Preserving Italian traditions and recipes especially those that relate to my family has become a great interest of mine. So when we decided to write about olio d’oliva (olive oil), this month’s topic for our Cucina Conversations round table, my heart rejoiced. Not only does this liquid gold have a rich Mediterranean history, but also one that speaks of migration and preservation of family traditions. Undoubtedly olive oil is a staple ingredient in Italian cuisine and would not be the same without it. Its varied traditional uses and recent modern applications to cooking show olive oils’ broad versatility. What fascinates me most, is that for centuries people have sought ways to preserve their food and reap the benefits of the harvest all year long through the use of olive oil. It is one of the most natural ways to preserve food, due to its amazing properties.
Along with my fellow bloggers, we will share with you various recipes with olive oil being the hero ingredient. I have chosen to talk about olive oil in context with preserving food and maintaining family traditions. This recipe for melanzane sott'olio (preserved eggplants in olive oil) is one that has been passed down in our family from my grandmothers and one that is still made and enjoyed today. The girls from Cucina Conversations will also be posting throughout the week and sharing their recipes using olio d'oliva. Marialuisa shares her recipe for bruschetta all'olio e ai peperoni arrostiti at Marmellata di Cipolle; Rosemarie talks about a Piemontese recipe for bagna cauda at Turin Mamma; Daniela shares a recipe for la farinata di cavolo nero con olio nuovo at La Dani Gourmet; Lisa creates a pate`di olive at Italian Kiwi; while Flavia makes a classic dish of fagioli cannellini all'olio at Flavias Flavors, and Francesca cooks one of my favourite greens - cicoria ripassata at Pancakes & Biscotti
Like many Italian migrants, my parents have always professed that Italian oil is the best and have continued to purchase imported brands. I too have done the same, but my loyalty to my heritage has over the years shifted with the need to uphold new values that come naturally when living in an adopted country. So before I share this recipe, I would like to talk a little about locally produced olive oil. This will be discussed in relation to a conversation I had with an Italo/Australian friend who is a small scale olive grower and olive oil producer here in Australia, trading under the name Benedicts Grove. Ben's olive grove is located on a beautiful property in the Northern foothills of the Pyrenees Ranges in Western Victoria. His Italian cultural values, philosophy on reducing the carbon footprint and his teaching background in sustainability and supply chain has equipped him well for this challenging industry. To understand the olive oil industry here in Australia, it is also important to read about olive farming which dates back to the early 1800's and there is some fascinating history you can read about here.
The afternoon spent talking with Ben about his olive grove, the production of extra virgin olive oil and how his mother preserves olives, brought to light our similar views on ‘slow food’ and the importance of preserving Italian traditions. Though reading about the olive oil industry, it brought to light some realities. According to the Australian Olive Oil Association, it appears that Australia now produces a substantial amount of olive oil with many Australian producers only making premium oils. A number of corporate growers operate groves of a million trees or more and produce oils for the general market. Australian olive oil is exported to Asia, Europe and the United States; while on the other hand, we are importing oil from Spain, Italy and Greece. I asked Ben why he decided to enter this saturated market with its questionable practices. Below are a few snippets from our conversation.
Why did you choose to grow olives?
Probably if I had to give one reason, and by the way there is more than one reason for why I started planting olive trees over sixteen years ago, is that I believe food is important. Obviously, people need food to eat, but the industrial process by which food is produced today makes food cheap and plentiful, but it isn’t really food. I mean food like olive oil shouldn’t simply be something you buy at the supermarket. It should be something that is anticipated, something that is stored correctly and something that is valued. When you accept those terms then you begin to really taste food. Too much of our lives are about the volume of consumption and not the quality of it, or the stories behind it. Heritage would be another answer. My parents grew up in small villages in the Calabria region of Italy, where survival was based on resourcefulness and a longstanding acceptance that traditions kept you alive and resilient. When olives were ready to be picked then you stopped everything and picked. There was no postponing for a more convenient time or perhaps waiting until the weather improved. Nature dictated terms and people lived within those rules, it was simple. Simplicity allows for calmness.
When one speaks of simplicity, I automatically think of the way my grandparents lived and the way my parents have chosen to live, being very self-sufficient in the growing of their own fruits and vegetables. Their three olive trees provide them with enough olives for the extended family and friends. I'm sure many Italian migrants to Australia have maintained this philosophy of living a simple and self sufficient life which has kept them grounded.
