(November 1, 2015) One of the reasons that I plan to stay in Spello until after the first week in November is that I don’t want to miss the opportunity to go home with the new season’s olive oil. With a disaster year in 2014 due to the invasion of worms into the olives in most of Italy and Spain, everyone is anticipating a banner year of production here for the 2015 season, with a heavy crop of olives on the trees and no problems with the worm invasion of the past.
I had a guest for the weekend for the two Italian holidays that start the month of November: I Santi (1 November, All Saints’ Day); and I Morti (All Souls’ Day). These are important holidays here, with many services and shops closed for the celebrations, and Pat Hanna came to visit from her home in Santa Brigida, a small village located in the mountains above Florence. After some countryside drives near Spello to find and taste wines with Pat, we didn’t want her visit to end without the opportunity to see if we could purchase some of the fresh new olive oil from the frantoio.
The Frantoio di Spello is a cooperative of the olive growers near Spello, where the members bring their olives to be processed into premium extra virgin olive oil. It is just downhill from the Val di Chiona side of Spello, outside the village walls, and is only open for the olive processing for few months in the fall, and then the manager is available by ringing a doorbell for purchases of oil from the frantoio until the supply is gone for the year.
Pat and I arrived, and were offered both a taste of the new olive oil on bread, and also a tour of the processing area. I’ve been to the frantoio many times, but it’s still an interesting sight to watch the olives go from arriving in big green bins, full of stems and leaves, and eventually ending up as the deep green olive oil coming out of the press and centrifuge into large stainless steel barrels.
We were taken on a tour by the manager through the processing area, starting with the tractor dumping the huge green plastic bins into a hopper, where the olives tumbled in water to wash dirt and leaves away, filtered through a mesh that allowed only the olives through (not the leaves), and were then dropped onto conveyors. The olives were washed once again with high-pressure jets of water, and then lifted uphill to the machine that grinds both pit and pulp into a dark-colored slurry. That slurry is then pressed to remove both the watery juice and the oil of the olives, and then a centrifuge spins the oil off the top into waiting containers, while the juice is discarded.
Outside the frantoio, huge piles of the pressed pulp and pits residue are reclaimed by a producer who takes them away to press them again with heat, producing a much lesser quality olive oil than the extra virgin cold-press olive oil produced at the frantoio. We watched as the olive growers came to observe the process as their own olives were pressed, assuring themselves that all of their olive oil production was accounted for, and that nothing of theirs was mixed with the olives of any other growers.
Those keeping a portion of their oil production for their own annual household use filled up stainless steel containers that they had provided, and later took back to their homes. Oil in excess of what they needed for their personal use was left to the frantoio to bottle and sell, with the weigh of the oil produced carefully recorded for each grower, in order to assure that everyone receives a fair share of the profits from selling the bottled oil directly to the public at the frantoio.
Pat and I both purchased a few bottles to take home with us, knowing the intensely grassy and fruity flavor of the freshest new olive oil, along with the peppery bite (“pizzicato”) at the back of the throat that is only found in the freshest oil, soon mellowing out and disappearing even in unopened bottles of oil.
I think the oil from the Frantoio di Spello is among the best that I’ve tasted in Italy, and I’m delighted to bring home to California as much as I can pack into my suitcase—carefully wrapped in bubble wrap, and enclosed in plastic sacks taped over and over with packing tape. (Breaking a bottle in a suitcase once was a disaster for me—including needing to discard some of the suitcase contents, along with a fabric suitcase forever saturated in olive oil.) Bringing home that amazing fresh olive oil, though, is well worth the risk—and there are also 1, 3 and 5 liter cans of oil available at the frantoio, so breaking a glass bottle need not be a threat at all for the trip home.