Chasing nature’s elixir

Olives are one of the world’s most treasured fruits, and their unctuous product can only be described as an elixir from Mother Nature herself. Follow us on a journey to learn more about this fruit.

In a quest to better understand this marvelous fruit, I traveled through France and Italy to learn more about olives and what makes the olive oil produced there so different from Australian varieties.

Driving along the narrow olive tree-lined roads that wind their way up into the hills of Chianti, I reach the town of San Polo. Here it’s easy enough to find the home of award-winning olive oil producer Pruneti, located on the Via Dell’Oliveto, which translates to the “road of the olive grove.”

Tucked away in a corner of San Polo, the olive groves, which have been tended by the Pruneti family for more than four generations, sprawl across the land behind the mill, as far as the eye can see.

There are more than 30,000 olive trees and a further 10,000 trees currently being planted. These new trees will take around six years before they bear fruit worth harvesting. The olives here are typically harvested between mid-October and mid-December. The local climate and the dry, stony soil that provides ideal drainage for olive trees contribute to the unique character of the olives grown here and, ultimately, to an oil that boasts a complex bouquet of aromas and a distinct and intense flavor.

I met with Pruneti’s head of marketing, who has been with the organization for five years. Katy’s passion and knowledge about Pruneti oil were evident. She took me through a tasting of single-variety oils (monocultivars). My favorite was a robust, extra virgin olive oil produced entirely from green Frantoio olives. As a long-time aromatherapist and passionate cook, I’m no stranger to smelling, tasting, and describing aromas. This olive oil was reminiscent of artichoke and tomato vine, has a peppery, long-lasting taste, and would complement red meat or tuna. It won a gold medal at the New York International Olive Oil Competition (NYOOC) 2021.

The Pruneti brothers

According to brothers Gionni and Paolo, who took over the business in the 1990s, the success of Pruneti is the result of hard work, passion and knowledge passed down through the generations, as well as the drainage provided by the rocky landscape. Mother nature, of course, plays her role.

I was shown through the Pruneti production facility, where the equipment includes a state-of-the-art Pieralisi centrifuge (used to separate the oil from solids). It is one of only three such machines in the world. The speed, temperature, and separation time can be tailored to each batch of olives to maximize both flavor and antioxidant properties.

Catherine Cervasio and Matia Barciulli

Co-founder of the Magnifico Olive Oil Awards in 2013 and Italian television chef and passionate olive oil aficionado Matia Barciulli says that consumers need to be educated to make better choices when purchasing olive oil.

Olive oil needs to be protected from heat, light, and oxygen, and it needs to be purchased in an appropriately sized bottle. If you only use a little, buy a smaller bottle of oil. The harvest date is critical: an expiry date or “best before date” simply is not enough. Obtaining the most from high-quality olive oils is about proper storage in a cool dark place (or in a wine fridge) and ensuring the fruit is processed as close to harvest as possible, at a low temperature, then stored free of oxygen to maximize nutritional benefits and ensure a flavorful end product.

Matia is also the technical director of food and events for the Florentine Antinori Group, a family-owned business that has been producing wine for 26 generations. It is hard to believe, but this equates to six centuries of continuous production. Matia heads up the cooking school, with classes held at the Antinori country estate, Fonte de Medici. Situated in the heart of the Chianti wine region south of Florence, this delightful estate dates back to the 1400s. There is a free wellness center, an outdoor pool, and a traditional restaurant on site.

The Pieralisi centrifuge

I met Matia through a good friend who has lived nearby for over 20 years. He kindly invited me to join a private cooking class when I was in town. The cooking school experience allows food lovers to prepare, cook and taste regional Tuscan cuisine. That day’s menu was pollo alla cacciatora, handmade spinach and ricotta ravioli with butter and sage, and the traditional almond cantuccini biscuits. Olive oil features across the menus offered here (as does local wine), allowing Matia to educate guests on the importance of choosing high-quality olive oil.

In a world devoted to well-being, this golden oil, offering a myriad of health benefits, is a star. Consumers are now researching before they purchase and demanding transparency, armed with a greater understanding of the importance of origin, harvest, and storage. The tree of the most revered olive variety of Tuscany, the Frantoio, was even included in Oprah’s “Favorite Things” list of 2022. With a background in personal care product development, back home in Australia, I have sourced an award-winning Mornington Peninsula extra virgin olive oil, high in polyphenols, for use in an organic skincare collection.

Rich in healthy, monounsaturated fats, on the hot list of a global influencer, and with myriad culinary uses, olive oil is firmly in the spotlight. A recent Harvard study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology suggests that olive oil consumption, particularly when replacing butter, margarine, or mayonnaise, may be linked to a longer life span. What’s not to love?

Images provided by Catherine Cervasio