Extra-Virgins: Tasting the Best

Rolando Beramendi of Manicaretti imports visited us in Maine recently and brought with him five Italian extra-virgins–one Tuscan and four southern ones. These were intended as candidates for a structured tasting I have been hoping to do in October in Sicily. Right now, however, it looks as though that Sicily tour may not take place, mostly because of Italy’s understandable reluctance to admit tourists from our poor, CoVid-raddled country. Not only will I miss Sicily, I will also miss my own Tuscan olive harvest for the third year in a row. So I am forced into recovery mode, trying to recreate the Italian olive oil experience right here on the coast of Maine.

With that in mind, I set out the five oils for a pre-coffee tasting this morning. Why pre-coffee? Because I think coffee, for all that I love it, seriously dents the palate making it difficult to detect the often subtle differences that distinguish one olive oil from another. So pre-coffee, pre-breakfast is the ideal time for tasting olive oil (works well for wine too, if you don’t mind sipping wine on an empty stomach).

The professional tasters insist on a particular kind of glass–round bottomed so it fits comfortably in the palm of your hand for warming the oil up to something approaching room temperature when it will emit its aromas and flavors, and tinted blue so you don’t get seduced by the colors of the oil. I, however, always the contrarian, go back to the old Italian dictum about food–“l’occhio ha la sua parte,” meaning the eye has a role to play, appearance is part of the pleasure. I think color should be included in evaluating an oil, even though appearances can be deceiving. So what I’m using, as you can see in the photo are small clear water glasses–and you can also easily see that each of these oils has a distinctive color. The two greenest are Titone from far western Sicily and Castello Colle Massari, the lone Tuscan, which comes from the hills between Monte Amiata and the sea. And the clear yellow one is Crudo from Bitetto, a town outside Bari that is surrounded by olive groves as far as the eye can see.

Does the color actually mean anything? Yes, I think it does. Greener oils tend to come from immature olives, while more golden yellow ones are usually from fully mature olives. The flavors in the oils will be correspondingly grassy and herbal for young olives or rich and fruity for more mature ones–but this is not universally true.
What is true is that the finest extra-virgins are, you might say, works in progress, meaning they change with time, losing the intensity of fragrance, flavors and color that they have in the beginning. This is why we say olive oil is not like wine, it does not get better with time. The fresher the oil, the better. And this is why we look on the labels of fine oils for the harvest date. Not the “use by” date which can be two years after bottling–and if the oil is already a year old when it is bottled, it will be three years old by its “use by” date. And that’s not a good thing.

Fortunately, knowing how well Manicaretti selects, ships, and stores the olive oils in its collection, I can trust that these oils are all from the most recent harvest, which is to say autumn-to-winter, 2020-2021. I’m also confident that these are all what we call estate-produced, meaning the olives are grown, harvested, crushed, and bottled right on the estate.

So working from right to left in the photograph, we have:

  • Cutrera Nocellara del Belice: estate-produced and bottled in Chiaramonte-Gulfi in southwest Sicily by Salvatore Cutrera from 100% nocellara del Belice olives, a Sicilian variety, hand-harvested, with an acid level of 0.15%, dark gold in color, with a toasty aroma like warm almonds and flavors of almonds and fresh tomato;
  • Titone Organic (biologico in Italian): produced and bottled by Antonella Titone on her family farm in Trapani, western Sicily, the green-gold oil has a grassy aroma and complex flavors of fresh tomato, tomato leaf, and raw artichoke; 100% cerasuola olives, another Sicilian favorite;
  • Crudo: produced and bottled by Gaetano Schiralli in Bitetto, outside Bari, Puglia’s capitol, a monovarietal of Puglia’s famous ogliarola olives, a very smooth and supple oil , golden in color with an elegant finish and fruity, ripe, artichoke flavors;
  • Olio Verde: made by Gianfranco Becchina in Castelvetrano, Sicily, from 100% nocellara olives, hand-harvested while still quite green (reflected in the clear green color of the oil), and pressed and bottled on the estate, smooth and soft but with a distinctive note of black pepper on the finish;
  • Castello Colle Massari: produced by the Bertarelli family in the province of Grosseto, in the hills of western Tuscany between Monte Amiata and the Tyrrhenian Sea, certified organic, deep green in color, with a fragrance of wild hers and flavors of artichoke, this is made from a typical Tuscan field blend of leccino, moraiolo, and frantoio olives.

These are all available in fine gourmet products stores but if you can’t find them, check with the importer, www.manicaretti.com or try Market Hall Foods, www.markethallfoods.com, in Oakland, California.



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