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10/03/2011

The food that "made us". Chapter 1 : olive oil

"The people of the Mediterranean began to emerge from barbarism when they learnt to cultivate the olive and the vine."



This sentence by the Greek historian Thucydides is definitely one of my favourite quotations ever written. Italy and its great art cities, its treasures, artists like Raffaello, Michelangelo and Leonardo, the Sistine Chapel and the Colosseum, Venezia and Firenze, Assisi and Orvieto and even my home-town Todi, they haven't been painted, founded and built without these two plants.



Nevertheless I don't remember, when I was at school, a teacher, a professor that decided to spend one hour or even ten minutes of his/her precious time on this fundamental truth.
We were told infact that Ceasar conquered the Ancient Gaul, we were told when he did it, the battles, the conquests, but nobody told us how.

The "fuel" of the frightful Roman army was a very energetic meal composed basically by: legumes, olive oil and wine, of course. Without this ingredients I'm sure I wouldn't be here writing this blog post...

For this reason, to pay a tribute to my roots, to Italian civilization and, of course, to Umbria - where these three plants are widely cultivated - I decided to dedicate some posts to this "food that made us".


The first is olive oil because right now, the oil mills are preparing their press, organizing the teams of workers for olive picking that is officially beginning in the next weeks here in the region. Hundreds of hands in the next days will "comb" the branches of the olive trees, will move around ladders and nets, will stay all night long in the mills without sleeping because "you know, Alessandra, to produce a good extra vergine the olives must be picked and pressed in the very same day" as my dear friends from the mills - like a mantra - always say.
To them, my first "tribute"



OLIVE OIL IN ITALIAN HISTORY

We know that the Etruscans cultivated olive trees in the fifth century B.C. and that for this civilization olive oil was used for local consumption and  cosmetic, but mainly for trade exchanges.
On the other end in Rome and in Greece from the second century B.C. olive oil was the principal source of energy for workers and soldiers. According to one of the most ancient text on culinary tradition and cookery "De re coquinaria" by the Latin writer Apicius "the Roman cuisine seems to have been literally dripping with oil" given that around the 60% of the recipes, included oil as one of the basic ingredients.

Lucullus, who lived in the Ist century A.D., defined the olive trees as "the most important plant of all" while Cato insisted - more than 2000 years ago - on the pause between the time of the harvesting and the one of the pressing - as "the faster you do it, the better it will be".

The decline of the Roman Empire and the invasions by the people from Northern Europe, the so-called "Barbarians" (that literally means the people who speak "bar-bar" i.e. ugly sounds for a not-Latin speaker) dramatically changed the food culture. Wheat, wine and oil that were the base of the Roman economy and the symbols of this civilization, disappeared as main food.
The barbarian values, infact, were totally different: hunting and fishing, collecting wild fruits, breeding animals in the wild, were the main activities.

In the IV century A.D. a long period of wars and famine reduced olive growing to a minimum and it was continued only in the so-called horti conclusi (=fenced house-gardens) belonging mainly to the abbeys and the monasteries. The monks infact were - in many cases - the guardians of Latin food tradition, until the 14th century and the Renaissance,a period in which the olive tree was often represented in many frescoes and paintings, showing a renewed importance in Italian food habits.

Until the economic "Boom" in the '60 olive oil was considered in Italy a very precious and expensive seasoning, produced in limited quantities and used basically as a commodity for trade exchanges.
An idea of the high value of oil is clear in the ancient superstion that the accidental spilling and wasting of oil brought bad luck.


ORGANIC EXTRA VIRGIN OLIVE OIL TOURS
To discover the real extra virgin olive oil, we run Extra Virgin Olive Oil tours both during the period of the olive picking and pressing (mid-October- first weeks of December) and all year round.
All the partners we have chosen are small family-run companies, producing only organic EVOOs. During our tours we will take you to the olive groves and to the press, where you can be aware of all the process, ending this involving experience with a tasting of 3/4 different organic extra virgin oils obtained by the local varieties that you can find only in Umbria.


A special thank to Itinera for the historical information on olive growing.
Picture of Ancient Gaul from Wikipedia

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