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Matthew Fort: Ode to olive oil

Winter has settled in. Storm Arwen has come and gone. Storm Barra is breeding through. Other storms are on their way. The Omnicom variant has us in it implacable maw. The promise of travel to exotic places, sunshine and fun seem remote. Christmas is looming, and looking through my office window, the world looks unrelentingly gloomy. And yet … and yet -

Over there, standing on the dresser to one side of the kitchen is an emblem of hope, a testament to a season past, the promise of pleasures to come. It’s a bottle of the most precious elixir, something that breathes sunshine, solace and hope into the grimmest of prospects. 

The new season’s olive oil from my brother Johnny’s smallholding in the Monte Lucretili, the hills above Rome. To my mind, it is the finest olive oil ever produced - lucent, lambent, potent but elegant, muscular but refined, penetrating and seductive, with a shy, floral perfume. A delicate, herbal flavour - the peppery note reticent.

If there’s one ingredient that exemplifies the warm south, the sun-drenched food of the Mediterranean, it is olive oil. Olive oil is sunshine in liquid form. It’s history in a bottle. It’s agriculture and social culture and cooking culture all woven together. It’s happiness, joy and delight combined. It’s the memory of summers past, the promise of summers to come.

Until I discovered better, I assumed that the olives from which oil is made are picked by horny-handed sons and daughters of the soil beneath a blazing orb set in a sky of purest Adonis blue. 

Not a bit of it. This epitome of the Madre Mediterranea is actually gathered in at the height of winter, which, as my brother has been quick to remind me, is just as cold, wet and miserable as our own. In the Monte Lucretili, the olive harvest is taken in, by smallholders, like my brother and other families, between the start of November to the end of March. That is when the olives mature and ripen. 

The point at which you pick them rather depends on how you like your olive oil. Roughly speaking, the greener the olives, the less ripe they are, and the lighter, more elegant and better balanced the oil. The longer you leave the olives on the tree, the riper and blacker they grow, and stronger, the more peppery and punchy the oil becomes.

Some year ago I went out to help Johnny with the harvest in November. He subscribes to the early picking school. It was staggeringly hard work, and he drove us like a later day Stakhanov.  When the last olive was gathered in, we took the fruits of our labours to an establishment called the Oleficio Moderno in a nearby village. The Oleficio might have been moderno in about 1850, but it had a strange, oil-suffused beauty that more than compensated for the erratic nature of its technology. Brilliant winter light streamed through great windows at one end of the pressing room. Shafts of sunlight hung like bars of gold inside. Everything gleamed under the sultry gloss of oil. The air was heavy with the perfume of oil. It was as if we were swimming through an oily haze.

We had booked a slot during which our olives were supposed to be pressed, but the ancient machinery was prone to breaking down, and that meant that a process that should have taken an hour or so, in the end, took a day and a half, with a disorderly queue of trucks and trailers laden with olives picked by other families forming outside. Their irate owners came in to press their case as to why they should jump ahead of all the rest, particularly the English. 

Eventually, our precious cargo was tipped into the hopper that fed them into the maw of massive rotating wheels of Sardinian granite, to be crushed into gramolatura. The gramolatura was extruded onto circular hemp mats with a hole at the centre, ready for a tortuous journey through the presses, a maze of antique copper piping, filtration systems and the like. Finally, in a thin trickle, the virgin oil, viscous and green, gushed and gurgled into a jug held by the master presser

As I wrote of the freshly pressed oil at the time - ‘The oil is a murky greeny-gold, like molten grass. It moves with viscous elegance as the bottle tips up. A bubble of air eases away from the neck and moves slowly through the liquid mass as a fat dribble falls into a spoon held beneath the lip. It spills into the bowl of the spoon, filling it to the brim, above the brim. A slight curvature rises above the level of the bowl as the tight molecular structure braces the oil. The bright winter sunlight just catches the surface, causing it to gleam. A fresh, faint, sharp tang of coriander and tamarind catches the nostril. The taste is smooth and glossy, of cut wet grass with a hint of cumin. A brief burn of pepper ambushes the back of the tongue and top of the throat.’

The Oleficio Moderno closed down its antique presses some years ago, which was probably just as well for my brother’s sanity. Now his olives are processed in a state of the art unit in another village. It lacks the magic and romance of those earlier years, but, in all honesty, the quality of the oil is probably better. Certainly each time I splash a little on a salad, or even a slice of griddled bread, I fall under its spell again. The delicacy, the easy fatness, the luminous flavour, and, yes, the warmth and brilliance of sunnier days.

Matthew Fort is a renowned food writer and critic. He was a judge on the BBC’s Great British Menu for 15 years and was The Guardian’s food and drink editor for ten years. His great love affair with Italian gastronomy and culture has inspired three out of four of his books.