My Rouses Everyday, March | April 2018
Italy is a place that’s awash in folklore-tinged, food-related advice: Whiten your teeth with sage leaves. Use onion slices as an earache cure. My favorite, though, is of a more arborial bent: If you fall asleep under a fig tree, you’ll have nightmares, but if you fall asleep under an olive tree, you’ll dream.
Mystical (or unbelievable) as it may sound, olives have long been the fruit of visionaries and dreamers. Olives (and olive oil) are a treasure for those who find beauty in subtlety and in strength. Olives are a thimble-sized fruit with a seemingly limitless ability to please. They are essential ingredients for those who celebrate how the simplest of pleasures can also be the most storied and complex.
“Olive people — wherever they are found — have something special about them. It’s this tribe of people who really love the plant that’s oiled the wheels of civilization for 10,000 years,” said Mort Rosenblum, olive grove owner and author of the James Beard Award-winning book Olives: The Life & Lore of a Noble Fruit.
Homer deemed olive oil “liquid gold” and dignified it in both The Iliad and The Odyssey. Pliny the Elder meticulously recorded its trade in the foothills of Italy. Throughout his poetry, Spanish poet Federico García Lorca used olives as a recurring motif to represent his Spanish homeland, with the plant’s bounty serving as an anchor of remembrance.
“The field of olives like a fan, opens and closes. Over the olives, deep sky, and dark rain, of frozen stars,” Lorca mused, capturing both the intimacy and vastness of the olive’s cultural reach.
Olive oil — like so many deeply rooted culinary treasures — gets in the blood. It holds memory, desire and history together in a way that’s palpable. It’s able to conjure up long buried feeling and connection with its taste, touch and smell. Along with a handful of other edible pleasures — salt, wine, vinegar — it has long been the gastronomic bedrock of not only Italian culture, but Western civilization. Its quiet permanence and tenacity are at once both essential and esteemed.
In Christian ritual, olive oil traditionally daubs the head of those preparing to be baptized, and it’s one of the first food mentioned in the Bible. Wreaths of olive branches were found in the tomb of Tutankhamun to help protect the pharaoh in the afterlife, and artistic renderings of the olive tree appear as a talisman in art from Tunisia to Israel.
Olive oil has also been a lynchpin in the history of beauty rituals — said to smooth hair, make skin glow, and allow one to smell like a woodland nymph when worn as a flower-infused perfume. Minoans (3000 BC) used the oil as a cleanser instead of soap, and Hippocrates believed that up to 60 different ailments — including wounds, burns and ear infections — could be treated with olive oil.
Then, of course, there are the superstitions that linger to this day. Italians believe that if one spills olive oil, he or she must dab it behind the ear to ward off bad luck. Greek tradition dictates that if olive oil is dripped into a bowl of water and sinks, an “evil eye” is afoot. And there’s the all-peaceful olive branch itself, which Sicilians hang from their chimneys to prevent lightning strikes.
Olive oil is a balm of myth and kinship, the very picture of staying grounded in one’s traditions.
“In Italy … where there are small family farms, the olive harvest brings families together, particularly where the children have moved away to better jobs through higher education,” said Judy Ridgway, noted olive oil scholar and teacher. “I know lots of people — from factory workers to lawyers — who go back to the family home just to help with the harvest, even if only for the weekend. There’s always a lot of work in the groves and then a family feast when all is finished.”
Family has always come first for Rouses CEO Donny Rouse, whose grandfather founded the company in 1960. The great-grandson of a Sardinian immigrant, Rouse traveled with his wife, sister and brother-in-law last October to the Bonolio olive oil headquarters in Sicily to hand-select the new line of Rouse’s olive oils. The largest oil mill in Sicily, Bonolio has a robust setup: Production capacity is five tons per hour, their bottle and can machine lines have a capacity of 24,000 bottles per hour, and they’re home to an olive oil stock capacity of a whopping 5,000 tons.
“When you taste olive oil, you suck it into your mouth so it sprays the back of your throat, and then you roll it around on the tongue,” Rouse laughs. “It’s similar to tasting bourbon — just with smaller sips for that.”
The trip resulted in three olive oils brought back to the U.S.: Sicilian, Organic Sicilian and Italian. Each oil is extra virgin, 100% Italian and cold extracted (or “cold pressed”), meaning that they were produced without using heat exceeding 60 degrees. Heat kills the wealth of antioxidants naturally found in olive oil, so cold pressing is the healthiest means of production.
“The Sicilian and Organic Sicilian oils are the best, followed by the Italian,” Rouse says, noting that the Italian comes in both a bottle and a tin.
