Olive Oil in the Season of Sagittarius
March 9, 2015
This past fall I returned for the umpteenth time to a most memorable meal and always lively visit with Janet and Stefano, owners of the Sagittario Olive Farm. Located just south of Florence, this stop is the highlight for many of my clients among countless exceptional Tuscan experiences. Janet and Stefano persevere year after year in their artisanal olive oil production, even when disaster strikes as it did in 2014. We were stunned to learn that the weather was so out of kilter last year that nearly their entire crop was destroyed by the olive fly. My friends and I here in Richmond have become accustomed to the arrival of the green, peppery “liquid of the Gods” by mid-December every year, being lucky enough to have found out how to order directly from the source. This year Janet was able to supply us with excellent oil from trees in Puglia, but I’m sure they’re all doing the olive dance (check it out on their Facebook page) and hoping for more cooperative weather this year.
The name “Sagittario” refers to a majolica made in the 1400’s by Luca Della Robbia. The artist depicted how extra virgin olive oil has been made for centuries in the hills surrounding Florence in the season of Sagittarius. Even 600 years ago in Tuscany, farmers climbed into the trees to harvest the olives rather than wait until they were ripe enough to fall or be knocked down, resulting in the distinctive taste and nutritional quality still found in Sagittario.
The following op-ed appeared in late 2009 in the Boston Globe, and sums up so well the sensations I also associate with Sagittario and their luscious oil.
A harvest for all the senses
Every winter my husband and I order freshly-pressed olive oil from our friends’ farm in the hills above Florence. When it arrives we celebrate by inviting neighbors over to taste it on bruschetta, toasted bread that we’ve rubbed with garlic. The ritual launches our new year in Gloucester and parallels celebrations of the new oil throughout Italy in this season.
For me, the first taste of the viscous, green olio nuovo is Proustian, bringing back memories of a muddy November in the olive grove, when I became as familiar with the Tuscan earth as with the green and black fruits we were gathering in nets under ancient trees. I can feel myself reaching to spread the huge nets and marveling as they fill with olives. I hear the rustling sound of harvesters raking the branches with bright orange combs and the rhythmic plopping of the olives.
And now, as I sample the fruity oil, experience its bitter aftertaste and sharp peppery finish, I remember the frantoio: the mill where my friends Janet and Stefano take their olives to be pressed at night. The cacophony of machinery is deafening as huge stones pulverize both olives and pits; the paste is then whirled in a centrifuge that separates oil from water and then, ah, the luscious green liquid emerges. The aroma is so strong, it bites the back of your throat; you need not taste it, inhaling it is like a taste.
A memory of this sensation returns each New Year’s Eve as we puncture a large rectangular tin of olive oil and inhale its vapors. Tomorrow’s ritual, practiced in our home 3,000 miles from the olive groves, is our way of helping support one small family farm. I think of it as our Community Supported Agriculture venture, our CSA overseas. For our friends have helped revive what had been a dying industry. When Stefano was growing up, there was little market for olive oil. Fortunately, his and Janet’s dedication has been matched by growing international demand for olive oil, spurred by findings about its healthful anti-oxidant properties. Today the couple are helping keep alive an ancient way of life and a culinary staple on land that is now also highly valued for real estate.
The new oil graces nearly everything my husband and I cook, from bread to soup, vegetables, fish, and salads. To us, ordering oil from a family farm in Italy is akin to shopping at our local farmer’s market, where we’ve come to know the growers from Amesbury and Dracut, who sell us tomatoes and corn, as well as the young people at The Food Project, who grow chard, onions, arugula, beets, and squash on their land in Beverly and Lynn, and more recently, the local fishermen in a new Community Supported Fishery project in Gloucester, from whom we buy finfish and shrimp.
The season’s first taste of olive oil brings back the long hours on our friends’ farm when we were up well before dawn and did not retire till midnight, after the olives had been pressed. When we fill a shot glass with oil tomorrow, pass it to one another, and toast to the harvest, I will think of the love and care that went into cultivating the olives. I will remember the brown clay earth that clung to my boots in the Tuscan grove, earth that so shapes the taste of the oil we celebrate, and I’ll recall that brief time when I was part of this old practice of bringing in the harvest.
Susan Pollack is a journalist and author of the “Gloucester Fishermen’s Wives Cookbook: Stories and Recipes.’’
Janet and Stefano’s home will be the first stop on our Tasting the Lost Corners of Tuscany trip this October. Since our visit comes right before the olive harvest, Janet lets us compare “green oil” that was frozen immediately after harvest last year, with the oil that’s mellowed over the course of 10 or 11 months (see the picture above).