As you have probably noticed throughout my past thirteen posts about Italy, food and wine has been prominently present in our Italian experience.  This day was no different; it was all about olive oil and pasta.

The day began with a visit to Pruneti, an award-winning producer of organic extra-virgin olive oil.  Before tasting their olive oils, we were given a tour and shown how the olives are processed.

(For all pictures, click on the image to see full screen view.)

Some of the finest extra virgin olive oil in the world come from the Chianti region of Tuscany where Pruneti is located.  Having been in business for the past 150 years, they have figured out how to produce the best.  They are the only producer in the Chianti region that controls the entire olive-to-bottle process.  Their 3,500 trees produce about 70,000 liters of olive oil each fall. 

When you are shopping for olive oil, don’t be fooled by “Extra Virgin” on the label by assuming its good quality.  As our guide explained, labels do not indicate quality, because there is no industry regulation of label information.  Poor-quality olive oil has solvents in it, and unfiltered oil will age quicker.

If the label has “DOP” and “ICG” stamps on it, the oil has been inspected and certified that it is not a fake and comes from the Chianti region.  It still, however, does not indicate the taste quality.  The only way to make that determination is to smell and taste it.

For the best quality, the oil should not be kept any longer than eighteen months from when it was bottled, and it should not be stored in the refrigerator.  Store it in a dark, cool place instead. 

The oil should also smell fresh of vegetation and cut grass; and, not taste bitter.  If the oil tastes spicy, like black pepper, it is good quality oil and good for cooking.  Spiciness indicates the best quality; use the spiciest oil for heavier food, such as red meat, and lighter oil for lighter food, such as seafood.

Our guide also added that we shouldn’t waste good-quality oil by mixing it with balsamic vinegar for dipping in bread or on salads.  As a former bartender (years ago!), I would compare that to mixing top-shelf liquor with Coke or Sprite! 

A suggestion:  Use an affordable basic extra virgin olive oil for cooking, and a better-quality olive oil as a finishing oil to drizzle on top of your prepared dish.  Keep smaller bottles on hand to match with different types of food.  (In the U.S.A., a liter of olive oil priced around $25 is one, we were told, you can trust to be good quality.)

Back to that term, “Extra Virgin,” that means it’s the first pressing of olives with no added chemicals, usually cold pressed.  Pruneti picks their olives by hand, and then presses them within four hours of picking.  (Poor-quality oil is pressed 2-4 weeks after picking.)  The entire olive is pressed, and a centrifuge is used to separate the liquids from solids.  Another centrifuge then separates the oil from water and filters it—an important step, because unfiltered oil can ferment due to the sugars in water.

In earlier years, stone presses were used, but not any longer.  Over the past 50 years, the production process has changed dramatically.  Only machines are used now, because stone presses produce poor-quality oil.

The total process from beginning to end only takes about 35 minutes.  Quickness is the key to the best-quality oil.

Following our olive oil tasting, the group visited Cristina and her husband’s beautiful 1,000-year-old home in the Chianti countryside, for a cooking class and lunch. We first gathered on the terrace for a glass of Prosecco and bruschetta before moving to the kitchen to prepare lunch and learn how to make pasta.  To be perfectly honest, Bruce jumped right in while I just watched and took pictures. 

Lunch was fabulous, and the experience was a lot of fun!

Later in the afternoon, we visited the town of Greve, headquarters of the Chianti region for wine festivals.  On the day we were there, antiques and crafts were the feature of the day’s festival, instead.

We enjoyed exploring the town center, and it was wonderful being surrounded by locals—or at least Italians—rather than tourists, as we were in Florence.  Being in Greve was an authentically Italian experience, which I appreciated!

Coming up (later in the month): The Scenic Streets of Sienna