A Quintet of Oils and Soils
Those of you who have been long-time followers of our wine selections know, of course, of our insistence on presenting wines that clearly express their geographical identity. With the expansion of our olive oil selection, we can now apply that concept to the analysis and enjoyment of the five different extra virgin olive oils we import from Italy and France.
As with all agricultural products, place is critical in determining the savory and structural expression of the ultimate product. We have the pleasure now of making available to the USA market five exceptional examples of extra virgin olive oil: two from Provence (one, PRADEAUX, from a seaside location, the other, PEYRASSOL, from the hills at higher elevation), a stellar example of a Ligurian oil (ARMATO), an iconoclastic oil from Umbria (BEA) and, finally, a joyous expression of the charms of south-central Sicily (IL CENSO).
Here, in brief, is the story behind each …
The olive trees at Chateau Pradeaux are more than 500 years old. The fruit produced is of the highest possible concentration as the production from these wizened monsters is smaller and smaller by the year. The Pradeaux estate is not too many steps away from the Mediterranean sea in the village of St. Cyr-sur-Mer. The wines, of course, are legendary for their power, stamina and ferociousness. One can say the same for the extra virgin olive oil. The color is a pale yellow with amber tint; it has an earthy note to its nose and a burst of crushed pepper providing a kick to its finish on the palate. It is an oil that can penetrate a thick steak, an oil that will kick a simple green salad into a higher gear, an oil that will light up a simple baked potato. It is not an oil that should be used to adorn a delicate steamed fish fresh from the sea but will work with a grilled rouget.
As we move inland in Provence and in an easterly direction from Pradeaux, the Chateau Peyrassol sits on the crest of a hill on rolling lands in the Var district. Famed for its sterling Cotes de Provence Rosés, Peyrassol has a long tradition of producing extra virgin olive oil. Here, we have a mix of olive varieties (Ribier, Brun, Aglandau) as opposed to the singular Brun at Pradeaux. This combination plus the higher elevation produces an olive oil that is more complex on the palate, yellow-tinted in color, with a striking freshness and lingering bitterness in the finish … all in all, a quite surprising and satisfying oil that presents excellent value as well.
We cruise eastward still along the northern Mediterranean coast to arrive in the hills above Alassio in Liguria. There the ancient trees in the hamlet of Stellinello that belong to the Armato family for generations and to their neighbors who provide exclusive access to the crop to the Armato family produce our most important oil in terms of commercial viability. This extra virgin oil is from the singular and regal Taggiasche olive. The trees receive cooling breezes from the Mediterranean throughout the growing season and harvest is done over an extended period from mid-November through the first weeks of January of the following year. The oil is a wonder: it glows with its freshness, has a deep pool of yellow-gold color and presents as if it were melted butter. The finesse and elegance of the Armato oil is unmatched by its peers. An all-purpose oil that is an outright bargain, it delights the senses when drizzled on the freshest of fish or as a base for the initial cooking and seasoning of rice or to sauté medallions of lobster among other delicacies. We have luxuriated in the Armato oil for the past 37 years.
As we move south and inland, we arrive in the hilltop town of Montefalco in Umbria where the Paolo Bea family produces the most compelling of wines and the most dense and concentrated of extra virgin olive oils. Blending three varieties common to the Umbrian interior (Maraiolo, Leccino, Frantoio) and farming organically, the Bea family oil is thickest, most dense of our oils, a raw and vibrant product with deeply fruity and nut-filled flavors. A slight hint of green dapples the yellow base color of this rather astonishing, slightly piquant oil that can be enjoyed in its simplest form drizzled on freshly toasted bread sprinkled with a flake or two or three of sea salt.
Finally, we settle into the south-central mountainside village of Palazzo Adriano and its hamlet of Bivona to discover the sprightly fruitiness of the Il Censo extra virgin olive oil. Gaetano Gargano has his team tending to his trees in strict organic fashion. This farm is at high altitude and again a trio of olives (Biancolilla, Murtidarra, Ceresuola) produce a complex flavor to this pale yellow, slightly green oil that displays a more clearly fruity exuberance than the prior quartet. It has the Sicilian swagger matched to a most friendly and almost velvety mouthfeel.
We use all five oils at home to stimulate our taste buds, to allow for experimentation in the kitchen and to keep our restless minds busy thinking of the best marriages between foods and oils as some do with wine. We are working on developing recipes to share with you and we will share ideas with you as the year proceeds. Immerse yourselves in the terroir of olive oil …