Archive | January, 2013

Making Olive Oil the Traditional Way

The Olives Go Into the Hopper

The Olives Go Into the Hopper

In Tuscany (and much of the rest of Italy) quality olive oil all starts the same way: The olive grower spreads a silken parachute around the base of the olive tree, rests a ladder against the branches, and then climbs up into the tree and picks the olives, by hand. What’s next? The press, ideally as quickly as possible, because, as Francesco Nardi of the Azienda Agricola Il Cavallone, which has about 1700 olive trees in the hills downriver from Florence, points out, the olives start to deteriorate the moment they’re picked.

Regardless of the kind of press, the first step is to put the olives in a hopper that will start them on their journey through the system. The paths are quite different, however, for olives that go through modern industrial presses, and those that go through traditional presses. Francesco’s press dates to the 1930s, and is one of the oldest still operating in Tuscany.

And From the Hopper to the Grinder

And From the Hopper to the Grinder

Traditional olive presses employ millstones to grind the olives, reducing them to a paste from which the oil can be extracted. Unlike the millstones of a flour mill, which are horizontally mounted, with one turning atop the other, the millstones of an olive press are vertically mounted and rotate in a tub, crushing the olives against the floor of the tub.

The Millstones Grind the Olives to a Paste

The Millstones Grind the Olives to a Paste

The grindstones of Francesco’s press are made of granite, about 4 feet in diameter, and a bit more than a foot thick. They weigh about 1.5 metric tons each, and are turned by an electric motor. The paste is ready for the next step when it becomes oily, Francesco says. It takes about a half hour of grinding to reach this stage.

The Paste is Spread on Mats called Fiscole

The Paste is Spread on Mats called Fiscole

The paste goes into a second tub called the gramolatrice, where it is stirred by several rotating paddles. The stirring breaks up the water-oil emulsion derived from the grinding process, and thus forms droplets of oil that can be more easily extracted from the paste during the subsequent pressing. Again, the stirring phase takes about a half hour.
When it’s done, Francesco’s assistant puts the paste onto round pads called Fiscoli, which he stacks in the press. About a kilo (2 1/4) pounds of paste per pad, and Francesco’s assistant stacks the pads in sets of five in the press, separating each 5-pad stack with a steel plate.
It’s impossible to get all of the olive oil residue out of the Fiscoli, and since it would become rancid from one year to the next Francesco repurchases them every year, from an outfit in Perugia. In the past they would have been produced on the farm, probably from hemp.

The Fiscole are Stacked in the Press

The Fiscole are Stacked in the Press

The fiscoli, with their layers of olive pasted, are stacked in the press, in five-pad stacks separated by steel plates.

Loading the press takes 45 minutes to an hour, and by the time the press is half loaded the weight of the stack is already pressing oil from the lowermost disks.
And this brings up an important point: One of the things one often hears now from olive oil producers is how important it is to keep the oil from oxidizing. In fact, some modern presses are pressurized with nitrogen (an inert gas) to keep oxygen from reaching the olives as they are ground and the resultant paste is stirred. No oxidation, they say, makes for better oil.

However, Sandro Bosticco, an expert olive oil taster, tells me that the situation isn’t quite that simple. While it’s true that exposure to oxygen leads to deterioration, exposure to oxygen during the grinding and gramolatura phases appears to promote the development of the compounds that give olive oil its distinctive (and captivating) aromas.

The Press, Ready to Go

The Press, Ready to Go

Therefore, what one wants is to strike a balance — some exposure to oxygen during the pressing, but not too much. And as little exposure as possible subsequently.

With the press stacked — this volume of olive paste will yield 25-30 kilos, or a bit more than 30 liters (30 quarts) of oil) — Francesco turns on the hydraulics, and the floor of the press begins to rise, pressing the pads against the top of the press.

An Oil and Water Slurry Drains from the Press...

An Oil and Water Slurry Drains from the Press…

Oil begins to drip down the sides of the stack, collecting in a trough at the base of the press, from whence it drains into a holding tank.

