things to know about olive oil

10 things to know about olive oil

This year has not been great for olive oil producers in Abruzzo. An early spring freeze damaged many groves, strong winds during the flowering season, heavy rains and the olive fruit fly attacks made the situation worse. Regional production dropped by over 20% this year. Some organic oil producers couldn’t do the harvest at all because of the poor fruit quality. One producer said to me: “A few more years like this and we might have to give up organic oil production.” Let’s hope it never comes to this. How can we help? By buying high quality extra virgin olive oil from Abruzzo! Here are a few things to know about olive oil if you want to buy the best.

  1. Extra virgin. Always buy extra virgin olive oil (EVOO). All other grades of olive oil are held to a lesser standard. EVOO has no defects, acidity level of no more than 0.8g per 100g and is cold pressed using only mechanic methods (pressing or centrifugation). EVOO should taste fruity, has a peppery bite to it and a bitter note. The slightest hint of stale walnuts, mustiness, soil or pond water means the oil is defective and is not extra virgin.things to know about olive oil
  2. Healthy olives. If you are buying directly from a producer, go to the olive mill and check the olives that are being pressed. Do they look healthy? Are they in perforated boxes rather than plastic sacks? The sacks make olives “sweat” and drastically reduce their quality. Surprisingly, many farmers in Abruzzo still use plastic sacks to transport their olives and sometimes store the fruit in them for several days. To make EVOO, olives have to be milled within 12 hours after the harvest otherwise they’ll lose their nutrients and flavour and could begin to ferment.things to know about olive oil
  3.  Press type. Ask or see for yourself what kind of press the producer is using. The old style machinery with stone grinders and hydraulic presses that use round grass mats might look romantic but they significantly reduce the quality of oil. Those grinding stones and mats are very hard to clean and residues can spoil olive oil. They are also slower and the production chain is more exposed to air, so the olives oxidize quicker than in more modern machines.
  4. Filtered vs unfiltered. Unfiltered oil doesn’t always mean better. If you are buying large quantities of EVOO, choose filtered oil as it will last longer. Unfiltered oil tastes good and is often marketed as healthier but because of organic residues it has a very short shelf life, not more than a few months.
  5. Colour doesn’t matter. Our brain likes the colour green and people tend to think automatically that greener oil tastes better. So much so that some industrial scale producers tint their cheap olive oil green to help sales. The truth is the colour never reflects the quality. That’s why professional tasters use blue glasses, so the oil’s colour doesn’t affect their judgements.
  6. DOP. Look for “DOP” (Protected designation of Origin) on the label as it is a guarantee of quality. It means that the oil was was produced, processed and prepared in a given geographical area following strict standards. There are three DOP areas for oil in Abruzzo: Aprutino Pescarese, Colline Teatine, Pretuziano delle Colline Teramane.
  7. Single cultivar vs blend. You’ll find different olive cultivars in each Italian region. In Abruzzo, the most prevalent are Gentile, Intosso, Toccolana, Leccino, Dritta. Each varietal has particular characteristics and a unique taste. For instance, Dritta oil is milder than others, with a note of artichoke. Intosso olive oil is characterised by intense taste, with a hint of fresh walnuts and tomato leaves. If you after an olive with a strong character, go for a single cultivar (it will say “monocultivar” on the bottle). Blends tend to be milder and tamer.
  8. Cooked or raw. Single varietals tend to have more character and a stronger taste, so you might want to use them raw, e.g. on salads. I cook and bake with an oil, which is a mild blend of Dritta, Leccino and Gentile. I find that the peppery Toccolana and more bitter Intosso are best generously drizzled on a slice of fresh bread or on raw vegetables.things to know about olive oil
  9. Heat, light and air. These are olive oil’s enemies. Never buy olive oil in a clear glass bottle even if the label says “extra virgin olive oil”. Light trigger the oxidation process and it quickly becomes rancid. Keep your EVOO in dark glass bottles in a cool place where the temperature never exceeds 20C (ideally it should be between +14C and +18C), so a wine cellar or a dark basement would be the best places. I keep bottles of olive oil in a refrigerator. It solidifies (a good sign, which means it is monounsaturated, the real deal!) and the natural waxes crystallise. I take it out of the fridge 30 mins before using it and it becomes liquid again without any harm to the flavours. In proper conditions, extra virgin olive oil should keep for up to two years.
  10. Bitterness is good. Olives are bitter, so a bitter note in EVOO is a sign of quality and freshness. Younger olives make more peppery and bitter oil. Certain cultivars can be bitterer than others, so train your palate and find the level of bitterness you love. If you like bitter chocolate or beers like ale, stout, porter, you will find it easier to enjoy fresh stronger EVOO.
best gifts from abruzzo

Best gifts from Abruzzo

Let’s admit it: very few of us like the stress of Christmas shopping. Especially when you want to buy something special for your loved ones and can’t seem to find anything suitable. With only a few weeks to go to the holiday season, there is no time for procrastination. We all know that although there are plenty of food artisans and high-quality traditional crafts in the region but finding them online is a hell of a task if you want to buy gifts for Abruzzo lovers.  I thought, a roundup of the best gifts from Abruzzo might make your life a little easier.

