It is illegal to cut down an olive tree in Tuscany without a permit. That’s not to say that there are thousands of Giovanni Appleseeds in jail in Florence. If you do cut down an olive tree, you have to plant another one to replace it. The law is a product of the last century, but the idea isn’t new; there have been laws regulating olive trees since Hammurabi ruled Babylon nearly 4,000 years ago.
Part of what makes Tuscany so charming to us visitors is that the countryside looks pretty much like it did 400 years ago. The landscape is still all rolling hills topped with fortified castles that overlook forests, vineyards, and groves of olive trees. The castles used to house nobility that maintained small armies to protect the local peasants from marauding soldiers (for a price, naturally). Today many of the castles are still private residences, but the main industry has shifted from war to agriculture. The primary products are wine and olive oil.
Olive oil isn’t a cash crop in Tuscany.
Many Tuscan olive oil producers lose money on their oil. The yield at Castello di Cacchiano, an estate near Siena in Tuscany, is about fifteen pounds of olives per tree, which translates into less than a liter of oil per tree. On average, they’ll get about 4,000 liters—or 8,000 bottles— of extra virgin olive oil from the grove of about 5,000 trees. By contrast, in the South of Italy yields can be as high as 440 pounds of olives per tree. The bigger Southern yields are the product of warmer temperatures, which let the olive trees—and the types of olives they produce—grow to be bigger. By the time you get as far north as Tuscany, the occasional hard frost every 30 years or so kills off most trees before they get to be so large. (By the way, the last hard frost in Tuscany was in 1985—so the next one is statistically due to happen any time now.)
If they could, many Tuscan landowners would chop down their olive groves to plant vineyards. The wine they produce—especially in more famous regions like Chianti, where Castello di Cacchiano is located—is a real breadwinner. But since it’s illegal to remove the olive trees, they keep on producing oil each year, and we get to reap the benefits.
Tuscan oil is at its best right now.
Olives ripen and are harvested in the late fall, generally from October to December, just as they start turning from green (unripe) to black (ripe) on the tree. Once the olives are picked, they’re pressed into oil right away. The fresh oil is stored in casks for a few months to let any leftover bits of olives or other sediment sink to the bottom. That way, when Cacchiano olive oil is bottled in the spring, they can do so without filtering it. We get our first shipment of the new oil each year in May, imported directly from the estate. Our newest bottles arrived to our warehouse just a few weeks ago.
Just like different vintages of wine vary, olive oils are different from year to year based on weather and other changing conditions. But unlike wine, olive oil does not get better with age. Fresher olive oil has bolder, more vibrant flavors. As olive oil ages, it mellows. After a few years, it will go rancid—but you’ll be done with your bottle long before that happens so there’s no need to worry.
Each May, after leaving the estates and sailing across the Atlantic, the new harvest of oils is delivered to our warehouse. The day they arrive is a little like our Christmas morning: we know what we asked for but we don’t know exactly what we’re going to get, and we can’t wait to open all the packaging to find out. This year’s Cacchiano is just what we hoped for.
This year’s Cacchiano olive oil is powerful.
We cracked open a bottle as soon as our container was unloaded and the aroma was so grassy that someone described it as smelling like “fresh cut lawns in the suburbs on a Sunday.” It has bitter notes like unripe walnuts and green bananas. At the end there’s a slow-building, strong, peppery kick that tingles down your throat long after you finish.
Oils from different places have different flavors. There are all sorts of reasons for that, including the type of olives grown, the ripeness of the olives when they’re picked, and the way the olives are handled as they’re turned into oil. Different regions tend to favor different qualities. Oils from Liguria in Northern Italy are appreciated for their delicate flavors that make them great for making pesto or pouring on fish (Liguria being the Italian riviera). In Provence in Southern France, olives are often left to ferment a bit before pressing them in order to develop a rich, buttery flavor in the oil. But in Tuscany, bold, peppery flavors are king. Those flavors are at their boldest right now, while the oil is young.
Tuscan food isn’t so different from what we eat in the midwest.
Tuscany is the heartland of Italy, and their food is relatively simple. They eat a lot of bread and a lot of vegetables. They also really love their steak, grilled to a perfect al sangue (literally, bloody) rare. A strong oil like Cacchiano is the perfect match for the flavors of fresh summer produce and a juicy hunk of beef.
Cook up a taste of Tuscany at home with good oil in five classic Tuscan dishes.
1. Fettunta: toasted bread with plenty of olive oil poured on top. Think bruschetta without the tomatoes.
2. Panzanella: leftover bread tossed with tomatoes and other vegetables, then soaked with good vinegar and olive oil.
3. Zuppa di fagioli alla Toscana: thick soup made of beans, salt, pepper, garlic, and a hefty glug of olive oil.
4. Pasta al pomodoro: pasta cooked al dente, then tossed with a generous amount olive oil, garlic, tomatoes, and basil.
5. Bistecca alla Fiorentina: grilled T-bone steak served with olive oil and a squeeze of lemon.