The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

Olive Oil, from Tree to Bottle to Coughs

Posted on | August 17, 2015 | Written by Janice Cable | No Comments

Olive trees in flower at Fontodi

Olive trees in flower at Fontodi

I can attest that the best thing about olive oil is that pressing olives, like pickling them, makes this fruit palatable. Moved by the romance of Montalcino, I once picked and ate an olive off a tree. Later, I told Laura Gray, the Estate Manager at Il Palazzone, that I had.

“Did you regret it?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said. “Immediately and for about a half hour thereafter.”

In their raw, unpressed, unfermented state, olives are rich in oleuropein, a phenolic compound that makes eating a raw olive not unlike stuffing your mouth with antiperspirant. It is disgusting. So disgusting, in fact, that it’s hard to imagine that something as delicious as olive oil could come from something that inherently repellent. Jonathan Swift famously said, “He was a bold man that first ate an oyster.” One could easily say the same about the first man who squished a bunch of olives in the hopes of making something palatable.

But what a luscious, pellucid, peppery, gorgeous thing a squished olive (or several thousand squished olives) can make. Like wine, olive oil is the product of both where its raw materials grow, and how its maker treats those raw materials. Unlike wine, olive oil is best very fresh. The fresher it is, the more aromatic. A fine olive oil glows an incandescent green. It seems like something that belongs at the bottom of the sea. It’s otherworldly and ethereal, as much as it’s earthy and visceral.

You rate olive oil according to coughs. At least, that’s how you rate olive oil if it’s really excellent olive oil and if you’re an olive oil aficionado. I learned this fact from Silvano, who served as my guide when I visited Fontodi, the venerable Chianti estate. If there’s a man who should know olive oil, it’s Silvano.

Olive oil is as ubiquitous, essential and telling as wine or bread in Italy. I imagine that the same holds true in other prized olive oil capitals of the world—Spain, for instance—but I speak from experience in Italy. Just about every winemaker also makes olive oil. Like making wine, crafting olive oil is a painstaking process that requires a lot of manual labor and no small amount of finesse. Makers of olive oil take great pride in how long it takes for the olive to go from tree to press; the longer the time, the more bitter the oil, and the shorter the time, the sweeter. Il Palazzone prides itself on getting the olives from tree to pressed oil in a matter of hours. A look at the estate’s webpage on its olive oil gives you a fairly comprehensive idea of precisely how exacting the creation of olive oil is.

A personalized olive tree at Il Palazzone

A personalized olive tree at Il Palazzone

The visceral kick, or the cough, that accompanies olive oil comes from the TRPA1, a cluster of proteins at the back of your throat. Awhile ago, NPR published an interesting piece on TRPA1, extra virgin olive oil (known, apparently, as EVOO, which looks to me like the name of a villainous organization from Get Smart or Austin Powers); scientists hypothesize that sitting at the back of your throat, TRPA1 is the last best place to alert you to breathing in noxious fumes. If you cough a lot, you’re going to get out of there.

Interestingly, this irritation might also be the source of EVOO’s salubrious anti-inflammatory effects. In any case, it’s absolutely why Fontodi’s olive oil firmly sits in the three-cough camp. It’s a deeply peppery, profoundly bold, entirely full-throttle olive oil. It is not shy. It is not demure. It takes no prisoners. And you will love it (we have only a few bottles left–perfect to drizzle on your summer tomatoes!).

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