Nothing is quite like the smell of olive oil as its aroma is released, or the flavour of it hitting tastebuds after being drizzled on food. Both capture more than a hint of the green of spring, the gold of summer, the terracotta of autumn in lands warmer than Scotland. Olive oil is a hit of the Med that sends senses reeling.
Tuscany. Late October. Olive picking time. In the fields of the Tuscan countryside nets are spread between trees to catch the precious fruit as a mechanical arm shakes tree after tree to send leaves jigging and dislodge the bounty.
In numerous gardens and smallholdings the process is similar though more manual. A cloth is spread on the ground then olives are quite simply picked and dropped into a container, the cloth catching any that inadvertently fall.
Pierluigi, our host, bustled across the grass one morning and spread a cloth on the ground beneath his largest olive tree, or to be accurate his mother’s largest olive tree. Its olives were at different stages of ripeness, green, black and that khaki inbetween colour. Just the variation that was wanted for eating olives he assured us. The other smaller trees boasted larger olives, green and succulent looking, but all were bitter to the taste. Olives, it appears, need to undergo a magic process to turn them into compulsive nibbles.
Olives destined for pressing into oil are, according to Pierluigi, not ready for picking until mid November, so still a few weeks of anxious weather watching before the harvest. Interestingly, we met a guy in Lucca’s botanic garden, an Australian who described himself as an olive oil organoleptic assessor and judge, a member of the Australian Olive Oil Sensory Panel. In his view mid November was too late for picking, affecting the quality of the resultant oil. So a line of dispute exists between tradition and science, between old world and new.
The magic process, we asked Pierluigi about it. He was vague. He just picked the olives. Mother had the magic wand. But he undertook to ask her. Husband did a bit of Googling. That indicated a long drawn out complicated process. But no, intelligence from Mother via Pierluigi indicated washing before steeping the olives for five days, changing the water every day. Then, prior to heating, they were packed in jars with…ingredients. What ingredients? Various ones. Salt? Yes, salt and…other things.
The impression was of closely guarded family secrets. We could imagine every Tuscan matron packing her olive jars with herbs and spices, the specific ones and the exact quantities for the best favour having been passed down from mother to daughters over thousands of generations. A bit like the bottle of Drambuie we had taken as a present.
Come back next year and you can taste them, we were urged. Sounds good, though maybe we should take a course in organoleptic olive assessing in the meantime.