Olive world – second part: olive oil tasting…

Fortune is on our side: it is raining and so no olives can be harvested. Of course, we are not lucky thanks to this unexpected day off, but rather because today a small town nearby has organized a tasting in an oil mill and since it is raining we can participate. Fantastic!

On our arrival, there are already several spectators, listeners and complete non-professionals eager to learn and on the horseshoe shaped table stand plastic cups, slices of peeled apples (what for we wonder) and a fair quantity of olive oil bottles. Good luck is really on our side: the friendly looking man in front of us who is holding the small course is an authentic olive oil expert. The tasting technique can differ from examiner to examiner, but is in any case publicly regulated by the laws in force today. The well-informed man explains in broad outlines what he is going to show us. Our starting point is not the best: before the tasting we should not have used strong perfume, soap or other cosmetics with a persistent scent, or smoked for at least thirty minutes or eaten for an hour.  Furthermore, our physiological and psychological condition has to be satisfactory, which they are, in order not to influence the  thorough  assessment of the olive oils and the final verdict.

Quality and defect of the oil depend on various factors:

–  geographical production area

– climatic conditions

– ripeness of the olives

– treatment of the trees or the soil

– harvesting technology

– storage of the olives

– mixing time of the crushed olives and temperature during processing

– extraction method

– storage of the finished oil

– hygiene and general cleanliness

A real specialist examines the oil against the light and shakes the contents of the bottle slightly to test its fluidity.  Our connoisseur, who has in front of him a group of people full of good will but nothing else, decides to pour a small quantity – about one tablespoon – into cups set up in front of him and those near him distribute them among the participants until the last row is reached and everybody has a cup in his hands. A professional tasting glass, of course, is not of plastic but of glass, dark  blue or brown so that the person tasting cannot see the colour of the oil, which could be deceptive. He invites us to observe the fluidity and the fragrance of the oil and to describe our impressions.  Now we must warm the cup in the

palm of our hands, encouraging the evaporation of the aromatic compounds in the olive oil.  We follow his advice, then we look at each other. The fact is that we are not sure about our sensations, some of us seem to have no opinion at all, others are too shy to express themselves. Some are totally concentrated on smelling, trying to hide their embarrassment and hoping that someone else will speak first. Then, of course, there are those who summon up all their courage but do not find the right words. In fact, what we do not know is that there exists a  small dictionary, with expressions we are not acquainted with. Our expert talks about “fruity”,  “almond like”, “lively”, “pungent”, even “grassy” scents.   We look at each other: wow! We learn that there are oils with a specific smell, resembling freshly cut grass and that “fruity” describes the odour of fresh, perfect olives harvested at the right moment.   “Almond like” refers principally to the fragrance of fresh almonds but sometimes it is connected with the dried ones, the smell of which can easily be mixed up with almonds becoming rancid.  “Lively” is the word to describe a fresh oil, which releases long-lasting, pleasant, aromatic flavours, whereas a good, fruity oil from the new crop is called“ pungent”. This is new land  but, after all, we are here to learn. Now he shows us

how to slurp a small quantity by sipping the oil first slowly and lightly and then stronger. In this way it spreads into the whole oral cavity allowing a close contact between the oil and the sensors of mouth and nose. Then he advises us to let the mouth rest for a brief moment and to press the tongue slowly and slightly against the palate, then to inhale air again, abruptly and with half opened lips. The last movements need to be repeated several times and we must keep the oil in our mouths for at least twenty seconds, before spitting it out. Equally important is that we continue to move our tongues in order to thoroughly assess the aftertaste trying to remember as many flavours and fragrances as possible. Again he asks us to tell him our sensations and from the little crowd in front of him we hear a courageous “fresh”, “has a nice taste” and “pleasant”, all words, which have little or nothing to do with the vocabulary, used by our expert. Obviously, he does not understand us – for now, we do not speak the same language.

It’s no good wanting to learn too many things at once and, objectively, we do not have  much time, otherwise he would have told us for instance,  that olive oils are divided into “fruity sweet” and “fruity green” and that these  categories mainly depend on the type, or cultivar, the ripeness of the olives and the production area. Next year we will certainly have the opportunity to deepen our knowledge.

