Total Pageviews

Friday 29 November 2013

Hard Pressed for Virgin Olive Oil

These last few days of November have been a hive of activity at Casa sul Monte and pretty much everywhere we look we see fine nets draped like frost jewelled spiders webs under many of the hundreds of olive trees growing on the local hills. Its olive picking season!

The ripe olives are beaten and raked off the trees by local farmers, as many relatives and friends as possible that can be co-opted onto the task and, on occasions, other paid workers to help with the labour intensive and time consuming task. The nets are arranged to collect the olives as they fall, from which they are collected by hand, sorted from branches and leaves, and placed in plastic crates.

Dozens of crates are filled, precariously loaded onto trailers, back seats of cars and any other available vehicle, for transport to one of many local mills.

At the mill the olives are unceremoniously tipped into a large hopper to start their journey ... from raw fruit to beautiful, fragrant, peppery nectar!

The first step involves removing those leaves and bits of olive branch that have made the journey this far ... it is interesting to note how some loads arrive very well cleaned of this waste material, others much less so!

The olives, given an initial wash, drop onto the first of many conveyors that step by step, process by process, now take over and gently carry the fruit towards its inevitable but wonderful end. 

Each batch of olives is carefully controlled and managed through the system to ensure it is kept totally separate from the preceding and subsequent loads, so each farmer is assured the oil received at the end is from their own olives.

Once their gross weight has been recorded (the farmer paying a fee per kilo for the processing) the olives wait their turn in the hoppers ...

... from where they are disgorged into another bath for a final thorough and vigorous wash before being delivered into the grinder and macerator.

Large rotating blades methodically grind their way though kilos of olives, reducing them to a thick pulp that is then pumped into the centrifugal press and the unwanted water content discarded. The unfiltered oil that remains is extracted and directed into a separate channel where the first of several filters removes any remaining pulp.

As the final product becomes, for the first time, recognisable it is pumped into another centrifuge where any remaining water and the precious oil are further separated before the final filtering process begins.

From here a rich, vicious, syrupy liquid emerges and flows smoothly and evenly into the first container. Tasting the liquid at this point gives the first clear indication of its sweetness, peppery taste and rich green colouring.

One more push and the fresh oil elegantly decants into the final container for accurate weighing before being dispensed for the farmer. This final net weight is critical for the farmer to know, for the first time, the yield of his crop. 

The yield varies considerably between farmers and seasons depending on the weather, amount of rain, temperature extremes ... and can make a big difference to the volume and value of the oil extracted from each crop.

At just over 14% this year was about average although, rather like fishermen, all farmers bemoan the lack of the really big if rare crops of more than 20% in the past while conveniently forgetting the meagre, but equally rare pickings, with yields as low as 8% which occasionally occur! 

Once weighed and the yield recorded, the cold pressed virgin oil is poured into containers ready to be taken home by the farmer. These smaller crops, as opposed to commercially managed olive groves, are primarily used by the farmer and his extended family for private use over the coming year as well as being shared with any who helped pick the crop.

This freshest of virgin olive oils is literally minutes old, still cloudy and has a vibrant green colour and unique sweet-peppery taste, characteristics that it will unfortunately quickly loose and hence are rarely found in the more processed and refined virgin olive oil typically available commercially.

The very best way to enjoy this wonderful oil is to lightly toast a fresh slice of the typically unsalted Umbrian bread, rub this with a clove of garlic, pour the new oil liberally all over the slice ... sprinkle with sea salt and eat while warm! 

There is literally nothing else like it ... believe me!

The only challenge is how to limit oneself to no more than 3 slices, ... or 4 ... or, go on, maybe just another couple of slices! Can I stop at 7?

Friday 15 November 2013

Autumn is Mushroom Season

Surrounded by hectares of natural indigenous forest our daily walks invariably bring us across mushrooms of every shape, size and colour, particularly in the cooler autumn months. 

During the season many local villagers are out every day, basket in hand, seeking the most prized specimens of edible varieties to supplement their typical Umbrian diet. We have now discovered that Italy is one of the leading countries in the world for the picking and consumption of wild mushrooms with a long tradition, invariably passed from father to son, of foraging in the woods in favourite if secret locations for this bountiful, natural and delicious crop.

The wide variety present in this region, together with the ever present reality of many inedible species and several fatally toxic ones, means that specialist knowledge is essential to find, recognise and safely enjoy these amazing 'fruits of the forest'. 

Throughout Italy government sponsored training courses are run every year by qualified and licensed Micology experts to share their knowledge and so help instruct and train any aspiring mushroom hunter on how to find, recognise and differentiate between the various species. In particular the courses focus on how to be certain which mushrooms are safe for consumption, which are inedible for various reasons and, especially, the species to be avoided at all costs because of their fatally poisonous toxins!

Full attendance at such a course (10 sessions totalling more than 20 hours of lectures over a three week period) qualifies participants for the 'Certificate of Training' necessary to be granted a Local Authority licence to legally collect mushrooms in the public forests. In addition, many town councils hold weekly clinics run by qualified experts to help you identify any mushrooms you have picked and certify (or not) their suitability for human consumption.

Earlier this year I completed one of these courses and now have the necessary 'Certificate' to allow me to collect wild mushrooms ... and have since spent many hours enjoying long walks in the local forests looking for some of the varieties of edible mushrooms available at this time of year.

Here are some pictures of the results:

A beautiful example of a young fresh Lactarius Deliciosus (L), known locally as 'Sanguinelli', nestling among the moss and autumn leaves of the pine forest floor, it's favourite habitat.

This species is easily distinguishable by the unusual verdigris colouring always present on its cap and the pink hue of its gills and stem.

A couple of hours walk in the forest provides a wonderful crop of over two kilos of 'Sanguinelli' to be carefully inspected, cleaned and prepared for cooking!

Careful comparison with the textbooks is essential, together with the cutting of stem and cap to verify the suitability of every mushroom picked.

Strange as it may sound, another unique and distinguishing characteristic of this delicious variety of mushroom is the blood-red sap it produces when the stalk or cap is cut, hence its popular name 'Sanguinello' ... or 'bloody'!

Another important feature to look for when correctly identifying this variety are the naturally occurring red 'weals' on the stalk.

The mushrooms are thoroughly cleaned, cut into thin slices and cooked for 20 minutes in a 50%-50% wine and vinegar solution. When ready they are taken  from the liquid, drained, spread on a cloth and left covered overnight to dry.

The slices of mushrooms are then carefully packed into preserving jars with an occasional sprinkling of whole black pepper corns and a few dried chilies, before completely covering them in virgin olive oil. These can then be stored for up to a year if necessary but are best enjoyed regularly as an accompaniment to fresh bread and cheese and/or a selection of 'salumi' - local cured meats.

Truly 'Lactarius Deliciosus' as their Latin name suggests!