Are we witnessing a renaissance in olive oil, or the death of an industry? Will extra virgin olive oil become the next premium food phenomenon — the next microbrewery beer, Starbucks coffee, or quality chocolate — or will it sink into the anonymous mass of fat that is the legacy of our post-industrial food supply? Why don't we res pect great oil as we res pect great wine? And why have oil and wine evolved in such fundamentally divergent ways over the last half-century?
For several years now I've been asking these questions of people I've met in orchards, restaurants, monasteries, warehouses, and courthouses, in places farther and farther from my home in Italy, where my questioning began. Some of their responses — guesses and musings rather than answers — make up this book. In many of my conversations, wine, oil's age-old companion and rival, has been the unspoken point of comparison. Recently, back in western Liguria where I live, I saw how the enduring dialectic with wine may, if not explain the enigma of oil, at least provide clues to oil's real nature. I learned this from my neighbor Gino Olivieri, an eighty-five-year-old farmer who is the wisest man I know, as I watched him make oil and wine amid the terraced fields and limestone cliffs of our village.
Each year I help Olivieri with two ancient rites of the fall: gathering in the wine grapes and the olives. From the beginning, I've been struck by the differences in these two activities, and in Olivieri's underlying attitudes toward wine and oil. We harvest the wine grapes in late September, and the whole Olivieri clan turns out, including distant cousins who rarely see each other during the year. It's easy, jolly, companionable work; the warm autumn sun shines green through the fat leaves, and swarms of fruit flies and wasps and bluebottles buzz in celebration. We snip the grapes from the vines in heavy bunches, a hundred or more at once, bunch after bunch until our arms are tired. Now and then we eat a few grapes, their sweetness and warmth filling our mouths and dribbling down our arms, which like our shears are sticky with grape juice.
The olive harvest, by contrast, is bitter. It begins one morning in early December, when the cold air smells of wood smoke and a raw wind sluices through the trees. Bundled against the cold, Olivieri and I and a few of the hardier members of his family walk into his groves carrying ladders and long canes. We clamber up into the wet-limbed trees, strip the olives we can reach with our hands and knock down the others with the canes, into nets spread at the foot of the trees. Unlike the warmth and ease of the vendemmia, this is hard, tiring work, with a constant risk of falling — I worry about Olivieri with his arthritic knees on those wobbly ladders. Olive trees have no bunches of fruit dangling there for the taking. They give up their fruit unwillingly, which we often must pluck one by one from stubborn stems. Olives offer no sustenance as you work: most fresh olives are fiercely bitter from the natural antioxidants they contain.
But the biggest differences come after the harvest. Olivieri makes the wine himself. He has taken enology courses offered by the Italian government and the European Union, and knows the latest methods for filtration, malolactic fermentation, must treatment, and the other arcana of the wine-maker's art. He practices this art in the vaulted cellar beneath his old stone farmhouse, amid the soft drip and simmer of fermenting wine, a place of stillness where he can stop and sip and meditate on his work, as all the while time works on the wine, helping him make it better.
His approach to olives is different. He has never studied olive-growing or oil-making, and employs the same methods he learned from his father and his grandfather, like canes to bring down the fruit, which Roman agronomists already advised against because they knew it bruised the olives. Nor does he make his own oil. Instead he drives his olives to a local mill, where a scene occurs that has been repeated throughout Italy since ancient times: in the noise and the flurry of the crush, as people hurry to process the most olives in the least time, Olivieri walks his fruit through the entire extraction process, olives to paste to oil, to ensure that the miller is not playing tricks — part of the bitter tinge of deceit that oil-making often has.
Olivieri's wine is a res pectable white table wine, honest but undistinguished, and he knows it: he calls it his vinello, his "little wine," and to celebrate New Year's or a christening he buys a bottle of something better. But he'd never buy someone else's olive oil. Not so much because he thinks his oil is the best in the world, but because to him, at some level, it's the only oil. And despite the hardships of the olive harvest, which are considerable for an old farmer whose joints and spine have labored three city lifetimes, Olivieri loves it more than the vendemmia. Recently, after our tenth harvest together, I asked him why. He shook his head, as if trying to remember something, and then said, "Because it's harder."
This difficulty brings an attachment to olives that doesn't come with wine. Grapes are wanton, giving away their juice in huge quantities with the gentle pressure of the fingertips. Fresh olives, from a tree that knows the thrift and patience of the desert, cling to their oil — to wring it out you must grind and crush the olives under immense pressure, almost like an act of sacrifice. Olivieri's attachment to the olive harvest, and res pect for the fruit and the tree, continues in the oil. The most recent harvest was a good one, and his new oil is the brightest and most complex it's been since I started tasting it ten years ago. I said it was something to be proud of.
"I'm happy, but not proud," he said simply. "I didn't do this. The olives make the oil." This suggests another fundamental difference between wine and oil. Grapes contain not wine but grape juice, which must be transformed by the vintner's art. Oil is already there in the olive, if we can only coax it free. Wine in the final analysis is man-made, while oil is made by nature, through the medium of the strange tree — mysterious, because it comes from something greater than ourselves. Wine in a meal is the soloist, set apart in its gleaming glass, while oil permeates the food, losing itself but subtly changing everything. Wine's effects on us are vivid and swift, while oil works on the body in hidden ways, slow and lingering in the cells and in the mind, like myths. Wine is merry Dionysus; oil is Athena, solemn, wise, and unknowable.
Wine is how we would like life to be, but oil is how life is: fruity, pungent, with a hint of complex bitterness — extra virginity's elusive triad.
From Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil by Tom Mueller. Copyright 2011 by Tom Mueller. Excerpted by permission of W.W. Norton & Company.