A Pressure of 400 Atmospheres

A Pressure of 400 Atmospheres

Olive presses squeeze hard. This isn’t wine making, where one hears about soft pressing and people wince at the idea of more than two atmospheres. Rather, the press cranks up to 400 atmospheres (400 k/square cm, close to 900 pounds) and maintains that pressure by continuing to lift the floor of the press as the oil seeps out. It takes about a half hour to press the stack, after which Frencesco’s assistant releases the pressure, removes the pressed paste (it goes back to the olive groves) and starts the cycle anew.

The Slurry From The Press Needs Filtering...

The Slurry From The Press Needs Filtering…

The oil that emerges from the press is anything but pure — there’s still quite a bit of solid matter in it, and also a fair amount of water. So Francesco pumps it though two settling tanks, where some of the solid material settles out, and them into a centrifuge that separates the water from the oil.

Like the rest of his equipment, it dates to the 30s and as such was one of the first generation of centrifuges used to separate the oil from the water. Before then they used a longer succession of settling tanks to remove solid matter, and then a special terracotta urn with a siphon — since water is heavier than oil it settles, and then the weight of the oil forces it up and out through the siphon.

Using a centrifuge is of course both easier and much faster, and since we are by now at the stage when it is important to limit exposure to oxygen, the introduction of the centrifuge resulted in a dramatic increase in the quality of the oil.

Newly Pressed Oil, Fresh From the Centrifuge...

Newly Pressed Oil, Fresh From the Centrifuge…

And here we have it! Francesco Nardi’s traditionally pressed olive oil!

How Olive Oil is Pressed in a Modern Press
Andar Per Olio, About Olive Oil, and Purchasing & Storing It


How Olive Oil is Made, Using a Modern Press

Pressing Olive Oil: Strip the Olives from The Tree By Hand...

Pressing Olive Oil: Strip the Olives from The Tree By Hand…

Come November, if you take a drive out into the countryside in Tuscany or the other Central Italian regions, you’ll see people — in this case Adriano Martini, who has 150 trees in the town of Impruneta — climbing up into the olive trees to strip away the ripe olives with gloved hands.

The Olives Fall to Parachutes Tied Around the Trees

The Olives Fall to Parachutes Tied Around the Trees

It’s much easier to let the olives drop onto a parachute spread around the tree than it would be to put them directly into baskets.

There are Lots of Leaves and Sticks...

There are Lots of Leaves and Sticks…

Picking the olives also brings down quite a few leaves and twigs, as many as possible of which get discarded at this point.

Storing the Olives Prior To Taking them To The Press

Storing the Olives Prior To Taking them To The Press

Those who can take the olives straight to the press upon picking them. Since Adriano has another job — the trees are on his land — this isn’t feasible, and he spreads them out on rush mats, which allow air to circulate better than the boxes some other pickers use would.

Dropping the Olives into the Hopper

Dropping the Olives into the Hopper

There are two kinds of presses in Tuscany: Traditional, which grind the olives to a paste with upright millwheels, and modern, which crush the olives mechanically in a drum. Adriano has bagged his olives and taken them to a modern press, where he is now putting them in the hopper.

The Olives Go Up the Conveyor Belt...

The Olives Go Up the Conveyor Belt…

From the hopper the olives go up a small conveyor belt and drop through a spray of water, which washes them.

And Are Then Separated From Stones & Joss...

And Are Then Separated From Stones & Joss…

After washing, the olives roll along a vibrating strainer: Leaves, twigs, and stones fall through the bars while the clean olives go on to the press.

The Olive Paste is Mixed...

The Olive Paste is Mixed…

The crusher is a featureless horizontal drum; the olives enter, and emerge as a rich brown paste.

Olive Oil Fresh from the Press!

Olive Oil Fresh from the Press!

In the past people spread the paste over straw mats, stacked the mats, and pressed the stack to extract the oil; while the process is quite photogenic, it also exposes the oil to the air, and this results in oxidation and loss of quality. So most modern presses use centrifuges, which are again drums — vertical this time — that separate the olive oil from the paste. Less photogenic, but oxidation is greatly reduced.

Adriano, with a Dama of Freshly Pressed Olive Oil: Straight to the Consumer!

