Saturday, November 13, 2004


Last weekend we drove around our section of Umbria visiting several different frantoi…the places where they press the olives into oil. Just as certain wines can be designated DOP, ensuring that they come from specific areas and contain specific percentages of specific grapes, so can olive oil. Umbria is divided into five regions, and each region has a different mixture of olives, as well as different growing conditions. When I posted a question about different varieties of olives on the SlowTalk message board, Dean, a board moderator and frequent poster, gave me this explanation:

I have tasted hundreds of oils, both single varieties and blends of varieties. Maybe even 1000 or more over the years. I think that the first determinant of quality is terroir, or the land the olives were grown in.

Next up comes the quality of the producer. Do they take the special pains necessary for making the best quality oil. Is every care taken to keep the equipment clean? Are the olives crushed in the morning when the granite mill stones are still cool or late in the day when they have absorbed a lot of heat?

Then there is the care in harvest and selection of the oil. How much green and how much black olives are in the oil? How many leaves are left in as they go to the crusher? There are all sorts of shortcuts and many will take off a little edge of quality.

How old are the trees? Olive trees can last up to 500 years or more. The older trees tend to yield better oil (and more oil as well!).

Last is the varietal blend of the olive. Certain varietals have more of one character than the other, but my experience has not brought a clarity of how that plays in the final oil more so than the location of the oil. Most Montalcinese oils have a fresh grassy yet rich character that I love. This is probably the terroir and not the olive varietal blend as some producers have all one kind of olives and others have another, yet all are more or less defined by their Montalcino origin.

At this year's Fancy Food Show, there was a frantoio from Mt Amiata. They made 5 oils. Two of the oils had the same exact olive variety in it and were 100% that variety. One was a hillside selection of the oldest trees... the Grand Cru of the orchard. The other was made from the same variety but from younger trees planted on the flats of the orchard in richer soil. The Grand Cru was my favorite and the "Normale" was my least favorite of the 5 oils they make. The difference between them was night and day and the only difference was the location and age of the trees. My second favorite was an oil made from another variety of olive. Next was a blend of three olives. All of my favorite three were selections of particular sites in their orchards. My least favorite two were from lesser parts of the orchard, one a single variety and the other a blend.”

Dean is VERY knowledgeable on both food and wine… I think he works in the retail food industry. He certainly knows a lot more than I do, and I found his explanation very interesting.

After reading about the five regions and the characteristics of the oils, we decided that the Assisi/Trevi/Spoleto region was the one for us. It was the only region that categorized its oil as “piccante”, which is exactly what we like.

On Saturday we set out for Trevi, where four different frantoi were holding open houses with tastings of oil, bruschetta, and often other goodies as well. We found the first place without much difficulty. Even though we followed the directions given on the website, and saw various “Frantoi Aperti” signs pointing us in the right direction, we still just sort of stumbled upon it. That’s usually the way it works for us in Italy. The directions seem to be very detailed, but somehow things are never as clear once you get on the road.

The first place we stopped was the Cooperativa di Trevi, a large modern looking place with a butcher shop inside…not sure why. They had bruschetta and the oil was tasty and green, but not quite as spicy as we like, which turned out to be a good thing…their 5 liter cans cost €55! And for whatever reason, they didn’t have the 5 liters cans ready anyway, so we bought a 750 ml bottle for €8, and also some great looking pasta.

We headed for the next place in a tiny little town just south of Trevi called Pigge. We asked a mail carrier for directions, and she told us to go back from the direction we had come, and drive straight straight straight…never going on to the main highway. Once again, the directions seemed simple, but once we went down the road a bit, straight didn’t seem to be quite a clear cut as you would think.

We headed up the hill into the town, and using the word town is somewhat of an exaggeration…this place was REALLY tiny. Luckily for us, we passed a group of men who pointed us in the right direction and told us there were not one, but TWO frantoi just down the road.

The first frantoi, which I would never have discovered, was in the back of what looked like someone’s house (and I’m sure it was), on a short little street with only four or five houses. Art decided to turn down this street, and when we saw a man working, we asked if this was the frantoi. Yes, he told us, the best in Umbria! How could we pass this up?!

Once we parked the car and walked around to the back of the house, we saw several cars dropping off baskets of olives. A woman approached and we asked her if it was possible to buy some oil. Well, yes, but they didn’t have any labels right now. We told her that we weren’t in a hurry, and I thought we might have to come back later, but the daughter left immediately to get the labels, and we were invited inside to watch the olives being pressed.

Since the day had started out with fog as thick as pea soup, I hadn’t bothered with the camera. The fog continued all the way to Trevi, so I probably wouldn’t have taken any scenery shots. Unfortunately, this little frantoi was the most interesting we’ve ever been in, and I wished I had the camera.

The large machine that crushes the olives was at the back of the room. You could see the olives falling into the machine and on top were two gigantic stone wheels turning round and round, crushing the olives into a pulp. Large circular woven mats were placed on the machine, a valve was opened, and the mat was automatically turned to coat it with the olive paste. The mat was then stacked on a large wheeled dolly. These dollies had a center shaft about five feet high, and the mats were placed like rings on the dolly, one on top of the other. Once the dolly was loaded, it was wheeled over to another machine. After being locked into place, this dolly was then raised into the air by a large piston, forcing the mats to compress together at the top of the machine and to release the oil. We watched as the oil dripped down the sides of the mats to the large recessed area in the bottom. From here it ran through a pipe and drained into a large can. The can looked very similar to a milk can. All the cans in the room had names on them, and we guessed that these were the names of the people who had brought the olives in.

