Our "Virgin Territory in the Kitchen" is kind of nostalgic this time. As the northern hemisphere kicks off the early EVOO harvest in this curious 2020, Nancy reflects on their special traditions in Tuscany, a place where she cannot be in this pandemic year.
By Nancy Harmon Jenkins for Women In Olive Oil (text and photos)
It is late September and I am seriously missing Italy.
Ordinarily by now I would be at my farmlet in the hills of eastern Tuscany, dragging out from the cantina all the attrezzatura of the olive harvest—the wooden ladders, the plastic rakes and the crates for hauling olives to the mill, the woven willow baskets that we still insist on using, roping them around a harvester’s waist to leave her hands free for picking. I would be rinsing out the big stainless steel fusti for the finished oil and setting them in the golden October sunlight to dry thoroughly; spreading the nets that go under the trees to insure no mice have done damage over the months since the last harvest; and making sure all the extra beds are made up, at our house and the neighbor’s, ready to welcome tired pickers who will be arriving from distant parts any day now.
Every year we fret: Do we have enough people to pick? Do we have too many? Does Gianfranco actually share a bed with his new flame or do they need separate quarters? And what about Amanda’s Dreadful Dog that eats any socks or shoes left lying about? If she insists on bringing him can we tie him up? And how are we going to feed them all? Do we need two demijohns of our robust local red or should we have three, just to be on the safe side? Last minute requests from vegans and gluten-free types are generally ignored: If your diet is special, bring it and cook it yourself.
But there will be plenty of wine, plenty of Tuscan snacks--fennel-flavored salumi, salty rustic prosciutto, and pecorino cheeses--plenty of wood for the fires and plenty of grappa for late-night conversations in front of the hearth. In all, it’s a time of tremendous joy and coming together, a blessing of friendship and the fruits of the land.
And plenty of food. I plan the menu for the four or five days of active picking, always starting the first day with zuppa frantoiana, a Tuscan olive harvest tradition, a robust soup made with equal quantities of dried borlotti beans and farro, served with lavish glugs of olive oil. At this point, of course, it’s still last year’s oil. The zuppa then progresses throughout the harvest. Next day lots of vegetables get added (especially Tuscany’s beloved, cavolo nero, kale) along with a big handful of pasta, and the soup is reborn as minestrone. And finally, on the third day, the zuppa rises once again as ribollita, an iconic dish of this Central Italian region. The name means “reboiled” but in fact at this point the zuppa is not boiled at all. After several days of reheating, it’s thick enough to be layered with thin slices of bread, piled up in an oven dish, the whole covered with thinly sliced onions and dribbled with oil, a little grated parmigiano or pecorino, and then put in a hot oven to bake and form a crust on top.
It’s a great way to keep your olive harvesters happy and full and coming back year after year, ready for another plate of ribollita, another glass of wine, another exhausting but fulfilling day in the oliveto.
But this year it’s different. This year my family and I are unwelcome anywhere in Europe because our U.S. government has been so incautious about the Corona Virus. This year someone else will harvest our modest estate and press the olives into rich green, pungent oil. That someone is Arnaldo, our trusted friend and neighbor, and he is welcome to it all. At least the product of our 150 trees will not go to waste. And perhaps he’ll be able to ship a few five-liter tins to us so we won’t miss everything.
And I? I look ahead to November, when, hopefully, those five-liter tins will arrive, just in time for Thanksgiving. We’ll pull the plugs and pour out the first fresh fragrance of new oil, we’ll inhale it and then taste it, and then toast slices of crusty bread, rub the surface with a cut clove of garlic, and liberally drench it with new oil. This is what Tuscans call fett’unta, the anointed slice, and it’s another age-old part of the traditions surrounding the harvest. It used to be that every frantoio, or olive mill, had a smoky fire burning on a hearth in a corner around which the old guys would sit, toasting bread, sampling oil, comparing notes, and remembering ancient harvests. That is no more, alas, presumably lost in a thicket of sanitation regulations, but folks still relish the seductive combination--the austerity of toasted bread with the lushness of fresh oil, garlic and a sprinkle of sea salt—just not in a place where olives are being turned into oil.
And maybe, when the new oil arrives, I’ll start a pot of zuppa frantoiana too—that would make a good meal on a chilly November day on the coast of Maine. It’s not Tuscany but it can still taste and smell as rich as a Tuscan olive harvest.
About the author: Nancy Harmon Jenkins is a food writer and journalist with a long list of publications to her credit, including books, magazines, and journalism. She divides her time between a home on the coast of Maine and an olive farm in the hills of eastern Tuscany. Nancy is the author of eight books about food, mostly about Italy and the Mediterranean, including Virgin Territory, recounting her experiences in the world of olive oil. She has been a staff writer for the New York Times food section, publications director of the American Institute of Wine & Food, and a founding director of Oldways Preservation Trust. Semi-retired, she is sitting out the pandemic in a small town in Maine and hoping to get back to Italy for this year’s olive harvest. https://nancyharmonjenkins.com/