A gift for pasta lovers

One of the first things that come to mind when you think of Made in Abruzzo gifts is, of course, la chitarra (or “lu carratur” in dialect), a traditional pasta making tool. Every self-respecting Abruzzo cuisine lover must have one of this wooden frames with tight strings. You roll a pasta dough sheet over them (not as easy as it sounds!) to make delicious square spaghetti, pasta alla chitarra. You can buy one here.

best gifts from abruzzo

Lace jewellery

The tradition of delicate bobbin lace from Scanno goes back to the 16th century but there are very few women left, who still make it. Federica Silvani learnt the craft secrets from two old ladies in the village and together with the goldsmith Francesco Rotolo started creating exquisite jewellery. If you happen to be in Scanno, make sure you visit her beautiful workshop (Via Vincenzo Tanturri, 1). You can order rings, earrings, pendants or bracelets on her website or her Amazon shop. Prices start from €105 for a pendant on a silver chain.

best gifts from abruzzo

Pizzelle maker

Another staple of Abruzzese cuisine is pizzelle (or neole, nevole, ferratelle, depending on where they are made as, it seems, every village in the region has a different name for them). Just a few decades ago, nearly every family had irons for baking the waffles on fire. Nowadays, electric makers are used. Check out this pizzelle baker for making thin crispy pizzelle.

best gifts from abruzzo

Bed covers with history

Lanificio Vincenzo Merlino of Taranta Peligna has been manufacturing traditional high-quality Abruzzese blankets since 1870. Their stunning bed covers are made from pure wool or cotton. The factory has an online shop and ships worldwide.

Traditional ceramics

One of the most iconic Abruzzese ceramics designs is a centortavola, a bread plate, with cut-outs. This one is hand-made in the town of Villamagna and decorated with the old-style “Fioraccio abruzzese”, a floral design used for traditional kitchen utensils.

best gifts from abruzzo

Wines from Abruzzo

Choose three bottles from some of the famous Montepulciano D’Abruzzo producers that will be sent to you in a gift box. You can’t go wrong with magnificent wines from Cataldi Madonna, Praesidium, Emidio Pepe! Buy a Montepuciano D’Abruzzo gift box here. Shipping within Italy and Europe only.

Abruzzo photo book

This photo book by renowned landscape photographer Michael Kenna is one of very few publications on Abruzzo and it is stunning. Printed on matt art paper it presents 65 stunning images of the region, published for the first time.

Foodie breaks

The greatest gifts are experiences rather than things. I organise foodie breaks in Abruzzo for those who are curious to explore the region’s culinary traditions. A break includes accommodation for two nights for two people, a hearty dinner in a traditional restaurant, wine tour and a cooking class. You will see off-the-beaten path towns, taste the best local dishes and enjoy excellent wines.

 

best gifts from abruzzo

vino cotto abruzzo

Vino cotto from Abruzzo: cooked and fermented to perfection

The tradition of vino cotto (“cooked wine”) goes at least a thousand years back. Pliny the Elder mentioned it in his writings in the 1st century as one of the most sought-after drinks of the time. Nowadays, few people know what it is. Historians say that vino cotto was born from the need to preserve wine made from low quality grapes. The best of harvest went to the landowner and hard-working farmers were often left with small sour grapes. Cooking them reduced the volume but increased the sugar concentration, which meant the wine could be stored for longer periods. From late spring to November, when normal wine turned sour (no technology to extend its shelf life existed back then) farmers drank vino cotto until the next harvest. Le Marche and Abruzzo are the two regions where vino cotto became part of the local cuisine. For centuries, a glass of vino cotto and a slice of bread were symbols of a welcoming home.

vino cotto abruzzo

In Abruzzo, the area around Roccamontepiano is where the tradition is still alive. Pressed grapes are cooked slowly in a large copper pot (lu callare) on an open fire. In old days, a piece of iron chain covered with a terracotta plate was placed in the bottom of the pot to make sure that the wine doesn’t taste of metal. After hours of slow cooking, when the liquid is reduced by at least a half, it is left to cool down. Later, an equal quantity of fresh grape must is added and the blend is transferred small wooden barrels to ferment. One of the producers told me that in his family, every year, before going to the Christmas mass, a sip of vino cotto is poured for everyone, including little kids. His grandfather did it, as well as his father and he continues the ritual. For many centuries, locals have made a special barrel of vino cotto when a son is born in the family. It is left to age until the boy’s wedding day.

vino cotto abruzzo

It was impossible to buy a bottle of this ancient wine until a few years ago. Families made the brew for home consumption but were not allowed to sell it. Then a few local enthusiasts in Roccamontepiano got together, applied for funding to buy industrial equipment and opened a small production centre. Now they produce limited quantities of exquisite vino cotto aged for five, eight or 15 years. Although the wine is cooked in a steel tank in less than 30 minutes it is still delicious. Every year they also organise a festival of vino cotto with tastings and demonstrations of how the wine was cooked in old days.

vino cotto abruzzoIn Roccamontepiano, they say that the best cure for a cold is a small glass of hot vino cotto before bed. I love vino cotto with hot roasted chestnuts or almond biscotti dipped in it. Dark brown with an amber glow, the drink is rich without being too heavy. The dry fruit notes are rounded with a warm hint of wood and more than a thousand years of tradition.

Vino cotto is often confused with vin brulé and mosto cotto. What is the difference between them? Vin brulé is a hot spiced wine, like mulled wine. Mosto cotto is cooked reduced grape juice with must that is used for baking in Abruzzo.

You can buy vino cotto in the Centro di Produzione Vino Cotto, C.da Terranova, Roccamontepiano (CH).

Follow the Associazione Produttori Vino Cotto d’Abruzzo on Facebook here

Photos by Associazione Produttori Vino Cotto d’Abruzzo.