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In Tuscany, After the Grapes We Harvest the Olives

Barbara Kronenberg-Widmer is ready to enjoy the fruits of 2008's second harvest—of olives.

Posted: Dec 8, 2008 1:14pm ET

By Barbara Kronenberg-Widmer

Posted by Barbara Kronenberg-Widmer

At Brancaia in Chianti Classico, our last harvest is completed—the harvest of the olives. Of course, the olives and olive oil production are not as important to us as the wine production. Nevertheless we put the same passion and joy into our olive oil as we do our wines.

The crucial elements for the quality of an olive oil are the varietals, the health and ripening status of the olives, how fast they are processed, how well they are cleansed before pressing and the style of the pressing process.

We still have olive trees of the original Chianti Classico varietals: Frantoio, Moraiolo, Leccino and Pendolino. These trees produce the highest quality olives at very low yields (a maximum of 22 pounds per tree). So with an oil extraction ratio of 15 percent, we can only produce 1.5 liters of cold-pressed oil per tree.

Just as with the wine grapes, we only harvest the olives by hand. For this we place a net (similar to a very fine fishing net) on the ground below the tree and then hit the branches and stems with a stick to make the olives fall into the net. Then the olives are placed in wooden boxes with a grid bottom to assure the olives are continuously well aired. Within 48 hours the olives will be pressed. For that they are delivered to the frantoio, the olive oil presser.

Today most of the frantoios use a continuous process. The olives go through the following steps: First all the foreign bodies, particularly leaves, are removed and then the olives are cleansed in a water bath. Then, the olives are chopped up together with the olive stones in a kind of crusher and then pressed. The resulting brownish colored juice is put into a centrifuge that separates the oil from the fruit juice. To assure the best separation, some cold water is added to the centrifuge. That also keeps the temperature below 77° F in order to preserve all the aromatics. The fresh olive oil is a grass green color (coming from the chlorophyll) and cloudy—not yet ready for consumption. It rests for a couple of weeks so the sediments can naturally settle, and then it's ready.

At Brancaia, we do not filter the oil, which could remove some of the high-quality components. Not filtering can generate a small deposit in the bottle and could be interpreted as a visual mistake, but actually it's the sign of a high quality olive oil.

Health studies show that consumption of olive oil can provide health benefits for the heart. The great flavors of fresh olive oil—almonds, artichoke, freshly cut grass, and a little spice, combined with a light bitterness on the palate—makes our hearts beat a little faster every year. A slice of toasted bread, some olive oil, a little fleur de sel and a good glass of wine: as good as it gets! And considering the health benefits of all that, how good will even the second slice of bread and the second glass of wine taste?

Buon appetito!

Rob Dobson
Regina, Sask. —  December 17, 2008 4:49pm ET
Barbara,thanks for posting this - it brings back memories of tasting recently harvested olive oil in Tuscany in 2005. I had no idea that olive oil could taste so good!I wish I was there...

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