Chef María José san Román conducts an olive oil tasting class at Villa Campestri
Italians find reasons to throw a food fest about as often as Americans go to the grocery store. Every week, every season, somewhere in one of twenty regions of Italy, someone is celebrating a harvest. Few, though, are as renowned or revered as Tuscany’s olive harvest when the freshest extra virgin olive oil is poured on everything from eggs to ice cream.
In my memory, the closest thing to this experience was a nine-hour feast in Paris one night in November when Beaujolais Nouveau hit the streets and all of Paris celebrated until dawn. But touring Tuscany during olive oil harvest season is a little different. Olive oil is the lifeblood of this country and Tuscany is considered the premiere region for its production. Unlike the French, Tuscans don’t kick off the season with a bang. Their approach is much more beguiling. Olive oil slowly seeps into everything until you can’t imagine having a meal without it and soon begin to worry about what will happen after the “olio nuovo” disappears.
Learning the Language - Immersion Method
My olive oil adventure was part of a week-long homage to EVOO held at the Villa Campestri Olive Oil Resort, famous for its singularly-focused attention to this essential ingredient. From the first dinner that opened with three different amuse-bouches perfectly paired with three different olive oils and to the last course of olive oil lemon sorbet, it was clear that Villa Campestri’s owner, Paolo Pasquali believes the best way to learn something new is to employ the immersion method.
“Amorolio” is the brain child of Pasquali and co-creator, Nancy Harmon Jenkins, celebrated writer and Mediterranean diet expert. Just like language training, the culinary program started with a tasting class in the “oleoteca” to establish a common culinary vocabulary and get all of our senses keen to what lay ahead. The itinerary was carefully orchestrated to build our knowledge from one level to the next – but the program tossed in a few other Tuscan experiences that I suspect were designed to disguise the fact that we were ingesting pretty sizable volumes of olive oil every day.
Jenkins provided expert guidance to our small group as we worked our way through kitchen demos and hands-on classes with the Chef Roberto Zanieri, olive oil tastings hosted by agricultural expert, Dr. Gemma Pasquali, and field trips to culinary adventures in the surrounding countryside - made all the more special by Jenkins’ extraordinary access to some of the very best culinary artisans in the region. We took “Mr. Toad‘s Wild Ride” into the Apennines to enjoy a “marrone” festival and a private lunch at Locando Senio, famous for its array of hand-cured salumi. The next day we motored straight south to Florence to explore the vibrant, noisy action at Mercato Centrale, followed by a serene lunch prepared by one of the city’s best chefs, Benedetta Vitali at her restaurant, Zibibbo.
A lesson in olive orchard agronomics from Dr. Gemma Pasquali
It’s all about capturing the moment at a cooking class
Our final day began with a hands-on demonstration of turning olives into olive oil in Villa Campestri’s own frantoio, then sampling the result with the humble “fettunta”, more commonly known in food circles around the world as bruschetta. A simple, thickly-sliced and grilled piece of saltless Tuscan bread, rubbed with garlic and soaked in extra virgin olive oil, streamed directly from the mill’s spout. It is a combination of exquisite fruit fragrance and aged-old scent that required no downtime for the flavors to marry into a crisp, earthy bite. Our training was complete.
Most trips end when the plane touches down at home. But, I’m comforted in knowing I have a secret trip-extender – a precious tin of the freshly-pressed oil I helped create at Villa Campestri. I know it will not last, but I don’t care. I’ll use it with abandon on anything and everything, every day until I eke out the last little drop.