After about fifteen minutes, the daughter returned with the labels, and we were led into another room filled with five liter tins. A large vat was uncovered, and our oil was dipped out of this vat and into the tin. The daughter told us that this was their oil. It was incredibly green and we asked for a taste. The daughter sent her brother to get some bread, but we told her no, all we needed was a small cup, since we wanted to taste the oil by itself. She made a face, and couldn’t believe that we would taste the oil by itself! We assured her that we weren’t drinking it, just tasting, but she still thought we were crazy!

Once we had our tin of oil, we headed down the road to the next frantoio. Amazingly, it was less than a mile down the road, but once we turned into the driveway, it became less clear exactly where we should park and exactly which building we needed to go to. Luckily, a woman came out of a closed door and told us that this was the building where we needed to be.

Once inside, we found a table full of food. Bruschetta, celery, two kinds of beans, lots of lots of dolci…things we recognized from our past year in Italy, but other than two fruit crostatas, we didn’t know the names. There were some cookie-type things shaped liked an “O”…some with raisins, and also some biscotti. Oh, and red wine too. Lunch!

This frantoio also had very small cups sitting on the table along with several bottles of oil…we assumed these were to taste the oil by itself…the very thing the previous frantoio had thought so incredible!

This frantoio also had homemade blackberry and fig jelly. We had a hard time figuring out what the blackberry was. The name on it was “more” (pronounced more-ay), and at first I thought it was raspberry, but that’s lampone, so I started to go back to the car to get a dictionary. A young man who worked there said goodbye, but I told him I’d be back as soon as I got my dictionary. He told me to wait…there was someone there who spoke English who could translate for us.

After a few minutes he returned and introduced us to his aunt, Fluvia. She was Italian and lived in Rome, but had only recently moved back to Rome after living for twenty years near Toronto. She was the one who helped me to figure out that the other jam was blackberry, and I discovered that she had been the one to bake all of the food!

Fluvia and I struck up a conversation about baking, and she told me about Castroni’s in Rome for buying American supplies like Crisco. She also told me that I could use strutto to make pie dough. I later discovered on the Expats In Italy message board that strutto is lard, and is readily available at the grocery store. She and I had a nice chat, and she asked if we would be coming back on Sunday. We told her no, we would be visiting other frantoi, and she said that was something she had always enjoyed too. We bought a five liter tin of oil and also some of the fig and blackberry jam, then headed off in search of the last frantoio of the day.

This last frantoio was the one we had been looking for when we (obviously) took the wrong road and headed up the hill to Pigge. I know you think that when someone says “go straight” that should be fairly simple, but you don’t know Italy. When we got to a certain point, there seemed to be two roads that both went straight…one slightly to the left, that headed up hill, and the other slightly to the right, that looked like a very bumpy, little used driveway.

Since we now knew that the road on the left wasn’t the right one, we decided to take a chance on the gravel road. Again, this is Italy, and you just never know. As we drove past a couple of buildings, the road curved around and up, and off in the distance we saw, all by itself, a large building that looked as if it might be what we were looking for.

As we pulled into the parking lot, workmen were beginning to put up large letters spelling out the name of the frantoio on the front of the building. We could see from the letters that were on the ground that yes, this was the place!

A young girl was inside, and we were the only visitors. She took us into the factory and offered us some bruschetta. This oil was also nice and peppery, so we bought a five liter tin here too. Not bad for a days work…three five liter tins and one 750 ml bottle, jam, pasta, and we had lunch to boot. We headed home very pleased with ourselves.

On Sunday we decided to check out two frantoi in Foligno. We had driven through Foligno on Saturday and had found the location of one, and hoped that we could find the other.

The place right in Foligno, Clarici, also had bruschetta and wine. Their oil was also spicy and delicious, so we went to the office to buy a tin. Once there we asked if anyone knew where Molino il Fattore was, but no one seemed to be familiar with it! We were surprised…you would think that frantoio in the same area would at least know about each other.

We had the brochure with the address of the other frantoi, and the guy who had been helping us went to the computer, brought up, and printed out directions and a map for us! Once we looked at the directions, we knew that we would NEVER have found this place without lots and lots of help!

As we got closer and closer, instead of stopping and asking for further directions, Art just kept following the signs, even when they led us down narrow medieval streets that were barely wide enough for our car. I was getting more and more concerned that we wouldn’t be able to find a place to turn around, especially when everyone else was walking, and we were the only ones driving. What did they know that we didn’t?

Once we reached the frantoio, we had to turn sharply and drive thru a narrow archway…and we were so relieved to see a small parking lot, even though it was nearly full. At least we had a chance to turn around when we left!

Once inside, we found a fire blazing in a huge fireplace, and bruschetta. There was a man explaining how the oil is extracted from the olives, but the machines we all modern and everything was enclosed, so there was really nothing to see.

We were told that there was food upstairs, so of course we headed upstairs to check it out. A very large room was divided into two sections by a bar-height wall. One section of the room held a long table filled with platters of celery and carrots, and small cups to fill with oil for dipping.

The other side of the room had several long tables for eating, and at one end, a table filled with food and staffed by a chef who was serving. There was bruschetta and torta al testo, but the chef was serving something very different. He cut four small wedges of some sort of very mild creamy cheese, then topped each with a different salsa. One salsa was made from pumpkin, one from some sort of berry, one was a gelatine di te (tea) and the last was made from chestnuts. Each salsa was then drizzled with fresh oil…wow!

After eating our fill, we went back downstairs to buy a tin of oil, and also a bottle of oil flavored with lemon. They also sold an oil flavored with orange, which one of the girls told me was delicious with chocolate, but this just didn’t grab me. The oil with lemon should be great with fish.

The parking lot had thinned out quite a bit, so we didn’t have any trouble turning around, and although the drive back to the main road was still slow due to the narrowness of the road, we were lucky to follow another car, so we didn’t have to worry about being met head on!


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