Rooted In The Past

The olive trees of Puglia, Italy, have produced fine oils for centuries. Now they're gaining notice in the United States.

May 02, 2007|By Stephen G. Henderson | Stephen G. Henderson,Special to The Sun

There are more olive trees in Puglia than anywhere else in Italy. In fact, with an estimated 50 million trees growing in the Italian boot's "heel," there's nearly one for every man, woman and child living in the entire nation.

Driving south along the Adriatic Sea, as I did late last fall, I saw acre after glorious acre of Pugliese olive trees, which have gnarled and windblown trunks, making sculptural shapes that are both colossal and somehow ethereal. They're a cloud of silvery, gray-green leaves.

They're also venerable. It's not unusual to see specimens still bearing fruit that are 500 or 1,000 years old; a few are scientifically proven to even predate the birth of Christ. It was a privilege, then, to learn more about these living monuments by visiting groves, seeing olives being harvested and squeezed for their oil, and then savoring its piquant flavor.

FOR THE RECORD - A story on the olive oils of Puglia in last week's Taste section misidentified the author of The Name of the Rose. The novel was written by Umberto Eco. The Sun regrets the error.

Olive oil has been produced in Puglia for centuries, even millenniums, but a remarkable transformation has occurred with this greenish-gold nectar in just the last few decades. What was once viewed as a cheap condiment, something like ketchup, has successfully repositioned itself as a luxury product suitable for chefs who want only the finest cooking ingredients.

"Things are changing," says Nicola Ruggiero, president of Oliveti d'Italia, a trade group that touts olive oil from Puglia and throughout Italy. "Ten years ago, we sent everything we grew to America. Now, we only send the highest quality oils. In Puglia, we're starting to make single cultivars [nonblended oils] and giving more care to how the olives are pressed. We are no longer focused on making the most oil, but the best."

Rocco DiPietro, a partner at Il Scalino, a market on High Street in Baltimore, agrees. "Americans like to go to Tuscany, so they buy Tuscan olive oils even though they are very expensive," he said. "But Puglia's oils are gaining in notoriety. They are high quality, but nicely priced." DiPietro says he is just starting to get in oils from Puglia's 2006 harvest.

A bitter lesson

As it happens, I was in Puglia when these same olives were being picked. On a warm November morning, I arrived in northern Puglia at the village of Andria, which is a landscape of low, rolling hills.

I spent a few hours strolling through the farm of Giancarlo Ceci, whose family has grown olives here for the past eight generations. He said that, like approximately 15 percent of groves in Puglia, his is an organic operation, so he lives in fear of mosca, or flies that bore into olives and destroy the fruit.

While we walked about this scenic spot, I felt strongly seduced by the beauty of olives still on the tree. "In order to understand a land, you have to eat it." Recalling this quote by Italo Calvino, an Italian author who wrote The Name of the Rose, among many other books, I plucked a green olive off a branch and popped it into my mouth.

Immediately, my tongue and throat started to burn, as if I'd swallowed a wad of wasabi. This fiery sensation took several long moments to dissipate.

Ceci smiled at my beginner's mistake. Unlike most fruit, as everyone in this part of the world knows, olives are inedible when consumed directly from a tree. My error was compounded in this case, I soon learned, because olives grown for oil are altogether different from those cultivated for table consumption.

Counterintuitively, oil olives are usually smaller - the shape of a grape, perhaps - while table olives can grow to the size nearly of a walnut. Oil olives ripen longer and develop more sugar than the table varieties. They are harvested in November; table olives get picked the previous August. What's most confusing is that an oil olive's "sugar," a complex molecular structure called oleuropein, tastes exceedingly bitter.

A few days later, I knew better than to eat forbidden fruit when I visited Count Onofrio Spagnoletti Zeuli at his vineyard, also in Andria. Spagnoletti Zeuli guesses he has 40,000 olive trees, all of them pruned into a shape he likens to a chalice: hollowed out at the center, with circumferential branches growing into a "cup." This lets the maximum amount of light filter down through the tree and onto its fruited branches.

Unlike grape production, an enterprise with fairly consistent annual yields, growing olives is more uneven. A tree that produces a bumper crop one year might yield hardly any the next. Thus, as the count and I strolled his elegantly maintained fields, I saw some trees that were bare, while others were laden with clusters of berries ready to fall from the branch.

Traditionally, this was precisely how they were harvested; the olives picked themselves, so to speak, dropping free when they felt like it. Problem was, such ripe fruit was susceptible to bruising and, once squeezed, resulted in an inferior grade of oil. Today, the highest quality extra-virgin olive oil produced in Puglia is made from olives picked by hand.

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