In was October 18, 1971…the day I fell in love with Italy. My fate was sealed that crisp autumn morning when I went to harvest olives for the first time. The moment they strapped that woven willow basket around my waist, I couldn’t wait to ascend into those silvery branches. The olive harvest is a unique opportunity to participate in an autumnal ritual that is essential to Italy’s agrarian and culinary culture.
This week’s menu highlights the use of olive oil, exalts the flavors of the season and features some of the dishes you might find at an olive harvest feast.
Chef's Travel Notes
It was October 18, 1971 – the day I fell in love with Italy. We had met for the first time a few years earlier when I was 16 and had travelled to Rome for my brother’s ordination. It was overwhelming – I was intrigued and could not wait to return. But when I finally did go back, my fate was sealed that crisp autumn morning when I went to harvest olives for the first time! Something happened – the stars aligned, and I felt a connection that has only grown stronger through the years.
An olive harvest is one of the most fascinating experiences you can enjoy in Tuscany. Naturally, you learn a lot about the local wine and food traditions, but most importantly you connect with the local culture. The atmosphere of a working oil mill and the enthusiasm of olive farmers during the harvest season is something definitely unique.
I had never seen an olive tree up close before. It almost looked like something out of a fairy tale with its gnarly branches and nubby trunk. The moment they strapped that woven willow basket (cestello) around my waist, I couldn’t wait to ascend into its silvery branches. The tree offered no resistance, and it was easy to slide the olives gently down its thin branches. This was the old-fashioned method, the least invasive and least harmful to the tree. For the small local farmers, harvesting by hand becomes a family affair. Friends and relatives come to help, and these gatherings quickly become filled with warmth and great fun. There are lunches in the field and communal dinners after a hard day’s work.
When the olives are harvested, they are stored in loosely woven bags or open crates to allow for air flow. They need to be brought to the local mill (frantoio) within 24 hours. Often the farmers will stay there during the whole process to ensure that the oil they end up with is from their batch of olives. Back then, our olives were pressed with a massive old limestone millstone (pietra serena), but now, most oil is produced through a faster centrifuge and extraction method.
What a special moment it was to witness this ancient process and to taste that bright green first pressed, extra virgin olive oil. There was a fireplace in the corner of the mill where they grilled slices of bread that we then placed under the spigot of flowing “liquid gold.”
Unlike wine that must settle and age a little before consumption, olive oil can be enjoyed immediately. Newly pressed Tuscan oil has a characteristic powerful bite and you’ll feel a slight burn at the back of your throat. For me, that first taste set the bar for every olive oil that followed.
This week’s menu highlights the use of olive oil, exalts the flavors of the season and features some of the dishes you might find at an olive harvest. Insalata della Raccolta, Harvest Salad, is mixed greens of bitter radicchio, spicy arugula, and baby spinach, tossed with grapes, dried fruit, pine nuts and a light lemon EVOO dressing.
Zuppa Frantoiana – “Olive Mill Soup” is a minestrone of autumn vegetables, pancetta and borlotti beans. It is traditionally served at the harvest dinner as well as at the mill (frantoio) where new pungent oil is liberally poured over it.
Costicine di Maiale con Olive, braised pork ribs with olives and roasted potatoes is a Florentine dish frequently eaten at this time of year. It can be easily prepared in the morning and left to slowly cook while all hands are picking olives.
Torta d’Olio d’Oliva e Cioccolata is a very moist, dark chocolate cake made with olive oil in place of butter. Like most Tuscan desserts, it is usually served unadorned with a sprinkling of powdered sugar. We have added, instead, a dark chocolate ganache to enhance it even further.
Our featured wine this week, Tolaini Al Passo, is perfectly paired to our Tuscan harvest menu. The name of this Super Tuscan comes from the “passo” found in the circular forest at the highest point of the vineyard, site of an ancient Etruscan tomb. From there is a clear view of vineyard and olive groves for as far as the eye can see. This clearly has been a magical place for centuries, adding to the mystique of this wine.
The harvest of olives is the high point of the Tuscan year and is cause for celebrating throughout Italy. It is a unique opportunity to participate in an autumnal ritual that is essential to Italy’s agrarian and culinary culture. The harvest is a labor of true love…no wonder I am still smitten.