Now he tells us that “bitter” refers to the typical taste of oil from green or pink-violet olives and that – according to intensity – is considered more or less pleasant. “Sour” oil produces a binding effect,  “sweet” does not indicate that it is really sugary, but that it has neither pronounced bitter nor astringent or piquant properties.  “Artichoke” expresses a particularly pleasant, mainly new oil. Frost damaged olives have a “frozen” taste which means very weak, thin-bodied, tending to a dry and wooden flavour. “Dry” refers to an oil from olives which have ripened during a prolonged period of aridity. “Astringent” describes an oil from unripe olives, particularly rich in polyphenols. The sensation, while tasting it, is like biting into an unripe fruit. If the oil tastes of “net” it has a peculiar rubbery flavour tending to dry attributable to the fact that the olives were left for too long on the catching nets.   Then he talks about flavours described as “winy-vinegary”,  “rancid”, “muddy”, “musty”, “metallic”, “wicker”, “vegetation water” and “blurry”.

Our heads are spinning and although we are fully concentrated on what he is explaining, it is impossible to remember everything. During the whole time we continue to taste the different oils. Between one sip and another we are recommended to eat a piece of apple (this is what they were for!), because they neutralize the taste in the mouth permitting to continue the tasting. After each test the expert asks for our impressions, but he is good to us because he nearly always puts the right words into our mouths. When he remains in silence and waits for an answer from our side which seldom comes, it is clear that we are genuine beginners. On the other hand it is not easy to familiarize with the different qualities and the   terminology of the experts, the tasting needs to be learnt and requires time and patience. At the end of the lesson we are completely satisfied. We know more than before and feel – at least a little – like real olive oil experts. (Extracted from Athena’s Gift, Anneliese Rabl)

Anneliese Rabl …. finding a life in Tuscany

Posted in Autumn, Categoria 4 | 2 Comments

Olive oil – precious gift?

I certainly would not describe the story between olive oil and me as love at first sight. In fact, my first  “contact” with it was in Tunisia, many years ago. It was used for frying fish, vegetables and who knows what else, during the barbecues organized by our tourist village.  Maybe it was the cheerful and relaxing surroundings, the young people who came from all parts of the world or the heat and the peaceful atmosphere, but it seemed that along with our hunger we could also satisfy our need for adventure, to break rules and to escape at least for a little while and feel really free. Looking back, these are the only possible reasons for being so happy and why none of us raised any objection to the quality of the olive oil used for frying. I chose the word “contact” at the beginning of the paragraph with care because neither the word “taste” nor “smell” can describe what reached us and what brought me to cancel the words “olive oil” completely from my vocabulary.

Ten years later, when I moved to Tuscany, I continued to refuse the terrible smelling olive oil  and was firmly convinced that nothing, absolutely nothing could replace butter, this delicate, sweet-smelling condiment, an institution and one of the most important supports in my life – from the gastronomic point of view. I have had the privilege of enjoying it in all imaginable ways: dewy, made from fresh, non-pasteurised milk, from cream, snow-white, yellow-golden, salted, richly decorated, mixed with curd and flavoured with fresh aromatic herbs. To dress my salad I used sunflower oil, because its flavour is neutral and does not hide the taste of salads and vegetables. This idyll came to an end  when I stopped smoking. I don’t know why, but from that moment on I started to eat olives, preferably brined, but also in oil or vinegar, although I still continued to make my salad dressing with sunflower oil.

For days, months and years I passed dozens of olive trees every day without noticing them. Then, one day, the parents of a girl who went to school with my daughter proudly gave me a bottle of olive oil made exclusively with the olives from their own olive grove and harvested by them. I still remember that I gave it away, not to undervalue the gift but because I would not have appreciated it as it deserved. Two years later, I received the same gift from another friend: bright green, spicy, aromatic, cold pressed, extra virgin olive oil, from olives harvested by hand and processed the same day (!). The benefactor had lunch with us and because I did not want to be impolite, I dressed the salad with his olive oil. My daughter has always loved it and as I was getting tired of preparing our salads and boiled vegetables with two different kinds of oil I started to use only olive oil.   In this way I slowly got used to it and some weeks later, when I happened to use sunflower oil I no longer liked it.

Then, one fine day, friends gave me the possibility of taking part in an olive harvest lasting eight Sundays and I  certainly did not say no. For me, it was like diving into freezing water on a hot summer day:  shocking, breathtaking, but after the initial impact refreshing and very enjoyable. The experience made my life richer – I was in fact supplied with a whole year’s stock of first class olive oil – and I got to know the world of the olive oil producers, who love their olives almost like their own children and defend and protect their oil in the same passionate, warlike, proud, stubborn and patriotic way they do with their favourite soccer team. (Extracted from “Athena’s Gift, Anneliese Rabl)

Anneliese Rabl …. finding a life in Tuscany

Posted in Autumn, Categoria 4 | 5 Comments

A fulfilling experience

My grandmother’s garden had always been populated with all sorts of flowers, wisely planted in order to enjoy their blooming alternately for nearly the whole year. For a long time, due to my travelling from one country to the other, the ups and downs of life and mostly the lack of space, I was happy with bunches of flowers and some rare pot plant now and then, never giving up, however, the dream of my own garden, one day. Then, I moved to a small house in the countryside with still no garden, but a terrace and stairs, large and long enough to keep a dozen of long boxes and pots.

