Olive oil is a part of nearly every meal in Italy, and that is no surprise because Italy is one of the top olive oil producers in the world. When we were planning our trip to Tuscany near the fall harvest, we knew that it would be a great opportunity to learn about olive oil at the source. Our research led us to discover Villa Campestri, (http://www.villacampestri.com/en/) a luxury olive oil resort and farm just north of Florence.
Century-old olive trees ring the property, which is perched high on a hill giving you a spectacular view of the Mugello Valley below. At the center of the property is the Renaissance Villa, which dates back to the Thirteenth Century. The Villa has accommodations, a restaurant, and an oleateca where you can learn about the different flavors and characteristics of olive oil.
We scheduled our olive oil tasting for late afternoon. Our guide, Gemma, is an agronomist and olive oil sommelier. She and her family have operated Villa Campestri for more than a quarter century. We started in the grove, where Gemma invited us to pick an olive from the tree, peel the skin, and smell it. The olives on the tree were green, but in a couple of weeks they would turn black and be ready for harvest. She then took us down into the oleoteca. A winding stone staircase emptied into a room with a large wooden table. The table was set for our private class with small glass cruets filled with different oils for tasting. We were instructed to pick up the first cruet and warm the oil by moving it in a circular motion with one hand on the bottom, and the other hand covering the top. Warming the oil would help release the flavor and fragrance. We were then instructed to “strip” the oil – somehow slurp it so it coats your throat. We felt a little silly, but Gemma assured us this was the way our palate could best distinguish the different characteristics of the oil. She said the best olive oil should be fruity and smell like fresh-cut grass, which this one – produced on site – did. The next oil we sampled smelled like tomatoes just off the vine, and yet another smelled like cut apples. We sampled oil from different regions of Italy and learned that a sharper taste is found in the olive oils from Tuscany. It was a very interesting and informative lesson, and it certainly gave us a new appreciation for the olive oil that accompanied our dinner that night.
There are more than 700 different kinds of olives, which make thousands of different kinds of olive oil. Asking, “What is the best olive oil” is like asking, “What is the best wine?” The answer depends on what you are eating it with and your own personal taste. But there are some guidelines to keep in mind when you are shopping:
- When choosing bottled olive oil, you should look for containers made from dark glass or that protect against light
- Buy a quantity that you’ll use up quickly, and keep it well sealed in a cool, dark place
- Pay attention to the way it feels in your mouth. It should feel crisp and clean rather than coarse or greasy
- Never buy olive oil older than 18 months. It will be rancid. Unlike wine, olive oil does not get better with age