If you take a look in your kitchen cupboard or fridge and examine all the things you consume on a regular basis you will realize how much of it has been processed, in more subtle ways today perhaps then previously but still some way from being completely natural. Just about everything at the very least has some added sugar and a glance at the label will usually reveal a list of incomprehensible other additives. Not as much in Italy I’m pleased to say.
This is why when you visit a small scale Italian olive oil producer you quickly appreciate how simple and natural their product is. The same can be said of many Italian wines but olive oil is an even simpler process because there is no fermentation, definitely no aging, no influence of wood and none of the sulfites that even organic and biodynamic wines mostly contain out of necessity.
And when your visit to a smaller olive oil producer takes place in Abruzzo you will see that their oil is effectively made in the garden shed, such is the intimacy and scale of their operation. The tradition of the independent frantoio (mill) that exists in Tuscany is absent here so they need to have their own equipment to mechanically extract the oil themselves.
Inefficient perhaps, but they have no worries about the freshness of the olives because after harvesting them they simply have to carry them a few yards, wash them, crush them, knead the resulting paste and extract the oil. It’s like picking an apple from your own orchard and eating it straight away, it’s that fresh.
Until you’ve tasted, and used on a regular basis, high quality olive oil from an artisan producer like Monaco you won’t appreciate the difference it makes to your food, especially those dishes where you’ve already taken the trouble to buy fresh organic vegetables from a farmer’s market. If you’re not pouring the best olive oil onto your tomatoes and salads in the summer then you’re missing the whole point of organic produce.
The importance of knowing where your olive oil actually comes from is something we’ve written extensively about here and is the reason we like to visit producers before we write about their oil. Provenance is everything with olive oil. And when you meet charming people like Simona Tribuiani in the idyllic surroundings of Tortoreto, admire the healthy olive trees surrounding her home and buy a couple of bottles of her wonderful product you will never buy olive oil from a supermarket again.
Simona’s father-in-law, Ruggero Monaco, was a practicing veterinarian when he bought the 7 acre property in the 1970s and planted the first olive trees here. Fifty years ago Abruzzo was a different place and time and many of Ruggero’s clients in this rural area were too poor to pay him but depended on his services to care for their livestock, so he would accept whatever they were able to give, often food and sometimes their labor.
On one particular occasion Ruggero’s customers made a mistake when providing their labor and planted the young saplings of one type of cultivar, Pendolino, in a tight grouping instead of spreading them out among the other compatible varieties, something that greatly increased the risk of insufficient cross-pollination for fruiting. There was nothing to be done except wait a few years until the trees grew to see what would happen; luckily the wind on the hills here, thanks to the 650 feet elevation, took care of the problem and the trees subsequently pollinated and thrived.
Simona herself also went through the long arduous process of veterinary training before the ties of marriage intervened and by default she became the person charged with continuing the olive oil business after Ruggero's retirement, while her husband Mauro Monaco stayed with his full time job in food technology. That was 11 years ago and she was clearly up to the challenge because her olive oil is now very highly regarded and in 2016 received the prestigious Le Tre Foglie quality award by Gambero Rosso and in 2018 the Slow Food organization recognized her monocultivar Tortiglione oil as being the highest expression of a native variety of oil produced organically based on sustainable agronomy.
"Si fa tesoro dell'esperienza e si sperimenta. L'importante è non prendere mai niente come dogma"
With this philosophy there also emerged an entrepreneurial side to Simona’s nature because over the years she has created a thriving separate product category of flavored oils or oli aromatizzati. This is an easily misunderstood product because, as Elena admitted, you are taught during the Maestro d’Olio courses to be wary of flavored or infused oils because most of those typically found on supermarket shelves will use the flavoring to disguise the inferior quality of the underlying olive oil.
Three important points of differentiation need to be made regarding Simona’s oils:
First and most important, all the olive oil in her bottles is from her own trees and is of the highest quality and certified organic. Second, all the herbs and fruits she uses are either grown personally by her or sourced from friends whose gardens she knows. Third, most of the ten different flavored oils she produces are made by mixing the herb or plant with the olives before the olives are pressed rather than adding it to the finished oil so it is a very different and much more naturally integrated process to, for example, the chili oil you might see in a restaurant that has a bunch of chili peppers simply stuffed into the actual oil in the bottle in front of you.
Furthermore, because these are all high quality olive oils they are not to be used for cooking but rather for adding to the finished dish. I’m glad Simona educated us on all of these points, especially the last one, because there was clearly a gap in our knowledge regarding flavored olive oils. We’ve never really used them before because of a lack of trust on our part regarding their provenance and quality, but now we have a reliable source for the best and most authentic flavored olive oils on the market.
This wasn’t the only new thing we learned on our walk around Simona’s olive groves. I have been curious for a while as to what producers who are certified organic are actually permitted to do in caring for their trees, especially with regard to the various pests that can attack the fruit. Very little as it turns out, but one type of pest can’t survive the heat of an Abruzzo summer so while heat and lack of rain can be stressful for some olive cultivars and younger trees, it also provides a solution to at least one problem.
The only spray that is permitted for the two other types of pest, the olive fruit fly and the olive psyllid, is a mixture of powdered kaolin clay and water and it works in the most starightforward way imaginable. It’s white in color and simply hides the olives from the pests’ view; they literally cannot see the olives and it’s a completely harmless and natural product. Of course if it rains and washes off, then a further application is necessary but rain during the summer months in Abruzzo is not a regular event.
The Monaco olive oil business today consists of 1,500 trees over a total of 17 acres, comprising 7 different olive varieties: the native cultivars Dritta, Tortiglione and Ascolana Tenera plus the more widespread Pendolino, Leccino, Maurino and Frantoio. Monaco has its own dedicated olive mill equipment on site and produces 5 different mono-varietal oils, 2 blended olive oils and 10 different flavored oils (all described fully on their website at www.oliomonaco.it).
Simona is a very hospitable person who warmly welcomes an increasing amount of visitors from all over the world. Her oil continues to reach more and more international markets, the latest destination being Lithuania where the range of Monaco oils has recently become very popular.
Because we taste and buy olive oil throughout the year there will be times in September, October and early November when the oil is already close to 12 months old and therefore two thirds of the way through its optimal usage period. This tasting was done in mid October but the bottles were freshly opened and had been stored correctly so had not suffered any deterioration or reduction in intensity.
Remarkably fresh grassy nose with hints of bitter almonds this is very silky and smooth on the palate. But there's a real kick at the end that will take you by surprise before giving way to a harmonious and persistent finish. The peppery 'bite' is an essential and desirable quality in an olive oil, especially for a Tuscan, and being accustomed to this feature in a good oil we both absolutely loved the Tortiglione. This is an Abruzzese olive varietal that is perfectly suited to local dishes especially those based on vegetables and legumes.
The aromas of this oil are more redolent of artichoke and fresh aromatic herbs. In the mouth the intensity and mild bitterness are more consistent from the start, through the mid-palate and on the finish. A beautifully blended and balanced oil this would be perfect for more complex dishes involving grilled meat and drizzled on the classic Arrosticini Abruzzesi (lamb skewers) would also be an ideal match.
Only when you taste two high quality olive oils side-by-side do you fully appreciate just how different they can be and that's why olive oil should be matched with food in much the same way as wine.