Umbria – Olive Oil Central. Slopes covered in ancient grey-green trees. Every day at breakfast, La Posta di Confine’s Roberta serves us oil pressed from the acres surrounding our cottage. It is delicious. She tells us that pure, fresh olive oil is excellent medicine. Among its many benefits – preventing accumulation of heart disease-causing plaque. But it must be PURE – and FRESH! Most of the “made in Italy” extra virgin olive oil we consume does not come from groves like hers.
Roberta’s olives are picked, sent to the press and bottled within two or three days. She explains that once picked, olives deteriorate fast. Most of what Italy exports is made from olives picked in Spain, North Africa and Greece. By the time the oil reaches Italy and is processed, it smells bad and tastes worse. Companies then ‘clean’ the oil, refining it to remove taste and smell. What is left is basically a dead neutral substance. In order to give it some odor and taste, they add back a small amount of ‘live’ oil – but its health benefits are gone.
Small producers of pure, rapidly bottled oil are campaigning to have another standard added to labeling – one that ensures the oil contains a minimum amount of free fatty acid – the substance that promotes deterioration – a much better guarantee of freshness and purity. It’s an uphill battle. They’re up against a major Italian industry.
Alas, this summer that has ruined the Barolo grape harvest has also nearly wiped out the olives – too warm in the spring, too wet and cold during summer. Roberta won’t be pressing and bottling this year.
Master story teller, Marco, relates the story behind the name they chose for their oil. The peasant family who preceded them had a son, Dagoberto (soft a) – who was not quite right in the head. No one paid any attention to him and he was relegated to helping the women with chores around the house instead of doing “real” work in the fields with the men.
Despite his handicap, everyone knew that Dagoberto never lied.
One day the Patron came to inspect the olive harvest and Dagoberto drew him aside and told him his brothers had hidden away some sacks of olives. The Patron was well aware of his tenants’ penchant for keeping back some of the harvest, but he had had a brother much like Dagoberto, and kept a soft spot in his heart for this family. He did his best to ignore Dagoberto’s tugs on his sleeve, but the boy kept insisting, and eventually led the Patron to the hidden stash of olives.
Marco and Roberto decided that Dago’s legendary honesty set the right standard for the oil they produce, and now his name adorns bottles that travel well beyond Italy.
Roberta’s tips: The fresher the better – try to enjoy olive oil within a year of bottling. Keep it in the dark and keep it cool. And a tablespoon a day of the real thing is great medicine. Who would want to ignore that advice?
Next: Perugia’s Treasure