Pankaja Srinivasan follows the olive’s journey from old groves to the dining table.
It is one in the morning. It’s raining and the weather is cold. I am in Bari, the capital of Puglia in southeast Italy. I have been travelling for 24 hours and excitement and exhaustion are fighting for the upper hand. Just as my eyes concede defeat, the car swings to the left and slows down. Wide awake now, I see ghostly white buildings. Inside, rough-hewn walls shimmer in the light of big fat candles. Bunches of rusty keys hang on the walls. Yellowing parchments with spidery writing are set in glass frames. Here and there, great bowls of rock salt shine like crystals. I feel like I have wandered into Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose . As I climb a circular staircase and stumble into a corridor that seems to take off in all directions, I expect to bump into a friar in a cassock and a fringe.
The monastery is, actually, a very fancy hotel — Borgo Egnazia, in Fasano — a few miles from Bari. Built in the traditional style using locally quarried stone and quicklime, it is surrounded by olive groves. I soon find out that almost everything in Puglia is surrounded by olive trees.
But before that, I breakfast on luscious tomatoes, plump grapes, melons and fruits I am hard-pressed to name. Honey, preserves, and a basket of bread that arrives at the table along with coffee. A pretty little jar of olive oil is set down with a flourish. I sneak a glance at my neighbour and watch as he pours the oil onto his plate and mops it up with a piece of bread. I do the same. It tastes of sunshine, blue skies and freshly cut grass.
I then make my way to an olive grove belonging to the Pantaleo family. On the way are gnarled olive trees, some of them more than 100 years old.
The family is one of Italy’s leading producers and exporters and has been growing olives since 1890. Four thousand trees, their branches heavy with fruit, are ready for harvest. While olives are still handpicked in many areas, machines are used for an operation of this size. Two mechanical arms gently clasp the tree round its middle and then do a little shimmy. The olives fall on protective sheets below and are collected, sorted and sent off to be crushed or preserved. The earlier they reach the oil mills, the better; ideally within 12 to 24 hours.
I follow the olive to Pantaleo’s huge refinery. Machinery roars as impurities are washed off and the olives segregated and put through various processes before ending in shiny bottles that are tightly capped, sealed and packed into cartons ready for dispatch, but not before being tested, tasted, laboratory-checked and finally okayed. Pantaleo is among the top five olive oil exporters in Italy.
I fall in love with a darling oil mill-cum-shop in the medieval town of Ostuni. ‘Oleficio Cooperativo’, says a sign board. Twenty olive growers got together in 1959 and formed this co-operative that has more than 400 members today. They cultivate 3,800 hectares of land and produce 5,000 quintals of extra-virgin oil between them.
In a huge hall are big shiny drums filled with olives. They are sorted, cleaned, crushed and filtered. The shop sells jars of sun-dried tomato soaked in oil, pitted olives, olive oil infused with herbs, and pesto in various texture and hues. The thought of the long journey back home holds me back but I still pick up some exceptional produce.
The next destination is Corato, 35 km from Bari. At the Granoro pasta factory (it makes 140 varieties of pasta), 100-year-old Attilio Mastromauro still comes to work. In his youth, he hand made pasta. Today monstrous machines try to achieve the same taste and excellence in his factory that has a monstrous 300-tonne per day production capacity. Curtains of spaghetti in golden yellow swing past to be packed and dispatched to destinations around the world.
Pasta has a humble beginning. In olden days, when wheat fields were burnt down, the poor would take the residue, crush it and make pasta. Now chefs have turned it into fine food. After the tour of the factory, pasta experts answer questions about texture, colour, cooking methods and variations of the pasta. It is edifying and I can’t wait to get back home and spring a delicious Italian meal for family and friends. I have all the ingredients for it, picked up on the olive trail.
The writer was in Italy at the invitation of Dalmia Intercontinental that has tied up with Pantaleo.
The art of oil tasting
Luigi Caricato has written 31 books about olive oil and has not one word of English! Luigi introduces us to olive oil tasting. It is like wine tasting, Luigi says. Do not bother with the colour. That is no indication of the taste. That is why connoisseurs taste the oil in little blue glass thimbles so that the focus is on the taste, not the appearance.
As little glasses with a finger of oil is passed around for us to taste, Luigi says, “Ideally it should be body temperature.”
We warm the glasses between our palms to ‘wake up the molecules’. Sip, swill and wait are the instructions.
“What does it remind you of?” asks Luigi.
Bravo, I am right. Freshly cut grass it is.
Olive Oil in the kitchen
You can add vegetables such as zucchini, sweet bell peppers and perhaps lettuce, but you can just as easily make this salad with only small, sweet and tart cherry tomatoes.
Chop the tomatoes (Use regular ones if the cherry variety is not available). Chop or roughly crush a few pods of garlic. Add salt and tumble everything together with a splash of olive oil and fresh green basil. If you can get feta cheese, add that too. All you need to go with it is bread. Tear pieces off to scoop up the tomatoes. The best part is mopping up the juices at the bottom of the bowl. I did this many times when I was in Puglia, in South East Italy. Puglians are immensely proud of their region’s vegetables, fruits and of course, the famous olive oil.
I also learnt to make pesto. Rock salt, garlic and fresh basil go into a mortar. Add a handful of pine nuts (or walnuts). Then go crush, crush, crush with splashes of olive oil. Spoon in dollops of this green paste into the cooked pasta, grate some parmesan onto it, add some more olive oil, and you are ready to go.