Beauty, culture, flavour and tradition. This month, Louis Labron-Johnson travels to one of Italy’s best-kept secrets, where he discovers Nudo olive oil, tastes great Italian wines and learns the local processes of the growth and manufacture of these ancient Roman staples…
Aspectacular region on the east coast of Italy, Le Marche has largely been ignored in favour of its more glamorous neighbour – Tuscany. The consequence? An unspoilt area of outstanding natural splendour where visitors can experience rural Italian life free from the trappings of tourism.
Le Marche is one of Italy’s finest and most fertile grape-and olive-growing regions. All across the countryside the hillocks are strewn with green, rust and amber vines and trees arranged in haphazard patchwork thickets.
Eight years ago, olive oil makers Jason and Cathy bought Rosalio, a farmhouse set within a 21-acre olive grove. Here, they conceived Nudo’s Adopt an olive tree programme, which enables you to adopt one of nearly 1,000 olive trees in their grove. Your tree will be cared for and flourish, and bi-annually you will be sent exquisite tins of olive oil – in spring pure, in autumn three tins of naturally flavoured oils with fresh lemons, basil, mandarins or garlic. Tasting olive oil from your own tree many miles away on a hillside in Italy has a genuine romance to it – many ‘tree parents’ like to visit their adoptees, and Jason and Cathy are always more than happy to oblige.
Tasting the oil is an art in itself, and Barbara Alfei – chief oil taster in Le Marche – is Michelangelo. Barbara demonstrates how to determine the properties of the oil: pour a little oil into a receptacle, and warm in your hands for a minute. Smell the oil and try to detect aromas – is there artichoke there, a hint of apple? Take a small sip, and roll the oil around your mouth, then take short, sharp breaths through clenched teeth to aspirate the oil. There should be a peppery kick at the back of your throat, offset by bitterness at the front: A fine oil will have the perfect balance between peppery, bitter, fresh and pungent properties.
The Art of Making Olive Oil
Italians have been making olive oil for centuries – it’s in their blood. But in the Corradini olive press in the tiny village of Macina there are two camps with opposing views on how to extract the oil: the traditional way is favoured by the older generations, who crush the olives with huge granite wheels to make a paste, before smearing the paste on plastic mats. These mats are stacked in a press, causing the oil to dribble down. Unfortunately this method exposes the oil too much, causing it to oxidise and lose flavour. The mats are rarely washed; after several weeks the oil is dark and tar-like, and will never be of extra-virgin quality.
Recent innovations in the craft have led to a new type of centrifuge system, where more olives can be pressed rapidly in a controlled environment, resulting in much fresher, purer oil. In a series of stainless steel machines that snake around a large warehouse, the Marchetti olives are washed then crushed in a granite press. At this point Nudo may add fresh lemons, basil or mandarins.
The oil, water and pulp seep out together into a cylindrical machine that spins incredibly fast, causing the components to separate due to their differing weights. They are slowly siphoned out individually and nothing is wasted: the extra virgin oil is bottled, the water used as fertiliser for fields, and the olive pulp and stones are sold to large companies, who chemically extract inferior ‘pomace’ oil from them.
At the height of the season, Corrado – the third-generation owner of the press – can spend days on end without sleep, as every grove-owner in the area brings him olives to press.
The Wine Country
Visiting local winemakers is fascinating, their passion and knowledge of the land and its produce inspiring: in Osimo, Umani Ronchi create superb whites from Verdicchio and Trebbiano grapes, and reds mainly from Montepulciano, aged in steel or ornate oak casks in a cellar burrowed into a hillside.
In Cossignano, at the Fiorano Agriturismo, organic wine and olive oil producer Paolo – one of the first collaborators in Nudo’s Adopt an Olive Tree programme – talks animatedly about his vineyards and groves, where each grapevine or olive tree is planted in a particular spot. The differing levels of acidity in the soil, as well as elevation and gradient of land are all significant to the outcome of the produce. The hardy olive trees can be placed on steep hills, whereas the delicate grapevines are cloistered in the shelter of the valley.
With its hills and valleys, mountains and beaches, fantastic food and fine wines, Le Marche is a region begging to be devoured. People here know how to live – contented, serene and well-fed – making Le Marche the perfect destination for culinary discovery, a relaxing jaunt or a visit to your Nudo olive tree. Get there before the travel agents do.