Food Interview #11: Olives in Italy
Olive oil grove in Italy.
Andy is a retired executive living in the Sherman Oaks region of Los Angeles. He does not work in food. However, he is an avid fan of food, with only the best tasting ingredients making it to his plate. His love of prime food produce and his passion for world travel has taken him and his wife, Denise, to Italy, where they have come to own their very own house and olive grove. I sat down with him to get some details about an adventure many only dream about.
How did you come to own an olive farm?
My wife Denise and I love Los Angeles. You can get anything you want here. We absolutely love it. From the farmer’s markets to having your own trees in the backyard, it’s paradise. But we like to travel at least once a year. If you’ve seen Under the Tuscan Sun, that’s what inspired us. So we went to look at properties in southeast Tuscany and came upon the one we have now. It came with the olive trees.
So did you know anything about olive farming before buying it?
No, we had to learn everything. When we first bought it, there were 500 trees. Now there are approximately 1200 trees that are anywhere from 9 to 400 years old.
Did you decide to sell the oil once you learned more about the process?
We never had any intention of making olive oil for anyone else but ourselves.
Do you personally work the farm or do you have help?
We wanted to do something while in Italy so when we bought this property we learned to work the land from the neighbors and other locals. We also have employees that come and tend to the farm when we are here in the States. The olives have to be harvested for the oil pressing in November so it has to be done quickly. The faster they work, the more oil they get as payment. It’s their motivation to do the best job possible. And, we make really outstanding olive oil. We’ll give away a few bottles to friends and the rest is for family. My brother has a winery, Anomaly Vineyards in St. Helena in Napa Valley. He sells a limited amount of olive oil from our farm. Our oil is labeled under the Anomaly name like his wine.
Take me through the process of making olive oil.
There are three varieties of olives that come from a mix of trees that we have. This makes a blend of flavors. These olives are hand-picked off of the trees. There’s a spread net at the bottom to catch them. You have to press them right after you pick them, but certainly never more than 3 days later. It takes over two weeks to pick all of the trees. Then, they’re pressed. You can’t eat these olives so they’re only good for the oil.
What kind of presses do you use?
There are two kinds of presses. First there’s an old stone mill press and you put everything into it and run it multiple times. The problem with it is the cleaning process. Everything is run through it so all the residue that ends up coming away is hard to clean between presses. It’s fun for that rustic feeling but too hard to clean. This lends itself usually to potentially unhealthy situations because your neighbor’s olives may have been sitting around for weeks and have possibly gone rancid. If your olives are next in line, they could become tainted right from the start.
The other press is more modern and it makes all kinds of oil. It’s located in a really big modern industrial building not far from our house. So we truck the olives over and a conveyor belt takes everything, stems and pits included. Everything is washed and then pressed. The grinders separate the liquid from the sludge. That liquid is then separated into oil and water by a huge centrifuge and the oil is this dark green that has a peppery taste to it. That is the preferred taste for Tuscan and Umbrian olive oil.
We share the press with other farms in the area but our oil is one of the best, if not the best. We make about 1500 litres of oil but we only get to keep about 750 litres of it. About half of all the oil made goes to the workers who are paid in oil for their time and work. And this year, we lost more than half of the crop to hail so it was even less so we are only producing about 500 liters that we split with the workers.
What’s the difference between normal olive oil and extra virgin olive oil?
Nothing except the quality of the olive and the oil. What’s on the market isn’t labeled correctly. I see bottles labeled virgin, extra virgin and it’s all the same. What you need to look for is first or cold pressed. The best oil must be cold pressed below 30 degrees Celsius and it’s the first press. Everything after that is the mush that’s taken away that is reprocessed at temperature again to make a lesser quality oil.
Does Italy have the best olive oil?
Yes, Italy has the prime conditions for making the best oil but everything depends on the land. If it’s at an angle, if it gets the right amount of sun, if the soil is right. It all depends on region as well. Tuscany has a big olive oil that goes well with meat dishes while Sicily has a lighter one, that accommodates it’s fish-based cuisine. Also, a lot of oil sold in Italy is actually from abroad. A lot of it is Spanish, Greek, and Turkish. And a lot of it is mixed with other seed oils. So the bottle might say Italian but it was actually made in another country and bottled in Italy. It is legal for an Italian olive oil seller to say that foreign oil is Italian if they import the olives legally. This is crazy, but, unfortunately, true.
What do you think about the plight of small farms during these economic times?
Hopefully, there isn’t one. There’s been a huge resurgence of small farms and they mostly do well, certainly better than 10 years ago. People who want to buy fresh produce will pay the money to buy it. It’s not that different than going to Whole Foods, the prices are similar. There’s a growing market place now that didn’t exist before and there are farmer’s markets everywhere. Small farms are on the rise.
What’s the best part of having a home away from home in Tuscany?
It’s beautiful there. We love going there. Our house and the setting. Watching the sun set with a bottle of wine. Seeing the sun lighting the land and having this incredible oil. It makes a great gift for friends too. There’s nothing better than a slice of fresh bread with oil, you don’t need anything else. And we love having family visit us there.