Today’s post on mezze & tapas is about Olive Oil and getting to meet the producer of one of the world’s best olive oils. There is no more quintessential ingredient in Mediterranean cuisine than olive oil. If you want to learn more about Mediterranean food, an understanding of olive oil is a good starting point.
However you look at it, olive oil is a big deal in the Mediterranean. Because olive oil is so important to the region I want to help you get a better understanding of it. With that in mind, I’ve asked one of Italy’s premiere olive growers to share some of their knowledge. I want to welcome to the blog Arianne De Marco, co-owner and manager of Cantasole Olive Oils.
Cantasole is located just outside the town of Lecce in the Puglia region of Italy. If you are not familiar with Puglia, it is the stiletto heel of the Italian boot. It is the largest olive oil producing region in Italy, accounting for over 45% of all Italian olive oil. Puglia is also a beautiful place to visit, steeped in history and rich with tradition.
A year ago, the Elegant Baker and I spent time traveling through Italy. A “must do” activity for our trip was to visit an olive grove (yes, even above a winery!). We found an experience on AirBnB and it turned out to be one of our very best adventures traveling. We ended up in a group with six other international travelers. Arianna led our tour which is where I first met her. We had such a great time and Arianna is such a warm person, we have remained in touch. When I asked Arianna if she would be willing to let me interview her for the blog she graciously said yes.
A Passion for Great Olive Oil
So I sat down with Arianna recently and we talked about the business and processes of the olive oil industry. Arianna and I talked about what you should look for in a good olive oil and how to care for it. We also touched on a couple of bigger topics. We covered her experiences as a women in the olive oil industry. Finally we talked about innovations, including how the industry is becoming more ‘green’. This post is a bit longer than most, but I hope you take the time to read it. If you don’t get it all done in one go, come on back to finish it.
Arianna has been involved in Cantasole for the last six years. Before that, she studied in Italy, the Netherlands and Switzerland. This gave her important exposure outside of Puglia that she could rely on when she entered the business. And of course, growing up, she worked on the family farm as well. She is also a certified Olive Oil Sommelier. It is safe to say that Arianna has a lifetime of experience with olive trees and olive oil.
When we sat down, it was just about two weeks to the start of the olive harvest. Arianna was excited because it had rained the day before. “A perfect time for the olives in their ripening process. Right now the trees with some more water have more energy to put on more olives.” That will give you a sense of the passion Arianna has for her olive trees and her job.
A New Generation Tending to Old Traditions
Arianna’s family has been growing olives on the same land in Puglia since 1885. Her farm is surrounded by those of her cousins, who are mainly wine grape producers. It is a family where agriculture, tradition and history in Puglia run deep. It is no wonder that Arianna is so passionate about her work.
After a few formalities, I began by asking Arianna about what she likes most about being an olive farmer. “It is my boost for the day to know that when I wake up, one hour later I am going to be in the olive grove. That is the thing that makes me wake up every morning. To go in the olive grove and take care of my trees, to enjoy the time that I spend there. The time of the year that I love the most is now, the preparation for harvest.”
When I ask her about her favorite variety of olives she can’t give me just one, but three. (Cantasole grows ten different varieties). First is the Biancolilla, a delicate and fruity variety of olive. They are also the youngest trees in the grove. This, she tells me, is a variety mostly associated with Sciliy. She said that she fell in love with Biancolilla while training as an olive oil sommelier. They planted their first Biancolilla trees five years ago. Now Cantasole is producing a Gold Medal winning single variety olive oil from these trees.
The Perfect Blend for Everyday Use
Then Arianna talked about the other two varieties – the Coratina and the Cima de Melfi olives. Arianna says that while they are both excellent olives, together they make a better oil. The Coratina “has the right amount of spiciness and pugency, and the flavor is so full. It is amazing to use every day”. About the Cima de Melfi, Arianna said “I love it so much because the perfume is so incredible but it is also so sweet”. She blends the two together in proportions that make it perfect for everyday use. She works out the right proportions experimenting in a small lab in her house. “I can create a very balanced olive oil with all these perfumes and tastes together.”
