There’s much more to premium olive oil than meets the eye, especially when it’s produced organically, and there’s no better way to understand this elixir than to spend two hours in the company of Franco Salvadori, the 81 year old patriarch of Il Cavallino, whose fabulous Tuscan olive oils consistently win awards all over the world.
The Salvadori family has nurtured and grown their olive oil business for at least three generations spanning close to a century and in recent years the day to day management of the business has been in the capable hands of Franco’s daughter, Romina. They started out in their home town of Montescudaio in the hills six miles east of Bibbona and moved to this location 50 years ago.
We had in fact planned to meet with Romina but once inside Franco’s study we immediately fell under his spell and Romina was therefore mercifully saved from our intrusion into her busy working day. Franco was happy to relate to us her most recent accomplishment, which was to supervise the estate's full conversion to organic farming; formal certification was obtained in 2021 and will appear on all their labels after the next harvest. The organic movement has quite rightly become an unstoppable force in Italy and olive oil producers are leading the way with a full 25% of them now certified organic. The Italian wine sector lags behind a little with only 15% being organic or biodynamic, but it too is gaining converts at an accelerating speed.
I would hope that by now most people who read this article understand the tremendous health benefits of extra virgin olive oil so I won't reiterate them here, but perhaps even the most enlightened among us haven’t fully appreciated the benefits of olive oil also to the health of the planet.
The fundamental difference between olive oil and most of the other fats commonly used in food preparation, both in the home and industrially, is that the olive comes from a tree not an annually seeded plant. According to a scientific study conducted by the International Olive Council (IOC), "the production of a litre of olive oil captures 10.64 kg of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2)" and furthermore "these data indicate that the olive tree is the tree with the greatest capacity for absorption of atmospheric CO2".
Consider that fact in the context of the environmental cost of rapeseed (canola) oil with its dependence on excessive use of nitrogen fertilizer as well as frequently applied fungicides and insecticides. And much of soybean oil production is even worse, responsible for wide-scale deforestation of the Amazon rainforest as well as also requiring chemical applications and causing soil erosion. I could go on, but I have made my point I think. The olive tree is the opposite of all of this, a force for good in nature and a life sustaining ingredient for the human body, something that was understood by the later Etruscans, the Greeks, the Romans and all those who have lived around the Mediterranean ever since.
The 16,000 Il Cavallino olive trees grow on 125 acres near the sea in the Alta Maremma, encircled by the towns of Bibbona, Cecina and Casale Marittimo and just a few miles north of the famous wine town of Bolgheri. When we asked Franco why he wasn’t also in the wine business given his location, the longevity of the family firm and the fact that so many other olive oil producers also make wine, he replied with an old Tuscan proverb: “ogni muta è una caduta”, which means that with every fundamental change of direction you put the enterprise at risk of decline.
The Salvadori story is more one of evolution, seeking always to improve the quality of their olive oil and in fact there are not too many Italians who produce top quality wine and excellent olive oil; these are different products entirely and very different processes.
But the Salvadori family does not resist change when enhancements can be made that will improve their oil and a few years before their conversion to organic they introduced a continuous line system in their frantoio to replace the old olive mill equipment. All housed in one large room on-site, their modern and highly sophisticated olive processing equipment enables the immediate extraction of oil from the freshly harvested olives in the surrounding fields. This preserves the perfume in the oil and eliminates the risk of oxidation.
Delay and exposure to the air are the enemies that need to be minimized before the olives are crushed because their acidity starts to rise as soon as they are separated from the tree, which is why it's never a good idea to recover olives that have been left lying on the ground for very long. Also, it’s not just the taste that suffers, but also the essential health benefits as the oil will capture less of the precious polyphenols if time is lost once the olives are picked. A serious high quality olive oil producer with a lot of olive trees like Il Cavallino is therefore obliged to have their own frantoio.
These are the simple facts of olive oil production that are lost on most consumers and insights that cannot be gained from labels in the supermarket aisle. This is why we visit producers of excellent olive oil and why professional tasters award Il Cavallino so many prizes in olive oil competitions and also why you should make a small effort to seek out their oil.
One of the advantages of Il Cavallino for consumers is that their business is reasonably large after so many generations and the annual production of around 50,000 liters ensures that there is oil available to buy, at least for the first 9 months of the year before it all sells out, which it always does.
As I look at the availability of Italian wine and premium olive oil in retail stores in the US and the UK I’ve often wondered why there is more and more Italian wine appearing everywhere but never much choice of the best Italian olive oils. When we visit winemakers they increasingly stress their dependence on export markets but even a relatively large premium olive oil producer like Il Cavallino doesn’t really need the export market in the same way as Italian wineries.
They have a big retail store on the premises and in addition to all the locals who buy their oil directly (which now includes us) there is a steady stream of regular northern Europeans who holiday nearby, often as owners of second homes, who then depart at the end of the season with enough oil to last them until the following summer. I completely understand their mentality because when you’ve tasted the Il Cavallino oil and met the the Salvadori family, why would you ever change your olive oil provider? This is a food product that you appreciate more when you know the people behind it and being able to personally trust your Italian olive oil producer is always better than relying on a label, even one that has organic and IGP or DOP certifications.
