Nowadays, the Tuscan olive harvest arrives at its mid-point in early November. That’s a change from the way it used to be. When I first started paying attention to olives and oil, the mills didn’t even open until November 15th and many folks didn’t start the harvest before the first of December and often continued it at a leisurely pace into January.
But times have changed, and even in this deeply traditional community most producers are fully persuaded that much better oil is made from an earlier harvest.
This year most of my grower friends report that the harvest is weak—not a lot of olives, they say, and the ones we do have are not very rich with oil. As long as everyone’s in the same boat, no one complains much. It’s only when one farmer’s production is way down while the neighbors harvest record crops and produce bounties of oil, that we suffer and groan. At Pian d’Arcello we won’t start picking for another week—have to wait for harvesters to arrive from New York and points west—and meanwhile the leccino olives are plump and shiny black and apparently full of oil. For once, our high mountain climate has acted as a blessing and we have more and better olives than friends down on the plain. I have my fingers crossed nothing will come along to knock the juicy berries off their perch before the pickers arrive.
Meanwhile, cleaning out the cantina to get ready for the new crop, I’ve discovered about eight liters of 2009-harvest oil on a back shelf where it’s been hidden all these years. What to do with it? It’s perfectly good oil—that is, it doesn’t suffer from rancidity or mustiness, and even if it’s rather flat in flavor and aroma, it still smells clean. This is perfect oil for deep-fat frying. It reminds me that several years ago, a similar phenomenon led me to fry the Thanksgiving turkey.
I had often heard about fried turkey but never tried it. In fact, my friends are shocked to learn that we seldom serve turkey for Thanksgiving. In my mother’s kitchen it was more often lobster on the festive table, and here in Tuscany it is usually a spit-roasted loin of cinta senese pork, flavored with garlic and wild fennel pollen, turned all day in the front of the capacious living room fireplace, and liberally basted with red wine, new oil, and its own exuding juices. But turkey? Maybe deep-fried, I thought, since we had the oil in which to fry it.
I assumed I could get a small turkey in Tuscany but I was mistaken so instead of a whole turkey I made do with a hind quarter of a gross bird—the quarter itself weighed close to eight pounds. I put it in the largest stock pot in the kitchen and filled the pot with enough oil to cover the bird. Or its quarter. Then I set the meat aside while I heated the oil, slowly because I didn’t want to risk burning the oil or altering its composition. A jam thermometer in the back of the kitchen-tool drawer was a life-saver as we slowly heated the oil to 355º. At that point I added a handful of fresh leaves from the bay tree in the garden and a good spoonful of fennel seeds, and with the flavorings simmering away, we lowered the turkey section into the bubbling oil.
In just a little over half an hour it was done—165º F. according to the meat thermometer, another serendipitous find, stuck into the fleshiest part of the bird. And it was the finest turkey I have ever eaten—in fact, to be honest, it was the only fine turkey I’ve ever eaten. The outside was crisp, a little crunchy but not at all tough; the inside was tender and very juicy. It was utterly unlike any other turkey of my experience. And I think I’ll do it again this year with my leftover 2009 oil. Of course, there’s no gravy to soak into mashed potatoes, but we will have our fresh, new extra-virgin olive oil from the 2011 harvest to lavish on baked potatoes instead. What a feast!