A Selective Process For The Best Olive Oil
With 60,000 trees spread over 700 acres, you would expect a lot of olive oil to be produced. And that may be true, but Catasole only produces about 10,000 liters annually. This is because the farm sells nearly 90% of its olives in bulk to larger producers. Those olives get blended in with oils from other growers. That in turn creates some of the large commercial brands you may be familiar with.
It is the other 10% of the olives that are the heart of the Canasole operation, reserved for their own extra virgin olive oil. Arianna and her team spend careful time throughout the season assessing their grove. They identify which trees and which varieties are performing the best. With their trained eye, they pre-select a bit more than 10% of all their production to keep. Trees get judged on things such as plant stress, lack of ‘olive fly’ infestations, variety, and water consumption. When workers harvest these selected trees their olives are kept for Catasole’s own oil. The goal is to produce the best oils possible.
To date, Arianna and her team have been highly successful at this part of the process. Over the last five years, they have won many local and international awards for the quality of their oil. The New York International Olive Oil Competition (NYIOOC) is the world’s largest and most prestigious. Four of the last five years, Cantasole has been a Gold Medal winner. This places them among the most elite olive oils globally. Not bad for a mid sized farm using only 10% of their crop for their own production.
Turning Olives into Olive Oil
Part of producing a great oil is the process used to get the olives from the tree to the bottle. It is a process built and designed to keep the olive oil away from its three “enemies”. According to Arianna, “The enemies of olive oil are heat, light and oxygen. So the best way to keep olive oil fresh is to avoid the enemies.” The olives destined for Cantasole oil are picked and whisked away to the nearby processing plant as quickly as possible. Once at the plant they are pressed to create the extra virgin olive oil. To remain an extra virgin olive oil, nothing can be added to the pressed oil. The entire process from field to pressed is less than 24 hours.
The process goes beyond just speed though. Once the olives are pressed, the oil is stored in vacuum sealed silos. This eliminates contact with the air. Each variety of oil is stored separately, and the blending is done later. Because olives ripen at different times, the oil needs to be held until all the varieties are pressed. The cool, dark, airless silos are the perfect storage.
Once Arianna determines the proper proportions per variety to make an excellent oil, the blending begins. All the blending, filtering and bottling are done in the same plant where the olives are pressed. This gives Arianna and the Cantasole team the control necessary to keep oil away from heat, light and air. “We don’t move the olive oil until it is in a bottle.” Dark green 500 ml bottles and solid 3 liter tin cans are where the oil is bottled for consumers. The first time that the olive oil will be exposed to light and air is when I, the consumer, opens the bottle in my kitchen.
What To Look For When Buying Olive Oil
But how do you pick that bottle to open in your kitchen? A trip down the olive oil aisle at any supermarket can overwhelm you with its dozens of oils to choose from. I asked Arianna for some advice when choosing olive oil. I started by asking how important terms like “cold pressed” and “expeller pressed” are. Imagine my surprise to learn that such terms are effectively meaningless. Expeller pressed is a redundant term. “It simply means a mechanical method for extracting oil. Every oil is made in this way.” Similarly, “cold pressed” is redundant information. “An olive oil, to be extra virgin, needs to be pressed with absolutely no heat. It is a basic standard of quality.” Such terms really impart nothing to the consumer about the oil.
So what is important to look for. To start with, age. “Olive oil never really expires. However, after 18 months it fast starts to lose all the positive organoleptic characteristics.” The things that make olive oil taste so good and bring great flavor to food only last about a year and a half. What you can look for is the harvest year, which not all producers put on their bottles. Even so, it is important information to look for. More and more of the top producers are adding that information to their labels. “If I go to the shop now, and I see harvest year 2018, I know that it is an old olive oil and I might not buy it. But if it says 2019, that is last year’s, I know the new year’s (2020) hasn’t been harvested yet, so I’m going to buy the 2019.”
Keeping it Fresh at Home
The top producers “want to share information with the consumer”. Better oils will include more information on their labels. Things you will see include country of origin, region of production and olive varieties. Top producing countries include Spain, Italy and Greece. Many large brands will simply say “European Blend”. In this case they are blending olives from many varieties and countries. This creates a homogenized oil. Commercially reliable, but lacking in character. Not surprisingly, Arianna thinks that oils from Italy, specifically Puglia, are the best.
