We just finished the fourth edition of AmorOlio at Villa Campestri, and I think all my “students” agreed that it was a great experience, learning how to tell good olive oil from bad. Thanks to Gemma Pasquali and her incredible patience, we made our way through three tasting lessons, learning to identify fusty, musty, and rancid oils—the three most prevalent defects in extra-virgin olive oils.
Beyond that, we spent a lot of time in the field, helping, if only a little, with Villa Campestri’s own harvest, then following the olives to the mill, the frantoio, right on the property, where before our eyes, Paolo, Gemma’s father and the owner of Villa Campestri, transformed raw olives into fresh, fragrant, green oil, a taste memory to be treasured. Indeed, I’ve heard from several students since that they went back to their U.S. kitchens, tasted the oil they’d left behind, and promptly tossed it out for the rancid stuff it was. A hard lesson, but one we all need to learn.
Of course we don’t just do olive oil at Villa Campestri, though it is billed as the world’s only olive oil resort. But we try to work in as much Tuscan culture and cuisine as we can, putting the oil in context, with wine tastings featuring Italy’s best-known wine expert Burton Anderson, and visits to local cheese makers, to wineries, to weekly markets, and to some fabulous restaurants. One in particular that we’ve grown to love is Bibo, way up on the Paso de la Futa (World War II history buffs will recognize it as the center of Hitler’s Gothic Line across Italy), where in a simple roadside café we dined on three different heritage breeds of beef, plus a little jamon iberico and some fabulous wines selected specially for us.
We were privileged too to have two guest chefs who came along to learn about olive oil, then showed us what they’d learned as they developed menus in the kitchen on the last day of classes. Sam Hayward, the Beard Award-winning chef at Fore Street in Portland, Maine, found surprising links between Tuscan kitchens and his own Maine kitchen as he made a wonderful dish of oven-roasted salt cod, while Anita Lo, chef-owner of the Michelin-starred Annisa in New York’s West Village, surprised us with her take on immaculately fresh sardines, not quite crudo but just flash-grilled with a stripe of Tuscan extra-virgin on top. Remarkable, and delicious!
We’re always on the lookout, by the way, for guest chef candidates so if you know someone who could benefit from this incredible six-day learning experience (and who, frankly, could not?), be sure to let me know.