I wasn’t sure whether the place was suitable for the flowers I wanted to grow, if there was sufficient, but not too much sun and no water shortage in July/August. Everything turned out to be perfect and it was fantastic to see around my house lots of shining columbines, dahlias,  marguerites, marigolds, nasturtiums, pinks and snapdragons  from spring to late summer already this very first year.

Obviously I preserved the seeds  and the following spring, once spread without any growing plan, I passed my time observing tiny greens sprouting and turning into healthy, strong, blooming flowers. A fulfilling and stunning experience!

Spoilt by the success of my project and the intense colors making my meals on the terrace even more enjoyable, I was wondering how I could extend this great pleasure. That’s when the completely forgotten zinnia seeds I had bought the year before returned into my mind. It was August, surely too late to sow them. May/June would have been the right moment and everybody, in fact, dissuaded me from my idea. I decided to give it a try anyway and after a few weeks the soft, superlight seeds had turned into ninety centimeter tall, strong plants with plenty of buds ready to open and show the well protected inside. By now it was early October and grateful for the warm temperatures, I moved the pots every morning and afternoon to the sunniest spots letting the stems, leaves and buds absorb the heat from each and every sun beam I could get hold of. Every day, I walked down the stairs welcoming and caressing the plants gently. One by one, the heads opened and transformed the terracotta stairs into a flourishing paradise. While the autumn season was just about to paint everything with brown, red and yellow tints, the zinnias where shining in gaudy summer-orange, white and shades of pink.

November has brought the first chill, rain and little sun, but my zinnias are still standing bright and proud. I can feel them whispering “Thanks for loving us” and then, but I’m not sure “… but would you  mind sowing us a little earlier next year?” I definitely will!

Anneliese Rabl …. finding a life in Tuscany

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Exploring Cinque Terre

It’s true…I’m trying to find a life in Tuscany, but Liguria is right around the corner yet for years I have not got around to traveling to the Cinque Terre. The visit of a dear friend, two spare days and fantastic weather helped me to make that decision. And so, finally, we made the leap to our neighbor’s province. The part of Tuscany where I live is not so different from Liguria and only when we saw the road sign “Liguria” we realized that we had actually crossed the border.

Before taking the corner and driving up on the right side towards Cinque Terre, we had a beautiful view of La Spezia, a busy town with a harbor filled up with boats and military ships. After a further ten minutes, whilst we were trying to figure out how we could see the sea on our left and not on our right,

all of a sudden, we noticed a huge blue, sparkling surface  between bushes and trees – on our left! It was breath taking and I would have been perfectly happy to stop and shoot loads of photos right there but the Cinque Terre were waiting for us. It took us another twenty minutes or so, until we reached Riomaggiore, the first village where we were supposed to leave our car. We had in mind to walk to Manarola, to Corniglia and, strength and time permitting (it was 12.00 h when we arrived), towards Vernazza and Monterosso al Mare. At that point, we obviously did not know that the walk is ten kilometers long and the difference in height about six hundred meters. It needs at least five hours for one way! I suppose that we were blind and dazzled by the incredible beauty of the place and the stunning color of the sea. Over centuries, the inhabitants have patiently built paths, small houses and terraces on and along the harsh, steep landscape. Part of its charm is that you can’t reach the place by car but only by train, boat or trekking. Walking in the sun, fitting the rocky wall snugly on one side and trying to fight the fear and giddiness whilst looking down the cliff on the other, was a bold enterprise, but a little at a time we got use to it. After a two and a half hours walk in the middle of spectacular surroundings we reached a landslide which divides Manarola from Corniglia. By now it was afternoon and we decided to return to Riomaggiore (another two and a half hours!) and to organize another trip to Cinque Terre at a later date. Like a nose can’t appreciate more than three or four different fragrances at a time, our eyes were so fulfilled by the beauty we had seen that we would not have been able to actually “see” further splendor.

The “Five Lands” are a UNESCO World Heritage site and they truly deserve it.

To be continued…

Anneliese Rabl …. finding a life in Tuscany

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A perfect day

Early autumn makes you understand why Tuscany is blessed by God. The sight is clear, the 26° C day time temperature is very, very agreeable and 16° C at night are acceptable, too. One can still enjoy sun bathes and sleep without quilts. It’s the perfect mixture to smooth nerves stressed by weeks of unbearable heat. Italy, after all, is that one place you don’t want to miss in your life.

