Olive oil the life blood of Tuscany

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Last month, the Vancouver Sun published a handful of articles about choosing and using Italian olive oil. The writers gave excellent advice, but I was left with the impression that they considered olive oil just another — albeit very special — product, like fine wine. They gave no hint of how intensely olive oil and life are intertwined in Italy. To the Italians, olive oil is as vital as pasta, bread and soccer.

Anyone fortunate enough to reside in that country for a period quickly discovers that life revolves around olive oil. Here's how it happened to me.

My story begins in January 1976, when I arrive in Florence. Friends introduce me to our neighbourhood "salumiere" (grocer), who sells "olio sciolto" (unbottled oil, straight from the farm), which he stores in a terracotta "orcio" (very large jar) in his back room. I bring him my empty bottle, he weighs it and pours in the oil. Then he puts it back on the scale and subtracts the weight of the bottle. Loose oil, like loose wine, is sold by weight rather than volume — one kilo of oil is just a little more than one litre.

Before long I meet people who have their own vineyards and olive groves. My routine becomes increasingly linked to the seasons of the Tuscan year.

Olives ripen between November and December. They are either picked by hand or shaken off the trees. For this the workers use a kind of rake called a "pettine" (comb), with which they gently shake the branches, causing the olives to fall onto huge nets spread on the ground.

The olives are brought to the "frantoio" (oil press) immediately after picking. Farmers and friends come to watch as the dense green liquid flows out from between the mill stones. I need the patience of a saint to wait for my turn to taste it. Finally someone passes me the cup of new oil. I dip in my finger, lick it, and instaneously feel like a most privileged mortal.

A celebratory feast out at the farm follows a few weeks after the pressing. In dry weather, the feast is outside; if it's raining, it's under cover in a farm building.

The first thing the farmers do is build up small fires. Then they place iron grates over the glowing embers for grilling "salsiccie" (pork sausages) and toasting slices of Tuscan bread.

It's nippy outside. I gladly drink some red wine as I watch pots of steaming "fagioli bianchi" (cannellini beans) and "pappa al pomodoro" (soup as thick as porridge, made of bread and tomatoes) carried by the cooks in a grand procession. As soon as we've heaped these traditional Tuscan dishes on our plates, they'll be "sposati" (married, that is joined) with the new oil.

The smell of grilled sausages and toasted bread intensifies. A friend hands me a piece of the warm bread and a clove of garlic. I rub the garlic back and forth over the bread, drench it with oil and guide the dripping "fettunta" (literally, oiled slice) towards my mouth.

When the feast ends, my only consolation is that now I can renew my stock of olive oil to get me through the winter, spring, summer and fall — when the whole miraculous cycle will begin again.

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This page last updated: February 24, 2012.