What’s more, the Sicilian and Organic Sicilian have been given the special label of Val di Mazara “Denomination of Protected Origin” (DOP, or Protected Designation of Origin/PDO). PDO is a designation that aims to promote and protect traditionally produced, culturally significant agricultural products and foodstuffs across Europe. The label means that all parts of the product’s creation process — from crushing the olives to bottling — were completed within the designated, historic geographic area (in this case, Sicily). It’s an honor awarded to only a handful of products, and olive oil is the only class of food in Europe that’s legally allowed to carry the word “traditional” on its packaging.
Another designation used to classify traditional foods is the Indicazione Geografica Protetta, or IGP. And while not as strictly regulated as PDO items, IGP-designated foods are required to have at least one part of the product’s production take place in its traditional location. Rouse’s carries two different balsamic vinegars with an IGP from Modena: a 65% grape musk vinegar (perfect for drizzling over desserts or a cheese plate) and a 35% grape musk vinegar (ideal for use in everyday cooking). In order to carry the IGP label, the balsamic vinegar must be aged for at least two months before bottling.
More bounty from the trip includes whole Castelvetrano Sicilian olives, a plump, tender fruit with a buttery mouthfeel and vibrant green color (naturally, they’re also 100% Italian). The olives are called “Castelvetrano” in honor of the Sicilian comune of the same name where the specific curing process originated. (The Italian word “comune,” though a form of the English word “commune,” is an administrative term for a township and not what Americans typically think of as a commune.)
Rouse’s commitment to providing top-notch Sicilian olive oils didn’t just begin with this trip, though. Stores also carry Partanna Olive Oil, a cold pressed, extra virgin, unfiltered oil that comes in a red tin or bottle. Family-owned by the Asaro Brothers in Partanna, Sicily, the company has a century-old tradition of producing oil using a single-olive varietal: Nocellara del Belice. (In their whole form, these are the same olives that become Castelvetrano after being cured.) When the tin is first opened, the oil presents as cloudy with a green hue, but the herbaceous aroma soon gives way to a “pizzicante” (crisp and sharp) flavor when it hits the palate. It is not, however, PDO.
For olive growers, the branches of the olive tree intertwine with the branches of family history, becoming a profound source of pride and identity. Through olives, growers are able to share a small piece of themselves with the world.
Of course, olive growing — for all its dreamy charms — is oftentimes arduous. “You have to love olives to run a grove,” said Rosenblum. “It’s a lot of work for not a lot of what you get back. It requires a great deal of patience, and you have to like being outside. There’s a certain philosophical bent to olive oil making. You have to appreciate the nature cycles. You can feel it, you can see it. I can see it in the face of every olive oil maker. It’s something different.”
Gathering olives by hand is a daunting, meticulous task still practiced by family farms across the Mediterranean. When olives become ripe, harvesters climb ladders and comb through the trees with specially crafted rakes, catching the falling fruit with nets or baskets tied around the waist. (Any olives already on the ground are deemed “damaged fruit” and cannot be used in any extra virgin olive oil.)
In Sicily, the olive’s season for harvest follows closely after the grapes are gathered for winemaking. Farmers with beds full of olives line up at the mill, waiting for their freshly plucked bounty to be pressed. The number found on the bottle of oil can be traced back to its specific grove homeland.
“Some of the best olives and olive oil comes from Sicily because of the soil and climate. We’re choosing the blend of olives grown in Sicily for each oil, and the factory that has the best standards for producing it. It can be a little pricier to get the oil from Sicily, but it’s like why you pay more for a Napa Cabernet than one from Oregon,” says Rouse. “These are the freshest olives — and it’s the first press.”
The love of olive oil is rooted in the process. Olive oil families genuflect to nature, admiring the plants themselves and embracing the knowledge that olive oil — earthy, fragrant and vegetal — is its own reward.
“I like to think of olive oil as in a similar category as wine,” Rouse notes. “We’re trying to educate people about just how special it can be. When you open the oil you want to be able to smell it: If you don’t smell it when you open it, you know it’s not great. You want the spice to burn in your throat. You want to smell that grass. Olive oil is part of the meal, and it makes a huge difference to cook with an authentic Italian or Sicilian olive oil.”
And when it comes to the best way to truly enjoy olive oil, farmers, chefs and scholars agree: Keep it simple, and make the oil the star. The unique flavor profile of olive oil is on full display in its most straightforward state — drizzled on bruschetta, in a salad, swirled together with a little vinegar — when the oil’s nuanced piquancy can waltz along one’s taste buds with spicy, floral or citrus notes. Soon, you’ll know exactly what you like (or don’t!) in an olive oil.
“When tasting olive oil, think about what you personally like. Provided the oil comes up to the standards required for extra virgin status, there is no right or wrong,” Ridgway says. “Ignore the olive oil snobs. If you like delicate oil that is not too peppery, that’s OK. If you like something more robust with intense flavor … also OK.”
Whether cooking with it for a family meal or taking a nap in the shade of the olive tree’s branches, olive oil, it seems, will never stop providing us with reasons to gather, reasons to celebrate and reasons to dream.