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In Bomarzo, a town of 1700 people in Northern Lazio, the first thing people tell me about olive oil is that it’s what makes Italian cooking good. And Bomarzo’s olive oil is very good. The local agriculture cooperative runs a frantoio, or olive oil mill, that operates for about two months a year, and at peak time it runs continuously, day and night, for three weeks.
In Bomarzo the last months of the year are busy: hazelnuts are picked in August and September; grapes in October; June harvest wheat is planted in October; and the frantic season of picking and pressing olives runs from late October to early December. Once the olives are picked, they’re rushed to the frantoio to be pressed into oil (more than a day and the oil risks being rancid). It’s a quick process–from the olives being sorted to the pouring of the seedling green colored oil into stainless steel bins–takes about two hours.
Giuseppina Pangrazi Nevi, nicknamed Giusy, has worked for the agricultural cooperative or Società Cooperative Agricola del Lavoro, for 20 years. She looks very young, making the math hard to grasp. She runs the cooperative, scheduling and recording the olive processing at the frantoio, which is in the outskirts of the town. Most of the year she works from the town’s main square, in the offices and shop of the cooperative, managing the business of selling everything from insurance products to work clothes. Her offices at the frantoio and in town hum with hi tech. DSL arrived in Bomarzo within the last three months, and Giusy was among the first to sign on.
The frantoio houses the immense press, made by Pieralisi, a Marches firm, founded in 1888. (The most famous member of this family is Virna Lisi, the film actress, who shortened her name professionally.) Claudio Nevi, Giusy’s husband, and Daniele Romagnoli forklift the olives to be sorted and washed and then crushed, both fruit and pit. At least in Bomarzo, there is only one pressing. Olive oil pressed early in the season could be considered better than later pressings, but the notion of first and second pressings of the same olives is, according to Giusy, a marketing ploy. Sansa, or pomace in English, is a by-product which is used for making an inferior oil and the left over woody part is used for combustion and heating. The sansa from Bomarzo is sold to a plant in Latina, south of Rome.
Most of the people who have their olives pressed at the frantoio are members and by paying a one-time initiation fee of 100 euros can have a quintal or 100 kg. of olives pressed for 13 euros and if you’re not a member, the cost is 15 euros per 100 kg. A bit less than a kilo of olives will produce a liter of oil and Giusy says that each tree might yield 30 to 40 kilos of olives, depending on the weather, especially when the flowers form. A stellar tree in a stellar year can yield 100 kilos. To have your own batch of olive oil pressed, with only your own olives, you must have a minimum of 3 quintals of olives. Otherwise, it’s pressed with your neighbors’ crop. For most people this isn’t difficult, because the average owner has about 50 trees. Three quarters of the production stays with the tree owners. The other fourth is sold in 250 ml, 500 ml, 750 ml and full liter bottles and 5 liter cans to those who don’t have trees or in large quantities to wholesale dealers.
Olive trees are protected by the government, and it’s illegal to cut them down. Even if you have trees you want to transplant, or have moribund trees you want to replace, you have to have an officer from the Corpo Forestale Dello Stato (Government Forestry Department) come over and grant permission. In the past the government subsidized the growing of olives. Now, only some olive tree owners (those who registered their trees between 1999 and 2002) continue to be subsidized and the rate is variable. Subsidization continues after property is transferred either by sale or inheritance.
Olives are easy to grow as they don’t need much water and aren’t prone to pests. Many trees are centuries old, called ulivi secolari, and some even over a thousand years old, though not in Bomarzo. Gray leaves are the mark of plants that get by on very little water. The color gray may not be enough to describe the leaf of an olive–silver, blue, and green–along with gray is closer to the true color. Olive is too drab a descriptor.
Modern agricultural practice means that olive trees are pruned into a cup shape, allowing the sun into the interior of the tree. This seems rather ugly, especially just after pruning in February. By autumn, however, the branches fill out and the natural habit is mostly restored. Frantoio is also the name of a type of olive tree. Other common types are Canino, named after another Northern Lazio town; Leccino; Maurino; Moraiolo; and Pendolino. Whatever olive type, they are all mixed together.
The first phase of the processing is called frangitura, or breaking: a large, quickly rotating wheel smashes the olives into a pasta. At this point the sansa, or pomace, is removed. The pasta and added water are lightly heated (not above 27 degrees centigrade to be considered extra virgin) and after forty minutes or so of further mixing, or gramolazione, a centrifuge spins out the oil. Before hydraulic machines and powerful centrifuges, more than one pressing was necessary to release the oil.
The water byproduct is called acqua di vegetazione and is used as a fertilizer. The phenols present in the water are very potent, even toxic in high concentrations, and there are government regulations dictating how much can be spread and how far from waterways. If applied too thickly, fields can give off a terrible stench. While agriculture officers make sure the acqua di vegetazione is not applied at toxic levels, others use it for the promise of youthful skin. N.V. Perricone, for example, produces Olive Oil Polyphenols Face Hydrator, available in 2 oz. jars for $123.
Once the water is separated from the oil, the oil is poured into stainless steel containers, each labeled with the name of the grower and date. The place gleams with the bright metal drums, lining the hallway and in the storeroom.
The frantoio has a corner set aside for a fireplace and dining table, where Giusy and others have grilled meals and drink wine. Sometimes sausages are fried up with olives, direct from the tree or soaked first in water.
Giusy’s brother-in-law fulfilled his military service working at the Italian embassy in Washington. Her sister brought along one hundred liters of Bomarzo olive oil for the family, and Giusy delights in saying that an American neighbor thought this was puzzling until she tasted the oil and said that it was as good as gold.
By the way, Bomarzo is best known for its 16th century garden, Vicino Orsini’s Sacro Bosco, which is populated with huge sculpted figures of an horrific character. One of the garden’s sculpted figures–a gigantic head with a picnic table inside–is one of the most photographed of the scuptures.
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Bruschetta can involve many ingredients or only a few. Here it is at its simplest–Pan Unto, or Oiled Bread. I wonder if this should even be called a recipe. My mother often said that you could cook and cook, but there was very little better than a boiled egg and buttered toast. This is that sort of dish.
Coarse bread is sliced and then toasted on the fire or under the broiler. Once the bread is nicely browned, a lightly crushed garlic clove is quickly rubbed on the bread, as you might rub a salad bowl. A thin stream of olive oil is poured over the bread and salt completes it. To eat immediately.