Adriano, with a Dama of Freshly Pressed Olive Oil: Straight to the Consumer!

The Finished Oil, Direct to the Consumer!
Adriano, with a Dama (5 liters) of freshly pressed Extravirgin Olive Oil

How Olive Oil is Pressed in a Traditional Press
Andar Per Olio, About Olive Oil, and Purchasing & Storing It

Chocolate Covered Citrus Peel, Scorzette D’Agrumi Con La Cioccolata

Scorzette, Chocolate Covered Candied Orange Peel

Scorzette, Chocolate Covered Candied Orange Peel


The bitter sweetness of dark chocolate combines delightfully with the tangy sweetness of candied orange and lemon peel, and these chocolates are wonderful as snacks. They are also very nice at the end of a substantial meal, giving those who would be prostrated by a richer dessert a tasty alternative.

They’re easy to make, too, and therefore are an ideal stocking stuffer. Just make a lot, and don’t nibble, because if you do you won’t stuff many stockings. To serve (optimistically) 8:

  •  1 large organically grown, fairly thick-skinned orange
  • 2 large organically grown lemons
  • 2 3/4 cup (600 g) sugar
  • 1/3 pound (150 g) baking chocolate

Wash the fruit and dry it. Cut the orange into 8 sections and remove the skin from the sections without tearing it. Eat the orange (if you want). Peel the lemons the same way. You will now have 24 sections of citrus peel. Cut each one lengthwise into three thinner strips; you can, if you want, also trim away and discard some of the white pith to the inside of the strips.

Put the strips in a small pot with cold water to cover, and bring them to a boil over a brisk flame. Boil them for 30 seconds, and drain them, discarding the water, which will be bitter.

Set the sugar to heat in a saucepan with one cup of water. Stir as it dissolves, and once it has dissolved let it come to a boil without stirring further. When it has become transparent, reduce the heat to a simmer and add the citrus peels. Simmer another 30 seconds without stirring, turn off the burner, and let the peels steep in the syrup for at least 6 hours.

When the time is up, cover a dish with a sheet of aluminum foil. Remove the skin that will have formed on the syrup without stirring the syrup, and remove the strips of peel one at a time, letting them drip dry and putting them on the foil.

Shred the chocolate and heat it over a double boiler. When it is well melted and creamy, dip the strips a bit more than half way into it, it one at a time, and return them to the aluminum foil to cool. When they have cooled transfer them to a more elegant dish and serve.



Fegato alla Veneziana, Venetian Style Liver

Fegato alla Veneziana, Venetian Style Liver

Fegato alla Veneziana, Venetian Style Liver

Fegato alla Venziana, finely sliced liver with gently stewed onions, is one of the most classic Venetian dishes, and even those who do not usually like liver have been known to enjoy it.

To serve 4:

  • 7/8 pound (400 g) veal liver, ideally from a young animal, sliced thinly (2 mm, or about 1/8 inch)
  • 7/8 pound onions, peeled and finely sliced
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • A little broth or unsalted bouillon
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1/3 cup finely minced parsley
  • The juice from half a lemon (optional)

Heat the oil and butter in a fairly deep skillet over a low flame and gently cook the onions, covered, for about 40 minutes; you want to wilt and cook them without coloring them, so be careful not to set the flame too high. Check them occasionally, and should they be drying out add a tablespoon or two of broth.

When the time is up increase the flame to color the onions lightly, and when they are lightly golden raise the flame again and add the liver. Cook quickly, gently mixing and turning the liver slices, for about 3 1/2 minutes. Salt to taste, cook another 30-40 seconds, and turn the fegato alla veneziana out onto a heated serving dish.

Season liberally with freshly grated pepper, dust with the finely chopped parsley, and season, if you like, with lemon juice. Serve at once with a creamy polenta or mashed potatoes.


  • Some marinate the finely sliced liver in cold water acidulated with 1/4 cup vinegar, or in milk, for 2 hours before cooking it.
  • Others use just butter, and no olive oil.
  • Others add a quarter cup of broth, meat sauce, or white wine to the pot when they add the liver
  • Others add t tablespoons of heavy cream when they add the liver.


