of extravirgin olive oil is that it is virgin.  Oil is extracted from it solely by mechanical means – there are no chemicals added or other adulteration to the fruit.  Temperature is also kept low (hence the term cold pressed), which, while reducing the yield of oil, maintains its beneficial chemical properties and taste.

So the washed olives are fed into the crusher, a magical machine which does something inside (we know for sure what doesn’t happen inside) to begin the process of extraction of oil from the hard fruit.  At this stage the genius of Italian machine making – and I mean that seriously, as the Italians are renowned for their ability to make and manufacture heavy machinery for almost any purpose – comes into play and the individual oil producer dictates precisely how the oil is produced.  What we saw yesterday was a two stage process in which a quantity of oil is produced from the mechanical crushing and tearing of the olives and another quantity is extracted from the resulting sludge, referred to as paste, which is worked with giant screws and then centrifuged to separate the solids from the liquids.

The process is loud and there is a lingering taste of pepper in the air that occasionally causes one to cough.  But there is a great payoff at the end of the line, at the twin centrifuges that do the final separation of oil from water of the two streams of oil being extracted from the crusher.  There, their stainless steel spigots spit forth a ribbon of thick bright green oil, which collects in large stainless cylinders to be store and later bottled.  Our reward for waking early and enduring the noise and heavy atmosphere is the opportunity to place a clear plastic spoon under the stream of oil and capture a mouthful, forcing it onto the backs of our throats by making a most embarrassing slurping noise in the manner of professional olive oil tasters.  The result is a shock – an uber intense fruitiness that is wrapped in a soft, fatty pleasantness and then, after a brief delay, a sensation of hot pepper followed by a slight burning and an urge to cough.  For in this novello is an intensity and complexity which one feels and intuits when eating it, but only understands when one properly tastes it.

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A few moments later our academic interest is laid aside and we enjoy the novello as it is meant to be enjoyed.  On a simple piece of toasted bread that has been scraped with a little garlic and possibly topped with a tiny pinch of salt.  Here on the factory floor Carlo and Lucio and their assistant toast slice after thick slice of bread and bathe it in fluorescent green novello, passing pieces around to each of us as a breakfast treat.  Loaves of bread disappear over the next 45 minutes as each of us tries to pretend that the third or fourth piece is really just our second.  A glass of sangiovese wine helps keep us hydrated and pinzimonio, crudités of raw fennel, celery and carrot are dipped in dishes of novello seasoned with some salt and pepper.  By the time we say our goodbyes to these master oil makers, we have consumed over a bottle of the new oil and, well lubricated, make our way to nearby Ponte San Giovanni to try our hand at cheesemaking.

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The Ferretti Caseificio is the Ferretti brothers’ cheese shop in Ponte San Giovanni, located just across the street from the train station.  It opened just a few months ago and this was our first visit to the bright, welcoming shop, with its glass window allowing a view into the cheese making area adjacent to the shop.  We were met by Francesco Ferretti, one of the two brothers who are the caseificio’s owners, a young man who appears to be in his 30s and who gave up a career in engineering to pursue his passion for making cheese.  Stories like his do not seem to happen so often in Italy, where entrepreneurism is not as greatly rewarded or as common as it is in the U.S., but his obvious passion and focus on perfection give him and his merry band of cheesemakers a good shot at success.

On the heels of inhaling a loaf of toasted bread and ingesting a quart of olive oil, an hour long cheese tasting may not have seemed to be the smartest activity our group could engage in.  We did not hear a single complaint, though, as Francesco guided us through an explanation of how cheese is made, making clear the various methods and how they yield different results, and using his engineering and scientific background as well as his flawless command of English to bring an unknown art to life for us.  It didn’t hurt that he demonstrated his points by having us taste various cheeses.  It felt somewhat as though we were trained aquatic animals at Sea World, receiving a frozen smelt (in the form of ricotta, pecorino, or chewy mozzarella) for each successful trick we performed.  But oh, how Ferretti’s cheese and yogurt (accompanied by red wine, of course) made us want to perform.

Cheese, for most people, is a mysterious food.  We know it comes from milk but for most of us, Suzy and I included, that is where our understanding grows cold. For some reason Suzy and I have always believed that true enjoyment of food comes from combining one’s personal taste and appetite with a deeper understanding of and appreciation for how it is made, where it comes from and why we even bother to make it.  That is why we do what we do.  In the days ahead we will be able to test that theory as we look at, and taste cheese in a different light. 

Thanks to a young man in Ponte San Giovanni who took the time to share with us the passion that changed the course of his life.

Ci vediamo!
Bill and Suzy

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