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Olive Oil: Liquid Gold

fiona beckett visits Tuscany to see how making olive oil compares to making wine – and to find out why the top end oils are so expensive…

Bandino Lo Franco carefully lays slices of rough Tuscan bread on a rack and places it on the glowing embers of an open fire. He toasts the slices on each side, sprinkles each piece with salt, rubs over a garlic clove in one quick movement then pours a generous amount of deep-green, two-day-old oil over the toast. ‘Wait a few seconds…’ he urges. ‘Now eat!’ The result? The most extraordinary oil I’ve ever tasted – so intensely vivid and grassy that I feel like I’m tasting olive oil for the first time.

Bandino and his brothers Gianni and Antonio run a 1,350ha (hectare) estate in south-east Tuscany called Fattoria La Vialla. Olive oil is just one of the crops here: they also produce wine, bread, biscuits, cheese and preserved vegetables, all of which are sold direct from the farm. It’s a model 21st-century food business that combines labour-intensive, artisanal practices with state-of-the-art technology.

The olives, for example, are crushed on a traditional stone mill at a picturesque wooden farm building at the top of the estate. But next to the press is a sealed, temperature-controlled, stainless-steel mixer that reduces the olives to a paste, keeps them cool and protects them from air (oxidation is the number-one enemy of top-quality oil).

The unappealing brown sludge that results would at one stage have passed to a press. Today that has been superseded by two sealed tanks, one which separates the oil from the solids, then a centrifugal unit which spins off the water from what has miraculously become vivid dark-green oil. The final clear oil only emerges after a six- to eight-week settling process where it is twice pumped off the solid residue that accumulates at the bottom of the storage containers (the residue is used to rub the rind of the estate’s pecorino cheese).

It is only comparatively recently that estates have had their own mills, a decision the boys’ father, Piero, farsightedly took in 1985. The custom back then was for farms who grew olives (practically every one) to take them to a communal press in the nearest town. The trouble was that everyone’s olives went in the press at once, and if the mill was busy they had to wait their turn, again risking oxidation. Something you can’t quite imagine them doing down the road at Isole e Olena. ‘Now we can press the same day the olives are picked,’ says Bandino.

So how else does the oil-making process comapre to winemaking? The olive harvest takes place from the end of October to December, conveniently following the grape harvest. Although they run lab tests to determine the level of acidity in the olives, pickers can tell when they’re ready to pick by the colour and feel – when green varieties start to turn black; how easily they pull off the stalk; and whether they ‘give’ under pressure. (Olives need to be ripe – but not too ripe – to preserve the grassy flavour.) You certainly can’t decide based on taste. I pick one from a nearby tree and spit it out almost immediately. It’s mouth-puckeringly bitter.

Tuscan blend

Different varieties ripen at different rates but unlike grapes, olives are not picked separately. ‘Olive groves need to be mixed so that one variety can pollinate another,’ explains Bandino. The main varieties are Leccino (which makes up 50% of the La Vialla plantings), Frantoio, a variety that gives Tuscan olive oil its particularly aromatic taste, Raggiaie, and Morelline, although many of the farms La Viella has taken on over the years have other olive varieties. ‘There are 66 in Tuscany alone, and we’re constantly planting new ones.

It’s a long process. A new tree takes six to seven years to establish – twice as long as a vine – but can produce for hundreds of years (at La Vialla, the average age of the trees is between 30 and 80 years). It takes the produce of half a mature tree – 5kg–6kg – to make one litre of oil. No wonder the good stuff is so expensive.

Tuscany is considered one of Europe’s finest spots for olive oil, and in Italy it is rivaled only by Sicily (though purists say the Tuscan oil is more refined). So what makes the region so good for olives? ‘They generally grow well in the same areas as vines, especially on south-facing slopes, but we’re 400m–500m above sea level, which is about as high as you can go,’ says Bandino. ‘The old men say the best olives come from the top of the hill.’

The La Vialla estate is run on organic and biodynamic principles – again, an innovation of Bandino and Antonio’s father, who wanted to farm by traditional methods. ‘He worked alongside our grandfather in the vineyard, and he never used any pesticides or fertilisers. Our father wanted to continue the same way,’ says Bandino. The family prefers not to flaunt its biodynamic credentials, however, as other significant factors come into play when deciding harvest date – how hot the summer has been and how much rain there is during the picking period… ‘We can’t pick when the olives are wet,’ says Bandino.

Although some of the olives are harvested by machine, much of the harvest is still carried out in the traditional way with pickers up ladders, pulling the olives off each branch with a small plastic rake. They fall onto a net underneath the tree before being transferred to boxes and taken straight up to the press.

After a light morning’s harvesting, we gather together round the kitchen table of La Lignana, the farm where the press has been installed. The new oil is freely poured on every course – bruschetti, pasta and salad. I’m starting to wonder about my cholestrol levels. ‘It’s healthy,’ Bandino assures us. ‘New oil contains 45% more polyphenols!’ Oh go on then, one more pour…

Written by Fiona Beckett

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