Thinking about Brodetto: The Costa Romagnola’s Signature Dish

Pellegrino Artusi, the great 19th century cookbook author, mentions Brodetto in passing in La Scienza in Cucina e L’Arte di Mangiar Bene, but not to give the recipe. Rather, he was peeved by the variability of the Italian spoken in his day:

Cacciucco! Let me say something about this word, which is probably not understood except in Tuscany and along the Tyrrhenian coast, since the word brodetto takes its place in the towns along the Adriatic. In Florence, on the other hand, brodetto is an egg soup served at Easter, made by crumbling bread in broth and thickening the mixture with beaten eggs and lemon juice. The confusion between these and other similar sounding words from province to province in Italy is so bad that it wouldn’t take much to make a second Babel.

“Now that our country is unified, the unification of spoken Italian, which few promote and many hinder, perhaps because of misplaced pride, or perhaps because they are comfortable with their dialects, seems to me a logical consequence.”

He was of course right about the linguistic confusion; a study carried out in 1870 estimated that only 5% of the people then living in Italy spoke Italian — everyone else spoke dialect of one sort or another, and even today, with the unifying effects of television, you can meet people of the elder generation who are much more comfortable speaking what they spoke with their grandparents than they are speaking modern Italian.

And why, you wonder, doesn’t Artusi give a recipe for brodetto? He was after all from Romagna and grew up not far from the Adriatic. The answer, not to mince words, is that it was poor people’s food, what the fishermen made on the boats from fish with little market value, and their wives, who peddled the catch, made at home from what hadn’t sold, and Artusi was writing for a middle class audience that would have sneered at it (cacciucco enjoyed greater repute).

Times have changed, however, and now modern Italians who live along the Riviera Romagnola (the Adriatic coast north and south of Rimini) are developing an interest for the dish. Not that this makes finding a true brodetto in one of the Riviera’s many restaurants any easier, because true brodetto is shockingly simple, and restaurant cooks (and many home cooks) find the temptation to jazz it up irresistible.

Simply put, the first rule for making brodetto is that the fish must be absolutely fresh. Small, spiny, ugly, doesn’t matter — it has to be flavorful and fresh. Thawed won’t work, nor will something taken off the boat yesterday morning.

The second rule is that the fish should be local; the fish that go into brodetto vary from town to town along the Riviera Romagnola, but include (among others): Cuttlefish, gray mullet, reef mullet, mackerel, bogue, striped mullet, mantis shrimps (when in season, and some purists shudder at them), crabs, and sole. If possible the fish should be washed in sea water, but you should only do this if you know your water is uncontaminated.

Mussels and clams can go into a brodetto, but often do not (family members not on the boats or selling the fish used to gather clams on the beaches to make clam stew), while scampi and other more prized crustaceans would never have gone into a traditional brodetto — they’d have been sold.

Likewise, a traditional brodetto would not have contained anything exotic, or that had to be shipped in. One thing the fishing families did do to increase the flavor of their brodetto was to gather the heads of the fish they sold, boil them separately, and add the resulting rich broth to the brodetto pot.

Spicing and seasoning? It varied from town to town, but was simple, as the fishing families had to barter with farmers for herbs: Olive oil was a constant, and one could also find onions, garlic, parsley, vinegar (often substituted for by dry white wine), a little salt, and abundant freshly ground pepper. Tomato paste and tomato sauce (used sparingly) didn’t appear until the mid-late 1800s, and the use of hot pepper is even more recent.

Cooking vessels and times? Tradition dictates one use a low-sided broad round terracotta pot, and a gentle flame; Metal will of course also work, but will transmit the heat faster. As is the case with all mixed fish stews one adds the fish to the pot in succession, first the kinds that cook slowly and the larger pieces, and then smaller pieces and quickly cooking fish. Total cooking time will be a half hour or more.

Finally, serving: Romagnoli generally serve brodetto over slices of toasted bread that do a beautiful job of soaking up the drippings, and accompany it with Sangiovese di Romagna, a light lively red wine. The other option I might consider for a wine would be Trebbiano di Romagna, which is just as light and lively.

Some Recipes: