In every Umbrian farmhouse, stainless steel cannisters now hold every farm’s cold-pressed, recently-milled olive oil. Lift the lid, put your nose in…and ah…the fruity pungent smell of the olio nuovo carries you away. It’s hard to think of a dish here not enhanced by this italianissimo condiment. Our farm women neighbors even use it in the place of butter in tasty moist cakes. Olive oil stars as king of the Mediterranean diet, now UNESCO World Heritage Cultural Intangible. Over 50,000 acres of Umbrian farmland are given over to cultivation of our “liquid gold” but – mamma mia! – production is down this year.We picked our olives in early November in warm weather, a sign of the times: due to the intense heat this summer, the olives ripened earlier than usual and the quantity was way down. Along with friends, Frank and Brit, we picked all of our olives in a short week-end and Pino took them to the mill for pressing a couple days later.
As always, we started with the lowest branches, stripping the olives off the branches right into the bucket below. Brit is tall and had a far better reach than I did but even she couldn’t reach the higher branches, so Frank climbed a ladder to pick the highest olives. The final phase of olive-picking has one on the ground, picking up any fallen olives. In rural culture, no food is ever wasted.
Pino, too, worked on the trees’ higher branches from a ladder.On a couple of trees, he got out pruining shears and a handsaw: too much branch entanglement in those trees for easy picking so pruning needed. Mounds of olive branches soon piled up on the ground below. Our donkeys and goats brayed and bleated across the road as they eyed those branches. I dragged armfuls of the prunings to their fence and heaved them over. The three donkeys moved in first (size rules) and the goats watched as they chomped, slipping in for mouthfuls of olive branches when they could.
They relished the prunings. We were already thinking about the bruschetta we’d make on the woodstove with the olio novello. (Bruschetta tips follow below)
Click here to read about olive oil celebrations in Umbria
Click here to read about the Mediterranean diet
Read about Spello’s celebration of olive oil
Read more on olive oil, “Umbria’s gold”
Ingredients: slices of good, crusty bread (best if a couple days old), garlic clove, salt, cold-pressed extra-virgin olive oil (ideally, just back from the mill!). Toast bread on both sides. Rub one side of each slice with garlic clove. Drizzle on olive oil. Be generous! Sprinkle with salt.Variations are endless: top with diced very ripe tomatoes, mixed with olive oil and finely-chopped basil or parsley or mixture of the two. You can also top with mushrooms sauteed in olive oil and garlic, parsley, dash of white wine. Try steamed cauliflower sauteed in garlic and olive oil.
Another variation: add olive oil to steamed spinach or Swiss chard or broccoli and spoon on top of toast slices, topping with diced mozzarella or fontina or another cheese. Put under broiler until the cheese melts. You’ve now made crostini, the “cousin” of bruschetta – and a perfect way to lead reluctant vegetable-eaters to the goodness of greens!
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