There is a hushed silence around the table. In turn, each member of the family drizzles a few drops of our just-pressed oil onto a piece of Tuscan bread, and tucks in. Finally, Michele’s dad breaks the silence: ‘è buono’. then a chorus breaks out. ‘Si, è buono’ ‘è buono’. It’s good. Never ones for overstatement, this is as high as their culinary praise gets. Once again, our oil is good. Better than good: fresh, fruity, peppery. It has been chemically analysed at the frantoio (press), so we’d no reason to doubt its quality, but the real proof is in the tasting.
Italians say olio nuovo, vino vecchio: new oil, old wine. Unlike wine, extra virgin olive oil does not improve with age. On the contrary, olio nuovo, the first oil of the season, is the most highly-prized. Made from still-green olives and consumed as soon as possible after pressing, it tastes so different from standard, stored, supermarket-bought olive oil that here it’s treated as a separate product. In Tuscany it’s honoured in feste (of course) and family feasts, and there’s a scramble to obtain some every November. Tuscan oil is known for its concentrated flavour, and new Tuscan oil, thick and dark with a strong, peppery flavour, packs a particular punch.
New, unfiltered oil has a cloudy appearance due to the tiny flecks of olive which are suspended in the liquid. After a couple of months, these settle, forming a sediment, which, by the time most commercial oil is bottled, has been removed. These flecks of fruit give new oil a freshness and intensity which is surprising to people (like me before I met Michele) who have only tasted bland supermarket oils and wondered what all the fuss was about.
The strong, grassy flavour of newly-pressed oil only lasts a few weeks before it starts to fade. That’s why it is not something to be rationed or saved for special occasions, but enjoyed for its ability to add depth to even the simplest meals. It deserves to be splashed liberally over salads, poured generously over steak, soaked up with soft bread. Its strong fruity flavour can make a wintry soup (such as the bean or farro soups typical of Lucca) or risotto sing. A piece of toasted bread, rubbed with a sliced garlic clove and topped with a glug of olio nuovo and a pinch of salt and pepper (known as fettunta in Tuscany), is a snack fit for the gods.
Storing oil properly (away from light and heat) does help it to retain its flavour, and it should last a couple of years, with oil made from unripe olives having a longer shelf-life. But Tuscans know that you never again get that same intense flavour hit, so come November, they enjoy it as often as they can.
Fettunta (Basic bruschetta)
Good quality bread
Extra virgin olive oil
Slice the bread into slices about 1.5 cm thick. Grill or toast the bread on both sides until it’s crunchy. Slice a garlic clove in two and rub over the hot bread. Drizzle with olive oil and add a generous sprinkling of salt and pepper.