Walk by Martin Hesp in southern Italy to taste delicious extra virgin olive oils

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At more than 2,500 years old, the gnarled tree in the photograph is the oldest living thing serving mankind anywhere in the world. It was regarded as venerable when the Romans were picking olives from its branches long before Jesus Christ was born.

It still bears a modest crop today and there will be a fraction of its fruit in the bottle of extra virgin olive oil I now have in my kitchen.

Climate change may one day mean that we will be able to grow and produce one of the finest cooking ingredients known to mankind. Indeed, there are those in warmer parts of the region who do now grow a handful of olives but, as far as I know, no one local has started making, bottling and selling commercial quantities of the fabulous oil. Yes, we could restrict our cooking fats to local butter and British rapeseed oil, but anyone who loves first-class West Country foods like our vegetables and fish will sooner or later reach for a slurp of the health-giving, life-reaffirming juice of the olive. So, if we keen cooks have to use it, why not set out to find the best? That is what my friend Concezio, of Discovery Puglia (www.discoverypuglia.com), asked the other day when he invited me to join a trip to Puglia in south-east Italy, where they claim to make the finest extra virgin olive oil in the world. No doubt producers in other areas might argue with this, but they would be hard-pushed to claim that they’ve been at the olive oil production game for longer than the Apulians.

The farmer who sold the bottle of extra virgin to me had some of his trees carbon-dated by scientists, so he knows how astonishingly old they are, but he told me he always knew the grove was planted in Roman times.

However, the really old tree at the Masseria Brancati farm – the one they call The Grand Old Man – is even older than the rest. Agronomists know this because most of the grove is laid out in the grid system the Romans invented – but the Grand Old Man is not.

Farmer Corrado Rodio told me: “My family has been here for over 200 years and we’ve always been in olive oil production. We specialise in only making extra virgin. There are lots of different varieties of olives – in Italy we have over 500 – but in what we call the ‘monument’ olive grove there are two old varieties.

“If a Roman centurion tasted my olive oil, it would be the same as he knew. But, we have two different ways of making oil – the old way with a mill and a press – and in a modern mill.

“If we use the mill and the press the oil will be similar to the Romans’. But I prefer the modern mill because the oil is perfect.

“I love everything that is old, but admit the modern way does make a nicer taste.”

This is a theme you will hear time and again as you tour the olive farms located in an almost biblical-looking setting between the hills and the Adriatic Sea in the fertile part of central Puglia between Bari and Brindisi.

The area is called Salento and much of it is known as the Monumental Olive Groves Natural Park.

There is, obviously, much art and skill in actually growing the olives, or at least in nurturing the trees, but the harvesting and – even more important – extracting the oil, does call for modern technology.

Which brings us to those words “extra virgin”. Even the lowest budget supermarkets sell bottles of stuff with these words on the label, but the industrially produced oils are entirely different to the marvel we’re talking about here. Many are produced from low quality oil that has been bought in from goodness knows where and which has been subjected to various chemical processes. What you get in a classic bottle of Apulian extra virgin is nothing but crushed olive, minus the water and solids.

At Corrado’s farm we tasted the oil and he told me about the harvesting, which is done in late October: “There is a mechanical elevator that we use to harvest the olives directly from the branches – and for the extra virgin they have to be pressed the same day, within a couple of hours. We produce 6,000 to 7,000 litres of extra virgin olive a year. The olives have got to be a little bit green and a little bit black – in this way we produce much less, but the quality is better.”

The hundreds of other farms and groves around his farm combine to create what could be described as a massive olive tree forest – one which, for the most part, is carefully tended so you can see the rich red earth between the trees.

This work is more important now than ever because of a bacteria killing olive trees all around the Mediterranean area. Carried by a kind of ciccada, it flourishes in the warm, damp undergrowth that grows up if the groves are not tended properly. Touch olive-wood, it has yet to reach Northern Salento, but there is a race on as scientists attempt to find a deterrent or cure.

In the meantime, the extra virgin industry around the town of Ostuni flourishes and you can tour the area enjoying tastings of the greenish liquid gold, rather like you would in a wine-growing region.

Some of the oil will be delicate, some fruity, verging on sweet, and some a little bitter and peppery. Needless to say the Italians are brilliant at utilising each and marrying them with ideal partners or dishes.

However, if we are going to all the expense of buying top quality extra virgin olive oil in this country the best way to use it is straight from the bottle, uncooked.

Frying a slice of bacon in this stuff would be like using a Rolls Royce to round up sheep.

Salads are the obvious target zone, but try pouring a little over a sizzling fillet of fish or a chicken breast.

It goes particularly well with dishes that do not scream with flavour like, for instance, a fast-made fricassee of quality green or Puy lentils with onions and garlic that you are going to serve as a simple lunch or supper with spaghetti.

Having completed the cooking of both, mix the lentils with the pasta and, only then, pour on a good few glugs of extra virgin seconds before serving.

Using quality extra virgin olive oil like this can make an expensive bottle go a long way. And it will bring extra value to many of those amazing West Country ingredients that we love so much.

Recipe: Focaccia
My ancestors who ran a successful West Country bakery for decades would probably turn in their graves at the idea, but adding big glugs of extra virgin olive oil certainly works wonders and creates a Mediterranean-style loaf a lot more savoury than a traditional English white sliced.

Puglia is regarded as the home of one of the most unctuous and oily breads of the lot – focaccia. Each area has a different idea when it comes to a recipe for this savoury masterpiece – the Bari focaccia contains tomatoes, the Altamura version has onions and olives, while the one made in Lecce is plain. But durum wheat flour, proper yeast, water, oil and salt are the basis from which most of these variations are developed.

Ingredients for a 700g focaccia
500g of durum wheat flour; one thimble-sized lump of proper baker’s yeast; 10tblspns of extra virgin olive oil; 1tspn salt; 1tspn sugar; 300ml of lukewarm water; 20 small tomatoes; oregano

Method
Put flour in a bowl, add the tablespoonfuls of oil, the yeast dissolved in half a glass of lukewarm water, the salt and sugar. Mix and knead, adding water little by little until you have a smooth dough. Put the dough back in the bowl, cover it with a cloth and leave it to rise in a warm place for three hours.

Place the dough in a rectangular, oiled baking tin (20 x 30 cm) pressing it down with fingertips without flattening it too much.

Leave it to rise for an hour more. Finally take the focaccia and place the halved tomatoes on top, pushing them into the dough. Brush with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and oregano and bake at 180°C for 30-35 minutes. For a more crusty focaccia, cook it at 200°C for the first ten minutes and then lower the heat to 180°C.

Article by Martin Hesp source

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