Spending two hours with Franco gave us an invaluable insight into the changes he has seen over the last 60 years and the solutions he has come up with to the different problems that surface over time. Organic solutions to the fruit fly here include the use of sex- pheromone baited traps and climate change of course presents its own set of problems.
Franco drew us a diagram of how he has taught his trees to adapt to the changing climate which is extending the dry summer period for longer. He snips the smaller surface roots of the trees to force the bigger roots to go deeper for their nourishment and works the soil more to retain more of the rainfall rather than allow it to run-off the land. They are lucky perhaps in also having a good natural water source 200 feet underground from which they can draw water for irrigating the younger more fragile trees.
Another change that came about gradually as they analyzed and re-evaluated their olive oil every year was to bring forward their harvest. Franco’s father would harvest in January or even February because this resulted in the highest amount of oil, then Franco moved it to December and today Romina has brought it forward all the way to the end of September or early October just as the olives are starting to ripen. This reduces the final yield but significantly improves the flavor and allows for the capture of more polyphenols, thereby increasing the nutritional value of the oil. An earlier harvest of course means hotter weather so yet another reason for having their own large well-equipped frantoio, allowing them to immediately reduce the temperature of the olives at pressing. Quality not quantity is the guiding principle for all aspects of the business today and another reason for all their awards.
Many years ago the family planted an olive that was new to them and in fact was only recognized as a separate cultivar in 1929 when it was discovered in San Casciano Val di Pesa at Fattoria del Corno from where it took its name, Leccio del Corno. It has good resistance to both drought and low winter temperatures and is known for its intense perfume and flavor making it perfect for a monocultivar olive oil, which is exactly what Il Cavallino has made with it.
We couldn't help noticing that Franco looks extremely good for an 81 year old man and when we started to talk about the price of premium olive oil and the cost per day for a family of four, it made me even more convinced that of all of the ingredients making up the Mediterranean diet, extra virgin olive oil is by far the most important and still not really an expensive product.
Given he has been an olive oil producer for his entire life it's very likely that Franco has personally imbibed more high quality olive oil than anyone else on the planet.
I say that also because he based his cost calculations on a family of four people consuming 50 liters of good oil per year, basically one liter every week. I thought we got through a lot of olive oil but I realize now that we're not using nearly enough and will make a note to up our consumption. With the price of his IGP blended olive oil at just below 11 euros per liter his analysis comes to about o.4 euros per person per day. Even if you double this daily cost in an overseas market, it's still well below half of what just one regular cup of coffee will cost you at Starbucks. Premium quality extra virgin Italian olive oil may in fact be the cheapest health food in the world and certainly the best tasting.
We mentioned in our wine article on La Colombera that we came away from that visit having bought more wine for ourselves than on any previous winery visit and we can safely say the same thing here for olive oil because we bought about 7 liters before even tasting it. After spending 2 hours with Franco we had no concerns at all about the quality and we were correct in that assumption of course.
This olive is native to Tuscany and more specifically from Lucca. Grassy and slightly vegetal nose and very smooth and delicate on the palate with notes of hazelnuts and boiled artichokes. With only a little bitterness on the finish this would pair well with fish and vegetables. 22 euros per liter.
Il Cavallino - Special Edition (moncultivar, Leccio del Corno)
Very intense green with aromas of Mediterranean herbs, this is rich and full on the palate. Thyme and rosemary flavors predominate with notes of bitter almonds and a nice peppery bite on the finish. Would be perfect with red meats, lamb in particular. 25 euros per liter.
Il Cavallino - IGP Toscano (blend of about 45% Frantoio, 40% Leccio del Corno, 10% Maurino, 5% Lazzero)
This is a classic blend in our part of Italy with an intense and aromatic nose. Sage and artichoke flavors on the palate give way to the typical spicy finish of a good Tuscan olive oil. At 10.70 euros per liter this can be used very liberally on traditional Tuscan dishes.
The following oil is a rare Lazzero variety olive oil that is made by a friend of Franco's nearby and was awarded one of the top prizes at an International Olive Oil contest held in Monte Carlo in 2021.
Franco called his friend while we were in his office and asked her to come over with a bottle for us to try as part of our ongoing education in Italian olive oil, which she duly did. A much appreciated and very generous act on Franco's part and also on the part of the owner of Azienda Agricola Erika Borghesi in nearby Casale Marittimo. The Lazzero olive is native to this particular part of Tuscany around the Cecina river valley.
Luminous green in the glass, this has a very focused nose of grass, arugula and bitter radicchio. Quite delicate on the palate with fruity notes, apple in particular, and then a peppery bite on the finish which remains elegant rather than forceful. Erika Borghesi, who kindly brought the bottle over, only had time for a short chat with us so we will try to visit her azienda on another occasion.