Welcome to November’s Cucina Conversations post! This month, we are sharing recipes that feature olive oil as the star ingredient. November in Italy marks the start of la raccolta delle olive (the olive harvest). Olive trees were first cultivated in ancient Greece and have been providing civilization with the benefits of their oil for over four thousand years. The oil was used not only for nourishment, but for medicinal purposes and as a lighting source. In the 3rd century AD, olive oil became an important commodity of the Roman empire where it was traded throughout the Mediterranean. After the fall of the Roman empire, the cultivation of olive trees and use of olive oil virtually disappeared except for its use in religious rites and as a lighting source. From the Renaissance and into the nineteenth century, olive oil was regarded as an ingredient of the poor used in poor recipes. During that period, French cuisine dominated and the cooking fats of choice were butter, lard, and animal fats. It wasn’t until the 1970’s that fine Italian olive oil became more widely available thanks to advances in pressing techniques and the emergence of the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet. By the 1980’s, the popularity of olive oil soared as famous chefs (most of them French) used olive oil with abandon (much of it Italian). The 1990’s saw Italian olive oil enter the market world-wide where it remains a solidly popular condiment, and for good reason. Although Italy is the second largest producer of extra virgin olive oil in the world (Spain is the first), in terms of quality, Italy’s olive oil is renowned. Unfortunately, the market is flooded with inferior quality olive oil–some of it barely olive oil at all–so some research is necessary if you want to stock unadulterated extra-virgin olive oil in your pantry. This site and this article are two great places to start gleaning more information on sourcing the best olive oil. I have been fortunate to find an excellent quality unfiltered extra-virgin olive oil from Sicily at my local grocery store. It comes with a higher price tag–par for the course for high-quality olive oil–but one I’m willing to pay since it makes all the difference in the flavor of the finished dish. My contribution to this month’s topic is cannellini all’olio, where extra-virgin olive oil is used both in the cooking process and to finish the dish. It’s a perfect recipe for the cooler months ahead where we start to crave warm-you-from-the-inside recipes, and a simple pot of beans is both satisfying and versatile.
It has been encouraging in recent years to see the re-emergence of small-scale food producers, and if you are lucky to live where you can buy small-batch olive oil, you are very lucky indeed. Harvesting olives is labor-intensive work, but one in which farmers take great pride and satisfaction. Like Italy’s grapes harvested during la vendemmia, olives are also harvested by hand where they are either picked off the branches and placed into a basket tied around the picker’s waist, or they are gently raked off the branches and left to fall onto a telo (net) draped around the base of the tree. Great attention is paid to the weather during the harvest season–olives cannot be picked when it is raining or foggy as the humidity will cause the olives to spoil in their crates. The harvesting must be done before the cold, wet days of fall set in, so la raccolta can begin as early as September in some regions.
Olive harvesting is often a family affair throughout Italy. Relatives harvest olives from family groves, or lend a hand to farmers, many of whom are now advanced in age. It is now widely popular for tourists to also join in the olive harvesting. A brief search on the Internet yields pages of websites offering olive harvesting excursions throughout Italy, so it is not uncommon to see people from different countries participating in this uniquely Italian agricultural activity. A raccolta isn’t complete without a hearty lunch, usually prepared on a grill right in the grove, to satisfy big appetites worked up during the olive picking. The menu can include a variety of cured meats, cheeses, and bread, as well as grilled meats and sausages. And of course, a few bottles of wine to share! The harvesting days may be filled with back-breaking work, but they are also days replete with camaraderie, festivity, and enthusiasm. Once the olives have been harvested, they are taken to a frantoio (mill), where the farmers drop off their olives to be pressed into oil and meet to chat about the year’s harvest. Farmers will book their turn at the frantoio to ensure the olive oil they receive is from their grove’s olives. Mills will run during the day, with some also running at night, to keep up with the incoming batches of olives and the need to have them pressed as quickly as possible to avoid spoilage. At this stage, the milling is mostly mechanical–the olives are weighed, de-leafed, washed, ground, mixed, pressed, and separated before finally being bottled. This video is a delightful glimpse into harvesting and olive oil production.
Olive oil enhances the flavor of every ingredient it accompanies, whether cooked or a crudo (uncooked). Different varieties of olives will produce different flavored olive oil. Flavors can range between rich, mellow, buttery, grassy, or spicy. The right olive oil to use will depend on the ingredient being prepared. Beans are one of the many ingredients that pair beautifully with olive oil and absorb its flavor as they cook. Cannellini beans are typical to Toscana, but they (and all other varieties) originated in the New World and were brought to Italy in the early sixteenth century where they thrived and have become part of Italy’s culinary tradition. This simple preparation results in flavorful and tender cannellini beans that are subtly perfumed with the essence of the olive oil, fresh garlic (mellowed considerably as it boils in the cooking water), and aromatic herbs. Dried beans are a must for this dish and they will need an overnight soak in a bowl of water left at room temperature, so advance planning is necessary. The cooking is as unfussy as it gets–all the ingredients are placed into a heavy bottomed pot, covered with fresh water, and left to boil slowly until they are tender, about two hours give or take. Once cooked, the beans are drained, plated, and dressed with a thin slip of olive oil which releases its aroma as the heat of the beans warms the oil. Cannellini all’olio pair well with grilled or roasted meats. They are also delicious in salads, as a topper on bruschetta, added to soups, or eaten simply on their own with a piece of rustic bread.
The Cucina Coversations bloggers are featuring some wonderful recipes where olive oil is the hero ingredient, so be sure to visit their sites to read their posts. Francesca has prepared cicoria ripassata alla romana (sautéed dandelion greens), Carmen has made melanzane sott’olio (eggplant preserved in olive oil), Marialuisa is offering olive oil bruschetta, Lisa has prepared an olive tapenade, Daniela is showing us how to make a farinata di cavolo nero con olio nuovo (red cabbage chickpea pancake with new season olive oil) , and Rosemarie has made Piemonte’s traditional bagna cauda. These are some fantastic recipes highlighting olive oil.
Adapted from Florentine: The True Cuisine of Florence by Emiko Davies
1 pound dried cannellini beans
3 garlic cloves, peeled and left whole
1 bay leaf
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra for finishing
1 Tablespoon salt
Pick through the dried cannellini beans, removing any small stones or debris. Rinse the beans under cold running water and place them in a large bowl. Fill the bowl with enough cold water to cover the beans by at least 2 inches. Set aside on the counter at room temperature and let soak for at least 8 hours or overnight.
The next day, drain the beans through a colander and place them in a heavy bottomed pot with the garlic cloves, bay leaf, and olive oil. Fill the bowl with enough cold water to cover everything by at least 2 inches. Bring the beans to a gentle simmer over low heat and cook covered until the beans are tender and cooked through, about 2 hours. Periodically remove the lid to spoon off any scum that rises to the top of the water. Towards the end of the cooking time, add in the salt and some freshly ground black pepper.
Drain the beans through a colander set into a large heat-proof bowl. Reserve the cooking liquid to use like broth for soups. If not using the bean cooking liquid immediately, let it cool completely to room temperature and freeze for later use. Serve the beans warm dressed with more olive oil poured on top to finish.