Old traditions searched out virgins for marriage, but now we are frantically searching for them for our table. December 8th is the feast day of the Virgin Mary, and by chance, it happens to be exactly when the new oil is out and the first sagre ("festivals") for the oil begin.
I laugh at the joke, "Where does virgin wool come from? Ugly sheep." So does virgin oil come from ugly olives? Living in Tuscany, I have been able to satisfy my curiosity by visiting new and old-style frantoi, the olive presses, and asking questions. There are, of course, a million different answers.
But let me simplify things for you a bit. One of the problems in buying oil is reading the label. Italy allows producers to buy olives from Turkey, Greece, and other regions of Italy, and crush them in Tuscany and call it Tuscan oil, or even Italian oil. "Made in Italy" is a big seller! Those wishing to emphasize the quality are now adding on "100% Italian Olives" or "100% Tuscan" on the label.
Those of us who are as wild about oil as we are about wine, choose carefully. Look for the best. Life's too short not to enjoy the best! But what does it take to be an "EVO," Extra Virgin Olive oil? The answer is maximum free acidity (less than 1 gram oleic acid per 100 g. vs. 2 grams per 100 g. for virgin olive oil), cold pressing, and no treatment of the olives other than washing, decantation, or filtration. It is also very important that the olives reach the mill quickly to avoid fermentation which can raise the acidity.
At my home in Certaldo, I have a modern frantoio as neighbors, the local cooperative. It is closed most of the year, but it has been running 24 hours a day now and will for the season. Having your olives crushed is a serious event and you must make an appointment, as you would for the doctor!
Each region in Italy grows different olives, has different soil and sun, and harvest at different times and with different techniques. This gives each of the oils a different flavor and represents the terroir of the region as does wine.
In Tuscany, we handpick the harvest when the olives are still green. This guarantees a high quality oil, low acidity, and a more peppery kick. Hence, the lack of black pepper in recipes in Florence.
The highest quality oil is meant to be used as is, uncooked, but I also use it for cooking. I save the new oil for salads and fettunta, or just for drizzling.
Pinzimonio is another example of how we use the new oil. Serve each person a small dipping bowl of new oil and sliced raw vegetables such as carrots, zucchini (although I have never seen an Italian use raw zucchini), fennel, celery, green onions, and prepared baby artichokes. The raw artichokes are perfect with the new oil. They both have the same sort of bite!
Try carpaccio di carciofi! Paper-thin slices of raw artichoke with shaved Parmesan cheese , new oil, and a pinch of salt.
I do the same with pears for a fun salad. Slice the pears paper-thin, top with shaved Parmesan cheese, toasted pine nuts, a pinch of fresh thyme, salt and pepper to taste, and pour new oil on to dress. Be generous with the oil!
Stefano Conti already has sent out the first bottles of oil to the states. It is especially good this year. Get a six-pack and share it with your friends!
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