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In the Italian Hills, Creating Intense Flavor

By Robert V. Camuto
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, October 24, 2003; Page H08

The count shifted into four-wheel drive and steered his rickety Suzuki Samurai off-road -- up a bumpy slope of olive groves and rows upon rows of vines.

Bouncing around the Chianti Hills just south of Florence, I couldn't help but think how much I had enjoyed my lunchtime ribollita (a thick Tuscan soup of beans, bread and vegetables drizzled with thick green olive oil) and how much I didn't want to part with it.

The olive oil produced by Castello di Poppiano in Tuscany has received top honors for its strong flavor. (Courtesy of Castello di Poppiano)

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Mercifully, the vehicle came to a halt at an ideal perch to view the count's hundreds of meticulously ordered acres and his hilltop castle, Castello di Poppiano. In the evening light, it was a painting.

Count Ferdinando Guicciardini, 67-year-old scion of one of Renaissance Florence's most important families, pointed out a particular olive grove basking in the last rays of the day's sun. A slight man with a salt-and-pepper beard, wire-rimmed glasses and an ever-present necktie, he explained that this grove, Podere La Costa, was acquired by his ancestors in the 14th century. These 30-odd acres of Tuscan frantoio olive trees have been known to produce some of the most intensely flavored oil in Italy and, it follows, the world.

The oil from Podere La Costa is packaged as Laudemio, an elite 13-year-old designation created by central Tuscan olive growers. "Laudemio" is the ancient term for the cut the farmers had to pay the local lord. In other words, the best stuff.

In two of the last three harvests, Castello di Poppiano's oil has taken the prize in Italy's Ercole Olivario olive oil contest for the best "intense fruit" (meaning "strong") olive oil.

The Laudemio consortium was spawned after the devastating freeze of 1986 claimed most of Tuscany's olive trees and left many growers wondering whether to replant.

Laudemio "got olive producers, who are also wine producers, to start thinking about olive oil as a product like wine and to really produce top quality," the count explained in perfect English.

Laudemio growers, who call themselves olivanti, adhere to requirements including an early harvest, generally in November. Olives may be picked by hand, combed from trees or shaken from them with mechanized vibrators, but the trees must not be beaten with sticks. Oil must be pressed quickly after harvest and approved by a tasting committee.

The olivanti put their oil in fancy cut-glass half-liter flasks, which are individually placed in elegant boxes to keep out damaging sunlight. Laudemio oils sell for about $13-$16 per half-liter in Tuscany and about twice that in the United States. (Several wine and gourmet food retailers in the D.C. area carry Poppiano's Laudemio; see below.) I had first stumbled on Laudemio during the olive harvest a couple of years ago on a weekend trip with my longtime friend Aldo, a native Tuscan. I had never tasted Laudemio. Aldo had never even heard of it.


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