Simplicity is important in life. If you don’t have peace of mind you won’t do anything well. Take for instance one of my mother’s methods for processing table olives. You pick the olives when they are black but not over ripe, and slice the olive on two sides. If nothing else, slicing 5 kg of olives individually will relax you! Put them in a bucket of fresh water and change the water every day until the olives are no longer bitter, maybe about 2 weeks, it all depends, you have to go by taste, not formula. Drain the water, add some garlic, fennel, chilli if you like and then sprinkle with salt. The next day place the olives in a warm oven that will dry the olives out, not too much, just enough to remove excessive moisture. Dress them in olive oil and place them in a jar. That’s it, no chemicals, no additives, no industrial processing, just salt, water and time. Simple!
Through your business, do you see yourself recreating processes of the past?
I don’t think we can go back in time, nor should we, but it’s important to have a connection to our past. It helps inform the choices we make in the present. Initially I wanted to set up a traditional olive press, you know, the one with the giant stone wheels slowly grinding the olives into a paste and then cold press the paste to extract the oil. While my heart went in that direction, my head was saying continuous processing. This is the modern approach, where you place olives in one end of the machine and an hour or so later get olive oil from the other end. It’s clean, efficient and consistent. It ticks all the boxes, except the romantic box! Living in the past however is not an option, but at least understanding what you give up and why, is an acceptable compromise. Who knows, a hundred years from now people may see the continuous process as romantic!
On a large scale, olive oil producers practice intensive cultivation techniques at what appears to be the expense of quality. We are however beginning to see a shift in the mind set of people who strongly advocate quality, clean, and locally produced food. The notion of 'slow' seems to resonate in your approach to your business. Was this intentional in your business plan?
When I first decided to establish an olive grove the conventional wisdom suggested by the emerging industry, was to irrigate. My father, who tended an olive grove in Italy as a teenager was incredulous to this notion. You never irrigate olive trees he said, it was almost seen as a sin. When I asked why, he simply stated that they don’t need it. It was one of those moments where one has to decide between the pragmatism of a commercial operation and a practice that was at least as old as his 800 year old village of Staiti, in the province of Reggio Calabria, Italy. I went for tradition, as food is important to me. To me planting an olive tree is about creating a 1000 year opportunity for future generations which is what appealed to me. Australia practices modern agricultural techniques which are capital and resource intensive with highly efficient outcomes. The problem is many of these practices are not sustainable. If we start using a scarce commodity such as water to irrigate what is basically a desert tree then we become consumers of our planet and not custodians, but if you let the tree grow slowly, whilst you have less fruit and less oil you have it for 1000 years. Not a bad legacy to leave.
Melanzane Sott'Olio (preserved eggplants)
Makes enough to fill 2 medium-sized jars
My mother makes melanzane sott'olio every year and gives us a jar or two. It is a staple in our pantry, but for some reason this year it was consumed far too quickly. This has forced me to make my own even though out of season. We enjoy them on freshly baked crusty bread, in our lunches as well as served as part of an antipasto when we gather as a family. They are relatively easy to make and all you need is:
1 cup table salt (best not to use coarse grain)
8 cups white wine vinegar
6 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
1 tablespoon dried oregano
chilli flakes or 1 fresh chilli sliced (optional)
4 cups of olive oil
Peel eggplants and cut width ways into slices about 1 cm thick and then each slice into 1 cm strips. Using a large deep tray, spread out the cut eggplant strips evenly, and sprinkle with the salt. Cover with tea towel and leave for 24 hours at room temperature. The salt will draw out a fair amount of liquid from the eggplant which will need to be drained well the next day. This is best done by putting the sliced eggplant in a colander and placing a weight on top to extract as much liquid as possible. I also squeeze any excess liquid using my hands.
Place the eggplant in a clean tray and pour on the vinegar, stir it through and push the eggplant under the vinegar. Cover with tea towel and leave for 24 hours at room temperature. Drain in a colander, putting a weight on the eggplant to drain off as much of the vinegar as possible. Leave draining for about 4 hours.
It is important to use sterilized jars when storing preserved produce. I place my jars and lids in a saucepan filled with water, ensuring the jars are submerged and bring them to the boil. Continue boiling for 10 minutes and keep in hot water until ready to use.
There are two excellent books totally dedicated to preserving food if you are new to this process. Both discuss the importance of preserving food and their flavours, as well as the proper guidelines that should be followed in preserving food. These books can be viewed by clicking on the links below:
- Preserving Italy - Canning, Curing, Infusing, and Bottling Italian Flavors and Traditions by Domenica Marchetti
- Preserving the Italian Way by Pietro Demaio
I hope you embark on preserving food and your family traditions. Make sure you also read the Cucina Conversations posts throughout this week.