Once at home, open the oil , give it a smell and take in its aroma. “The very first thing I always say is to smell your olive oil. Does it smell fresh or dry? Freshness is a symptom of quality. Dry is a factor that can not be accepted into a good olive oil.” When you have a good oil, you’ll want to treat it properly to ensure it lasts as long as possible.
How you store your oil has the most impact on how long it will remain fresh. Keeping in mind heat, light, and oxygen are the enemies, you want to minimize contact with all three. Store (or buy) your oil in a bottle that shields the light — a darker color bottle, or even better a ceramic bottle that lets in no light. A narrow necked bottle, and a small spout admit in minimal air. And most importantly move your oil away from directly next to the oven – the greatest source of heat in the kitchen. “Find a safe place where our evoo is at hand and can be easily reached to use it every day, but away from heat and light sources.”
The Disease that Impacts Cantasole. It’s Not What you Think
Switching gears, I asked Arianna how the Covid Pandemic has affected her business. As you remember, Italy was among the first countries to really feel the full impact of the Coronavirus. It endured months-long lockdowns nationwide. Fortunately, southern Italy was not as hard hit as the northern part of the country. For Cantasole, the impacts have been minimal. Their web orders rose sharply, which has been good for business. “Apart from that, just wearing masks when finding each other in closed space. But we really didn’t stop one day. We can not tell the trees to wait for Covid to pass.”
A much bigger problem than Covid is another disease that directly affects the olive trees.
According to Arianna, “The olive trees in the Puglia region are living the worst moment in the history of olive trees.” The problem is an invasive bacteria causing great stress in olive trees throughout Puglia. The trees are under attack by the xylella fastidiosa bacteria (XF) which causes trees to die from the inside out. As a tiny pest called the spittlebug moves from tree to tree, it transports this disease.
The disease clogs the xylem inside the tree. Xylem are the veins of the tree for transporting water within itself. XF creates a slimy mass in the xylem, preventing the tree from watering itself. As a result the tree dies from thirst from the inside out. When a spittlebug sucks the liquid from an infected tree, then moves to another, it spreads XF. The irony is that the spittlebug is native in Puglia, and had never been a problem. That is until the last 8 years when XF was introduced into Puglia by way of ornamental plants from South America. Now the bugs’ practices make it an unwitting accomplice in spreading XF.
The Outlook for XF
There is no cure for the XF bacteria. Once a tree is infected, it is destined to either die outright or worse. It can linger alive in a zombie-like state – too weak to produce olives, but filled with the disease, just waiting to be spread.
Cantasole is doing their part to help fight this invasive species. “My family business is working in cooperation with two different research centers to study a way to develop resistance to the bacteria before the tree gets infected.” Arianna talked about innovative work scientists are doing to encourage trees to grow new xylem. The new xylem can bypass the diseased parts of the tree. There is still much work to be done. But the problem is an urgent one for Puglian olive growers.
The Challenge for Women in the Olive Oil Industry
One subject that I covered with Arianna was more cultural, and less about olive oil directly. I asked Arianna about being a woman leader in the olive oil industry. We talked about ways it is both rewarding and challenging. I will let Arianna tell the story.
“When I got into the business six years ago, I would go around with my father. My father would present me to whoever we were with, but then I would just disappear behind him, even though he would introduce me and include me in the conversation. Then I slowly made my way into the business and to the industry. Always pointing out something or putting my interests out, asking questions, doing a little bit more and researching. Definitely now after six years I know that people see the difference. I think they respect me for what I bring into the industry.”
“It took me time. Slowly with knowledge, with innovation that I brought, with keeping selling, with alway being there, and not disappearing. But definitely being a woman, I would be seen as a woman in the industry. They don’t forget it. Slowly, I earned the respect of my colleagues in the business.”
“This is from an olive oil point of view. However, from an agricultural point of view, every day is difficult. Every day is difficult. Every day, I need to underdress because I cannot show. This is a shirt I cannot wear in the fields.” (Arianna was wearing a sleeveless shirt with a lightly ruffled collar and scalloped neckline). “It is a male business. Everyone that is around sees me as the daughter of the owner. I am never sure if they actually see me as Arianna or just the daughter of the owner.” (Arianna is in fact the co-owner of Cantasole).