This time of the year is also the best moment to go to the sea. No noisy beaches burst by the blaring of radios. No publicity slogans shouted from loudspeakers on small boats crossing in front of the shore. No coastline  overcrowded by sun burned bodies generously anointed with sun oil. No umbrellas and deckchairs, sexy costumes, colorful hats and trendy sunglasses.

It is a completely different world where everything and everybody seems to have calmed down. People come just for the sake of enjoying the mild, sunny afternoons. The temperature is still warm enough to let you relax in the clear, clean water rich in oxygen: it’s like swimming in champagne! The aggressive sunbeams have turned into gentle caresses preparing our bodies (and souls) for the winter season. All stress is banished: one can show a well nourished belly, a couple of kilos overweight,  stretch marks or orange peel skin  without feeling guilty.

It is the most intimate and reassuring season of the year. Some just lay in the sand, without a towel, to feel one with nature and to catch even the last tiny little warmth coming from the sand. Couples walk hand in hand, the teenager’s courting is delicate and innocent. Joggers run for pure pleasure, beach volley crews play just for fun. Paradise must be like this!

The weather forecast is positive: we can probably enjoy this big gift from nature for the whole month. I’m definitely ready to go! Do you want a lift?

Anneliese Rabl …. finding a life in Tuscany

Posted in Autumn, Categoria 4 | 6 Comments

Farewell letter to the last cherry-tomato from my neighbour’s garden

Dear cherry tomato,

First of all thank you ever so much for having chosen my salad-dish for this year’s last summer appearance. It was a great pleasure for me and the main part of the Tuscans, or, better, the Italians, to have had your family bringing joy, flavor and color into our daily life, into sauces, stews, antipasti, summer salads, and and and… It is amazing how versatile you are!

We will all terribly miss your bright shiny red and your very special summer taste. The dark, cold and rainy season right behind the corner will be still darker, colder and rainier without you. Of course we won’t be without tomatoes, but the  winter qualities grown in greenhouses ripened without real warm summer sun just can’t cope with you; scanned tomatoes either.

My neighbour definitely wants your tasty and relish family in his garden next year, too. He has decided to keep an even larger spot ready for you.

We all hope that the winter season will pass quickly and look forward to welcome you again next year from late spring onwards.

Thanks again for having delighted our summer dishes for all these months!


Cherry tomato lovers

Anneliese Rabl …. finding a life in Tuscany

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Exploring Garfagnana: The Grotta del Vento

It wasn’t our intention to free climb, canoe, trekk or follow a mountain stream. We simply wanted to escape the terrible heat. Therefore, we decided to follow the main part of the Tuscan population who drive up to the Garfagnana region searching for more refreshing temperatures. Perfect.

I don’t remember if it was my idea to visit the Grotta del Vento or if the suggestion had come from my friends. It doesn’t really matter. We thought that in  the bowels of the earth the temperature would have been very, very agreeable and the place definitely interesting to visit. So off we went, towards Vergemoli (LU). The road  to the cave is situated in one of the harshest and wildest areas of the Apennine and Alpi Appuane

mountain ranges and more than once  they were so close that we feared to get literally buried under them. For me it was both fantastic and frightening and a couple of times I was just about to say “…guys, let’s go back! I can’t breathe”. But I did not want to be a spoilsport and finally we arrived, bought the tickets  and waited for our turn to visit the cave. The groups were divided by nations, or  languages, viz. Italians (the first to enter), then English speaking visitors and finally Germans, Swiss and Austrians. This enables the group leaders to talk in their language about the place giving the tourists the possibility to interact.

The “cave of the wind” is windy indeed and until we had not crossed a strong steel door it actually blew incredibly strong! Then we were in the middle of nowhere: a completely new, different, damp, dark and 10° C cold and – above all – narrow world. So narrow that we could not walk one next to the other but had to move in a line one behind each other. I don’t know if I would have managed to finish the one hour visit (there is a two and a three hour option, too) but after the third short interruption of the lightning, signal  that the next group was about to pass the steel door, made me realize that without light we would be completely in the darkest dark.

That’s   why I asked the operator behind us to lead me out and that’s why I can’t tell you anything more about the Grotta del Vento. I would appreciate some feedback from somebody more courageous than me…

Anneliese Rabl …. finding a life in Tuscany

Posted in Categoria 4, Summer | 2 Comments

Photo available from September 4 to September 11, 2011

Anneliese Rabl …. finding a life in Tuscany

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Photo available from August 29 to September 4, 2011

Anneliese Rabl …. finding a life in Tuscany

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Flowers in the morning dew: chicory

Anneliese Rabl …. finding a life in Tuscany

Posted in Categoria 4, Summer | 1 Comment