RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

More and more shoppers seem to be choosing food delicacies as gifts, and one popular item is an elegant bottle of extra-virgin olive oil. Sounds good. That staple of the Mediterranean diet is not only the ultimate oil to drizzle over gourmet dishes, it's also increasingly recommended for health benefits.

In Italy, it's the season for the olive harvest, so NPR's Sylvia Poggioli went out to the Italian countryside to sample this year's vintage.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter and music)

SYLVIA POGGIOLI: About a hundred people are gathered in this former church in the medieval town of Campagnatico in southern Tuscany. Large olive branches and terra cotta amphoras set the scene for the evening event: a blind tasting of several different new olive oils.

Ms. VALERIA CITTADINI (Master Olive Oil Taster): (Italian Spoken)

POGGIOLI: Valeria Cittadini, an olive oil taster certified by the local chamber of commerce, guides us in identifying the top qualities of fruitiness, bitterness and pungency. The bottles are wrapped in aluminum foil to hide their name. Small amounts of oil are poured into tiny plastic cups.

Ms. CITTADINI: (Italian Spoken)

POGGIOLI: Cittadini tells us to hold the cup tightly in our hands to warm the oil. That helps reveal its qualities or its faults. Unlike in wine tasting, we're not supposed to swallow the oil.

(Soundbite of slurping)

POGGIOLI: Cittadini slurps it up, swishes it around in her mouth, and then spits it back into her cup. She says olive oil tastings are never elegant. After spitting out the oil, we each eat a slice of apple to clean our palates.

Ms. CITTADINI: (Italian Spoken)

POGGIOLI: Most of us agree the second sample has a stronger fruitiness. The aroma and taste of the fruit are more intense. Some say it has a hint of artichoke. It has a peppery aftertaste, excellent for soups and salads, not suited for seafood.

We taste three Tuscan oils, all of them extra virgin, which according to Italian law means a maximum of .8 percent acidity. Some of these oils come from the surrounding countryside.

Unidentified Man #1: (Italian Spoken)

Unidentified Woman: (Italian Spoken)

POGGIOLI: We visit the olive groves of Vincenzo Monaci, who made his fortune in software and has now returned to Campagnatico, the land of his parents. A nearby hill is covered with trees with the distinct silver-green leaves.

Mr. VINCENZO MONACI (Software Magnate): People say that those trees maybe are the same of the Romans.

Unidentified Man #2: Of the time of the Romans?

Mr. MONACI: Yeah.

POGGIOLI: We asked Monaci the age of a large, gnarled tree in his front yard.

Mr. MONACI: I'm sure five hundred years.

POGGIOLI: Olive trees are exceptionally resistant to hot summers and harsh winters. An old Italian saying has it that sun, drought, silence and solitude are their ideal habitat. The olive culture has deep roots throughout the Mediterranean. Both the Bible and the Koran hold it in high esteem. In antiquity, the tree was a symbol of purification and wisdom - olive branches, a sign of peace.

The oil was used in medicine and religion, as well as in the kitchen. The historian Pliny said that by the first century A.D., olive oil in Italy - which has several dozen different types of olives - was the best in the Mediterranean.

Here in Tuscany, locals say the trick to extracting excellent oil is hand-picking the fruits off the trees and getting them to the mill within three days.

(Soundbite of machinery)

POGGIOLI: The Aldobrandeschi Mill in Campagnatico works throughout the harvest season from October to the end of December. It processes 225 kilos of olives an hour, producing 200 liters of extra-virgin oil. Director Luigino Bifoni(ph) explained how it works.

Mr. LUIGINO BIFONI (Director, Aldobrandeschi Mill): (Italian Spoken)

POGGIOLI: Loads of olives - black, green, and purple - are dumped into a big bin. A defoliator removes stems, twigs and leaves. The olives are sprayed clean with water, and pits and all pass through a metal grinder and are fed into a trough, where spiral mixing blades turn them into paste, and then, into what the poet Homer called liquid gold.

One in our group of amateur oil tasters, Francesco Ungieri(ph), says the best way to test freshly pressed oil is with bruschetta, a slice of Tuscan bread toasted on the fire and drizzled with a few drops of oil.

(Soundbite of man biting bruschetta)

Mr. FRANCESCO UNGIERI: Hmm. Wow. Fruity. You can savor it, the oil. Very, very - I think, very effective.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. UNGIERI: It's really great.

POGGIOLI: As Thomas Jefferson wrote: the olive tree is surely the richest gift of heaven.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News.

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MONTAGNE: And you can find a guide to tasting and storing fine olive oil at npr.org.

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