The fragrance of brand-new olive oil is unmistakable. If you’ve ever experienced it, you’ll recognize it instantly ever after. When the oil is fresh from the press, it’s as intense and all-pervasive as the aroma of white truffles, as penetrating as that of fir balsam, as seductive as the smell of June roses lingering in the nose for days after the blooms themselves have faded.
The best time and place to experience that extraordinary perfume in its fullest impact is at the olive mill — the frantoio, as it’s called in Italy — at the moment newly harvested olives are crushed into oil. Second best is a bottle of fresh, new-season oil, coming into U.S. markets in February and March — i.e., right now — from Italy, Spain, Greece and, to a lesser extent, France, California and other parts of the olive oil world.
Describing that fragrance to those who don’t know it is another matter. It’s a little green-fruity, like the olives themselves that, ideally, are not fully ripened but just on the verge. It’s the smell of freshly cut grass. Or of tomato leaves crushed between the fingers. Perhaps it’s a little nutty (almonds? hazelnuts?) or a little citrusy (lemon, maybe?), or it has a little fragrance of green apples, or maybe apricots? It’s a complex aroma, for sure, and all that complexity makes up a large part of the oil’s flavor as well. So if the aroma of the extra-virgin in your pantry doesn’t reflect that complexity, the flavor won’t, either, and it’s a good time to reinvest.
I know this because I experience that aroma and flavor every year in October, when I go back with family and friends to harvest olives and make oil on what we cheerfully call the family estate in Tuscany. Don’t, please, imagine a centuries-old villa in a park of cypresses with faithful retainers in attendance and generations of family portraits in the hall. Ours is an old stone farmhouse, somewhat ineptly restored, on 25 acres of steep, rocky land in the forested mountains between Tuscany and Umbria, a mile or so down a dusty cart track from a poorly maintained local highway and a hamlet that consists of a church, a shuttered community building and a shop that is sometimes open but more often not. Oh, and the farmhouse roof leaks.
In brief, there is nothing romantic about this place except for what emerges from the 150 olive trees that I planted some years ago, against all local advice. Those trees now produce annually 60 or 70 liters of fresh, new oil with its extraordinary aroma.
There is romance, for certain, in the old-fashioned but time-honored way we harvest our ripening olives: by hand, one by one, piling them in baskets and plastic bins, and trucking them off to the local mill to be crushed into fragrant oil. There is romance, too, in late spring when tiny olive blossoms, pale and almost imperceptible, start to flower, and in summer when we watch anxiously for signs of the olive fly or some other malefactor threatening the hard little green fruits on the trees. Even in winter, when the trees are bare of fruit and the tramontana, a chill north wind, whips the branches and turns the leaves silver in slashing rain — even then, there is something romantic about an olive grove like ours.
I did not know that when I had the trees planted. I was simply struggling to keep the land around the farmhouse cleared of the brambles and scrub oak that threatened to overwhelm our terraced fields. The neighbors all said planting olives was a mistake: They would never thrive at this altitude (above 600 meters), and, besides, wild boar would knock them over. Now, each year when I come back, I find that more of those skeptics have planted olives on their own lands. Put it down to climate change if you will, but it appears that our mountain valley has become an ideal spot for the kind of olives that make high-quality extra-virgin oil.
In the kitchen, at the dining table, high-quality oils like the one we produce add delight and satisfaction to any dish: a simple green salad, a pasta sauce or a dessert cake or torte. But there’s more to it than romance. The flavors and aromas are also indications of what makes extra-virgin a cornerstone of a healthful Mediterranean diet and one of the best fats to use in cooking: They signify the presence of polyphenols, most of which are health-building antioxidants that help reduce inflammation, strengthen the immune system and defend against heart disease, cancers, diabetes, even age-related cognitive decline.
Study after study, in Greece, in Spain and here in the United States, has provided solid evidence of that, even when precisely how it happens is not always well understood. One of the most consistently cited investigations grows out of an ongoing series of trials called Predimed (Prevención con Dieta Mediterránea), summarized in the New England Journal of Medicine. That study concluded that following a Mediterranean diet, supplemented with extra-virgin olive oil or nuts, resulted in a substantial reduction in “the risk of major cardiovascular events.”
When I started to get interested in olive oil, in the early 1990s, this was not well-known. Olive oil, we were told then, is good for you because it’s primarily a monounsaturated fat, consumption of which reduces dangerous LDL chocolesterol and maintains or even boosts HDL, the “good” cholesterol. But with more research, it became apparent that there were all sorts of other things going on apart from the fat structure.
Extra-virgin olive oil is a unique product because, unlike regular olive oil (sometimes called “pure olive oil”), it is unrefined and retains all those polyphenols that are available in the raw fruit. Regular and “light” olive oils have had the aromas and flavors stripped away to stabilize the product. It stands to reason that the fresher the extra-virgin, the more fragrance and flavor it carries, the more polyphenols come along for the ride.
And that’s what we were smelling and tasting last October at Massimo Landi’s frantoio on the Arezzo highway just north of Cortona, as we watched our glossy leccino olives get transformed into dazzling jade-colored oil. All our workers were assembled for the occasion: two American chefs and one Italian, an Italian photographer, six visiting Americans and two small, energetic children.
We had spent four days reaching, stretching, bending, in the relentless task of picking olives by hand, getting into the trees at the crack of dawn, collapsing when darkness fell, the day relieved by pauses for coffee, bread and cheese, wine, pastries, anything that kept us going. It’s an arduous task to get the olives to the mill as rapidly as possible, before the oil that swells them starts to degenerate. Big producers aim to do that within hours. We find it takes us at least three days — if the weather cooperates.
To my mind, the speed with which olives are transformed into oil is one of the critical points for producing the highest quality. Almost equally important is cleanliness, both in the mill and in the post-milling treatment of the oil. Extra-virgin is a fragile commodity; any exposure to light or heat will start an inexorable progress toward rancidity. (That is why consumers are constantly warned to buy oil in dark glass bottles and to keep fine oils away from the kitchen’s light and heat.)
As the green oil flowed into our fusti (stainless-steel tins in which we transport it), we licked it off our fingers, dipped in plastic spoons and then rushed it home to serve it up on the most glorious of new-oil treats: bruschetta. This is what the Florentines call the fettunta, the anointed slice: crusty unsalted Tuscan bread, toasted over a wood fire, then rubbed lightly with a cut clove of garlic, liberally doused in the new oil and gently sprinkled with salt.
Then we trooped over the fields to our neighbors, the Antolinis, to celebrate with a feast of the new harvest — more bruschette with many different toppings, Maura Antolini’s superb pasta al forno (a.k.a. lasagna), rabbits, pigeons, a shoulder of pork, and chickens from the family courtyard where the birds scratch and grub — all roasted in the wood-fired bread oven built into the house wall more than a century ago. And finally a superb crostata, an open-faced tart, made with apricots from trees along the garden edge, fruit that in its fragrance and flavor recalled the olive oil we had just brought home.
The fact is, 2016 was not an exceptional harvest on our hilltop farm. Like many fruit trees, olives tend to produce more in alternate years, and last year was clearly an off one. We took to the frantoio a little more than four quintales (that’s less than half a ton) of olives; the yield in the end was about 10 percent, so we went home with just under 50 liters of oil.
But what fabulous oil it was! Every year, we admit, is better than the year before. Will we ever reach perfection? Not in this lifetime, perhaps, but we keep trying.
Harmon Jenkins is the author of many books about Mediterranean cooking, including “Virgin Territory: Exploring the World of Olive Oil.” She will join our live chat with readers at noon Wednesday.