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The Olive Oil of Puglia:
An Italian chef once remarked to me that food in Italy is effectively tribal. From village to village, you’ll find claims that ‘the best’ or ‘the authentic’ pasta, ragu, cold meats, olive oil and even honey is found ONLY in that particular place. So, a trip to Puglia visiting a selection of masserie was bound to result in a level of competitiveness that could only serve to delight the taste-buds but would inevitably completely destroy any intention of dieting.
Firstly we discover that a meal in Puglia starts with a table full of antipasti. It looks like a meal in itself. Even tasting a tiny portion of every dish (obviously essential, for the sake of comparing the buratta), by the time we’ve tried fifteen to twenty dishes we are all full. The montage shows just a few from one meal. An assortment of cheeses, cold meats, vegetable dishes and a whole range of hot morsels from arancini through to deep fried courgette flowers
Secondly, we learn that the best olive oil in Italy comes not from Tuscany, but from Puglia. Now, clearly this is rather subjective, but when even the Italian food writer from Rome is backing Puglia I begin to think there may be some truth in that statement. Caveat emptor though if you chose to visit and buy, apparently the term ‘product of’ simply means ‘bottled in’ – a good local olive oil will be labelled ‘produced and bottled’.
Arriving outside Masseria Il Frantolio, if I’m honest, I rather thought there was little to learn. Of course, during our tour I was proved very much wrong. What olive oil production I had seen in Tuscany was fascinating. A mixture of ancient and modern techniques, for the most part on a co-operative basis and with little finesse. As it turned out a very good grounding for what I learned now in the area of Italy that produces around a third of the Country’s olive oil production (ten times that of Tuscany).
Here, at Il Frantolio, twenty-five varieties of olives are cultivated, including the most commonly used in Puglia, the largest producer of olive oil in Italy; Ogliarola, Nardo, Cerasola, Fasola and Leucocarpa, there are also two varieties of wild olive trees on the estate – harvested to use in special blends of oil. All of the olives are picked by hand, from October to December to ensure the finest quality. Then, once picked, all processing happens within twelve hours – any delay can result in bitterness or moulds on the olives which will spoil the olive oil. Unlike many olive oil producers, here only olives grown on the estate are processed to ensure that tree to press time is always minimal and quality always unquestionable. Although Il Frantolio as it now exists is well established (the family started producing oil in 1917) the majority of the trees pre-date the oil business and are between 100 and 200 years old, though there’s one ancient tree that has been around for over 1,100 years. This is the land of Olives. The estate is in part organic and is gradually moving to an entirely organic system of cultivation.
The Masseria has two methods of producing cold press olive oil, the first using a traditional press, the second using a double centrifuge.
And, production methods vary still more; Il Frantolio has a few special techniques to create a range of distinctive premium extra virgin olive oil. ‘Lacrima’ for example, uses seven different types of olives – including a white olive originally from Israel and a local wild olive. The exact blend is, of course, a closely guarded family secret. Once the olives are crushed, oil is produced by making small holes in the paste which are allowed to collect oil for just 30 minutes, the ‘tears’. Normally 100kg of olives will produce between 12 and 16 litres of olive oil, but using this technique the yield from 100kg is just 1 litre of olive oil.
Necttare, another premium product is produced from olives picked just from the top of the tree, so more exposed to the sun and wind. Again it is produced using the traditional press. The result is a sweet, delicate oil that I could imagine dressing a green salad without the need for lemon or balsamic.
The centrifugal method is used to process around 70% of the olives, although the machinery is still capable of producing a variety of olive oil depending on whether the olives are de-stoned or not and by flavouring the oils, adding fresh orange, lemon or herbs during the processing.
Once extracted, the oils are stored in a constant temperature (between 14 and 16C) below ground level. They are kept sealed and in the dark until they are ready to be bottled and sold.
Moving on to taste some of the oils we are taught how best to release the flavours of the olive oil by warming it gently in the palms of our hands before swirling it round in the mouth. It is remarkably pleasant, though I don’t normally ‘drink’ olive oil. The pretty blue jar in the photo is a traditional judging cup – designed to ensure that neither the colour nor the opaqueness of the oil would affect scoring. We learn that there are many things which influence the taste of the oil – from the terroir and climate through to altitude, time of harvest, variety of olive and whether or not leaves and stones are allowed to remain in the process.
But, regardless of the flavour profile there are certain things which mark a good Extra Virgin Olive Oil. A spicy taste is an indication of too young an olive and a good olive oil will leave your mouth clean.
All the oils produced on the Masseria are part of the TriSole range. The name, from the traditional raffia filters that are still used as a filter for cold pressed olive oil in Puglia, is a tribute to rural history and traditions of the area.
I’m lucky enough to have a bottle of the lacrima to use at home. It will find its way into dressings and perhaps onto good artisan bread. I most certainly won’t be using it to cook, although I’ve learnt that despite advice to the contrary it is perfectly acceptable and even desirable to fry with olive oil because it has a very high burn point. But of course, heating the oil would change the flavour profile. And, I’m hoping that a few drops will take me right back to Puglia.