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In cooking and wine, southern Italy has always been looked upon as northern Italy's poor cousin. So has it been with olive oil -- until now. In my tasting of 13 olive oils from the southern regions of Puglia, Basilicata, Calabria, Campania, Sardinia and Sicily, I found many that were right up there with trendy Tuscan oils, especially on grilled vegetables, pasta and bruschetta. For some dishes, they were the better choice.
Tuscan versions have long been the benchmark for premium Italian oils. But some Tuscan oils can be too assertive, with their greener, more herbaceous taste and legendary peppery finish. Southern oils tend to be softer, rounder and more buttery.
This lighter style of oil is perfect for subtler foods such as seafood, says Dave Pasternack, chef of Esca, Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich's Italian seafood restaurant in New York. Pasternack keeps 15 oils from southern Italy on hand in his restaurant kitchen. "Tonight I'm using a Sicilian oil on raw fish, black bass, and New Zealand pink snapper. I'm using a Sardinian oil on turbot because it's fruity and delicate. A Tuscan oil would blow it away," he says.
Southern and northern oils differ mainly because of their respective climates. In Tuscany, olives are picked before they're fully ripe to avoid early frosts. "Tuscans had to make a virtue out of necessity, and they convinced us that God had intended it that way," says Darrell Corti, a Sacramento food retailer who has served as a judge at the annual Ercole Olivario olive oil competition in Italy.
In contrast, the south is warmer and has a longer growing season (and often flat terrain), which means olives become riper and more mellow. In the past, this fuller style was frequently overdone -- olives were harvested so late they were practically rancid. Often olives weren't even picked, but scooped up off the ground, bruised. Many of the remaining oils were sold off in bulk and made into lower grade, rather than extra-virgin, products.
However, in recent years, many olive growers in the south have recognized that they can make more money by increasing the quality of their oil, and bottling it themselves. "The whole process of handling olives is so much better now," says Betty Pustarfi, owner of Strictly Olive Oil, a mail-order retailer in Pacific Grove, Calif. "There are fewer opportunities for things to go bad. There isn't as much bruising. Equipment is more modern."
Combined with better agricultural practices, such as hand-picking, these improved techniques mean not only higher quality, but a greater range of oils. At the olive oil exposition at VinItaly this year there were "more producers with better quality oils and a greater range of oils than just three years ago," says Nicola Marzovilla, owner of I Trulli, a Puglian-style restaurant in Manhattan. Interestingly, not all the good new southern brands taste southern. Some are credible imitations of grassy, pungent northern oils. In recent Ercole Olivario competitions, Sardinia and Sicily have tended to dominate the underripe category for which Tuscan varieties have become famous.
Southern Italy has 11 of Italy's 23 olive oil areas protected under the government's Denominazione di Origine Protetta (DOP), similar to the DOC for wine, though admittedly the DOP represents more a guarantee of place than of quality.
After lagging behind the rest of Italy for decades, Sicily now boasts three DOPs (Valli Trapanesi, Monti Iblei and Val di Mazara). Most of Sicily's olive oil is produced on the warmer, western side of the island. Of the five Sicilian oils I tasted, my favorite was the unfiltered Sempre, which had the fruitiest nose, with muted herbaceous notes, a buttery mouthfeel and the barest kick on the finish. The intensely grassy, peppery Tenuta Rocchetta could easily pass as Tuscan. Olio Verde wasn't as spicy or green as its aroma would indicate; instead it was buttery, with a nice bite on the finish. The cloudy (indicating that it's unfiltered) Barbera Frantoia had an herbaceous nose, a moderate green-olive taste and a pleasant bitterness on the finish. Ravida was smooth and ripe, with tropical (banana mostly) tones and a greasy finish.
Puglia is the Languedoc of Italy, producing about 40 percent of the country's olive oil. As with Languedoc, quality is catching up with quantity in each of Puglia's four DOPs (Terra di Bari, Dauno, Collina di Brindisi and Terra d'Otranto). The organic Caricato oil combines the best of the south and north; it's intense and green on the nose but round and full on the palate. Galantino, which comes in an attractive ceramic crock, has a silky texture, plus the subtle almond taste characteristic of riper southern oils.
Though it also has three DOP regions (Penisola Sorrentina, Colline Salemitane and Cilento), Campania is far less known for its oil than is Sicily. Its olive oil production isn't high, in part because of Campanians' fondness for pork fat in their cooking. Orcio Sannita is a cloudy oil with a slight green-bean note and a texture so viscous you could almost eat it with a fork. Ocone Prezioso is warm and nutty but with a surprising peppery kick on the finish.
Traditionally, olive oil producers in Calabria were the richest in Italy, according to Corti, "because they didn't have any picking costs." In other words, all fruit was allowed to fall to the ground. The region now has one DOP, Bruzio. From this area, La Giara oil has nice fruity nose and a buttery texture, but finishes a bit short. Gabro is an organic oil with a pleasantly herbaceous and green-olive taste and an agreeable bitterness.
Though neither contains a DOP area, both Sardinia and Basilicata produce plenty of oil. Basilicata is the most prolific, with most of its oils produced in the more traditional southern way, with more attention given to higher yields and less focus on quality control. L'Olio dei Sassi is an exception, a quality southern oil that's golden and ripe, with a mellow flavor and thick texture. Sardinia is cooler than Sicily, which is why Pustarfi doesn't even consider its oils southern. The oil from Giorgio Zampa would seem to bear her out. It is as close to classic Tuscan style as any of the oils I tried -- intensely grassy with an underripe pungency, the opposite of the soft Sardinian variety that Pasternack uses at Esca.
How you use a southern Italian olive oil depends on the style in which it is made. "If you put the intense oil on a poached branzino [Mediterranean sea bass], all you taste is the oil," Corti says. "But if you have a relatively bland dish like ribolitta [Tuscan bean and bread soup] or pappa al pomodoro [tomato and bread soup], it will be made less bland if you put a strong-tasting oil on it." In any case, these high quality extra-virgin oils should not be used directly in cooking, as the heat will destroy their subtlety and complexity. It would be the equivalent of putting Solaia in a marinara sauce instead of your glass.
Sam Gugino, Wine Spectator's Tastes columnist, is the author of the recently published Low-Fat Cooking to Beat the Clock.
|A.G. Ferrari||San Leandro, CA||(877) 878-2783||www.agferrari.com|
|Convito Italiano||Willmette, IL||(847) 251-3654||N/A|
|Corti Brothers||Sacramento, CA||(800) 509-3663||N/A|
|Extra Virgin Olive Oil of the Month Club||Chester, NJ||(800) 665-2975||www.oliveoilclub.com|
|Strictly Olive Oil||Pacific Grove, CA||(831) 372-6682||N/A|
|Zingerman's Delicatessen||Ann Arbor, MI||(888) 636-8162||www.zingermans.com|