The Opportunity of Changing Attitudes with a New Generation
“The generation that I am living in is much more open minded than before. It was difficult, but I don’t want to say that I saw myself in a difficult position because I was a woman. I wasn’t born an olive oil producer. I went to universities (in Italy, Denmark and Switzerland). I’ve always had teachers and I was always in a group of people that would not put me in a different position because I was a female student. I managed to earn my worth by what I brought into the class. I just had to repeat that in the olive oil industry.”
“Maybe having a different background than just living in Lecce and working as a farmer here brought me to being able to impose myself better and not seeing it as a boundary, but rather as an encouragement to others that there is not just male there but also females”.
Arianna also talked about an emerging group of women taking leadership roles in olive oil world wide. There is a website dedicated to these women, and an Instagram group as well. They focus on sponsoring projects, supporting each other, and promoting the role of women throughout the olive oil industry. “I was amazed to see how many people all around the globe from everywhere! There are actually alot. It is amazing”.
Green Technology in Olive Oil
Finally, we talked about a handful of emerging innovations and changes in the olive oil industry. They range from green technology to packaging, to the evolution of consumer knowledge. Cantasole is part of some of the most cutting edge technologies in this most traditional of industries.
An innovation that Arianna is most proud of is partnering with the mill and processing plant that Cantasole uses. It is the first zero-waste press in the world. What most people don’t know is that about 90% of an olive is waste when pressing oil. In the past, some of that waste would be turned back into the fields as fertilizer for the trees. The rest of it essentially became landfill.
Cantasole has partnered with a mill that makes use of all that waste. The waste is fed into a Biogas Plant which turns that waste into electricity. The electricity generated operates the mill, which processes oil for Cantasole and about a half a dozen other growers. Beyond just running the mill, the Biogas plant generates excess energy. It returns enough power to the Italian power grid to provide electricity for between 50 and 100 homes. This plant has become a model for olive mills around the world. “There are other millers from all around the globe coming to visit this mill to learn how he does it. They want to reproduce it in other parts of the world. From Brazil, Spain, Portugal, Australia. It is something that we started here and that is spreading around the globe.”
Other Emerging Innovations
While such green innovation is easy to get behind, some of the other things Arianna is looking forward to are a bit less clear cut. One thought is to begin using a “bag in a box” to package olive oil. From a purely technical level, it is a clear advantage. This is because the oil will never come in contact with air or light until it is actually dispensed to be used. The same is technically true for wines, but “bag in box” wines have a decidedly lower end perception. “I’m thinking about it. I have a mixed opinion. It is good for the oil, but the bag in the box doesn’t have a good reputation.”
The other innovation in the olive oil industry is another place where it compares with wine. “Olive oil is following the path of development of knowledge by the customer as wine did over the last 30 years.” Growers and consumers alike are putting more of an emphasis on knowledge sharing. Knowing more about what we consume is becoming more important. Growers want to foster an understanding of things such as olive variety, year of production, and region where the oil originates. “You know that you like chardonnay more than cabernet. In the future you will know you like Coratina (olives) more than Leccino. It will be written on the label.”
Arianna understands that the wine industry developed this knowledge over time. She also recognizes that it will take the olive oil industry time in this regard as well. But she is not afraid to help lead the change. “Cantasole will be writing all of the olive varieties on our labels, even with the blends. So that people get know the different varieties, the names, and to know what they like the most”.
The Wrap Up
Whether you are making Italian, Greek, Spanish, Moroccan, or Middle Eastern food, you will be using olive oil. So there is nothing wrong with learning and growing your knowledge about olive oil. I hope this post has taught you something you might not have known about olive oil before. Or perhaps given you something to think about.
One last teaser Arianna left me with. The other exciting future development for Cantasole will be expansion into the US market. For now, Arianna’s oils are only available in Europe. It is definitely in the plans for Arianna to begin selling in the US in the not too distant future. But regardless of if the olive oil is currently available to you or not, Arianna has a wealth of knowledge that knows no boundaries. I am thankful for the time that Arianna took sharing with us.
Disclosure. Cantasole olive oils are the exclusive olive oils in my kitchen. I do it because they are fantastic. I am not paid or compensated for expressing my opinion on Cantasole. Although Cantasole oil is not currently available in the US, I have made special arrangements with Arianna to have oil shipped in bulk, at my expense, including shipping, from Puglia.