There are few things as good on the green earth as first-press, extra-virgin olive oil from a little farm in the Italian countryside. It can‘t be found in American supermarkets and specialty stores where fancy-looking carafes of Italian extra-virgin abound, all too often mixed with chemically-rendered oil from someplace else.
The best Italian olive oil comes in hand-lettered, recycled bottles. It is way too perishable for export, produced in minuscule quantities chiefly for the grower’s family and friends. To get it you have to roam back roads in the Italian sticks.
That’s because, like wine, superior, extra virgin Italian oil tastes of the place it comes from—of the sunny hillside in Tuscany or Campania where the olives were grown, of the mill where they were pressed, maybe even of the sweat on the harvesters’ brows. But unlike most fine wines, which benefit from aging, olive oil is most flavorful when freshly pressed. How do I know?
Because a few years ago while I was living in Rome, my niece Sarah and her friend Phil came to Italy to pick olives. They‘d both just finished four years at New York University and wanted to take a break before joining what is known as the “real world.” Of course, they didn’t have much money, but it didn’t matter because an organization called World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms helped them find places to bring in the olive harvest in exchange for bed and board. Which is what I call clever.
They stayed at my apartment in Rome before taking the train to a farm west of Florence. Once they got there I phoned Sarah every other day to find out how two city kids who know more about iPods than olives were faring in the in the deep Italian countryside.
Just fine, it seemed. Sarah was climbing gnarled old trees like a monkey, shaking the fruit into nets spread around the trunks and taking the harvest to the local mill where she and Phil observed its miraculous conversion into the nectar of the gods.
After spending a week there, the kids came back to Rome with a sample of the farm’s first press in an old vinegar bottle with tape securing the top, a gift I‘ll never forget. Homemade olive oil such as this is like no other I’ve ever tasted—ripe, viscous, fruity and way too precious for cooking. I parsed it out on salads, knowing that my life would be emptier when the bottle was drained.