■ 6 October 2012 by James Martin
The real test of a place to stay in Italy called an “agriturismo” is in the quality of products the estate produces. Stay in an Italian agriturismo and you’ll soon realize that the local grub is somehow different from the stuff you’re used to shoveling in your mouth.
Hang around long enough and you’ll come to the conclusion that Italians are darn near batty about the quality of the things they eat. They’ll spare no amount of work making sure the flavors of the foods they produce are as brilliant as nature intended. Nowhere is this personal attention to detail more pronounced than in the contents of bottles marked “Extra Virgin Olive Oil” you find on your supermarket shelf. Well, maybe not on your shelf, especially if you’re from the US, where industrial crap oil abounds and you might not find a single example of real olive oil made by a person who cares.
It was with no small amount of trepidation that I approached the olive oil tasting at Montestigliano, where Massimo, the master of the estate’s olives, had spent the morning at the market perusing the oils in order to select two artisinal oils and an industrial one for our little tasting. The final lineup consisted of bottles from Lake Garda and Sardinia in addition to the industrial oil and the Montestigliano estate oil. We were to not only taste them, but to rank them on the same basis as the top level tasters entrusted with the delicate task of determining if a particular olive oil is good enough to get its DOP designation, which increases its market value. It was a blind tasting, meaning we’d have to rate the oils without knowing which was which. As Massimo explained the best way to experience the oils, it was evident that this wasn’t going to be easy.
What if the crap oil had won? That would be an embarrassment I could never live down.
Massimo finally poured the four oils into our little plastic cups. I breathed a sigh of relief. See:
If you’re paying attention you can pick up on the industrial crap oil just from the photo. If you sat where I was sitting, the differences were even more apparent. As the oils were poured you got your first sense of what they were all about. The scents were alluring as the oils trickled into their labeled cups.
Except for the industrial oil. I had nothing to worry about.
We warmed our little cups. We ate a slice of apple. We sniffed. We tasted. We gargled while breathing, a trick not for amateurs. One oil stood out. The aroma in itself was enough to sent you into a state of oil-induced bliss.
The winning product wasn’t the estate oil. Massimo didn’t try to tip the odds by selecting oils inferior to his. He was as intrigued by the winning oil as we were, and liked it as much as we did.
The winning oil came from the island of Sardinia.
And the crap oil? Not only was it a dirty straw color instead of the vibrant yellow tinged with green like the other oils, but there was absolutely no scent to it. There was no taste either, no matter how hard you sniffed, swirled or gargled. In other words, it didn’t have flaws. You could use it for frying or for lubricating your sewing machine.
But on a tomato? Yuck. The point is, yes, artisan-produced oils cost more. But who cares? It’s not about the arbitrary cost of a slippery thing called “oil”. It’s about value. An oil with infinitely more flavor doesn’t cost infinitely more money, and thus has to be a great value, at least if the arithmetic holds—and if you like olive oil, of course.
But really, come to Tuscany. Taste the oil. Only then will you realize what the fuss is all about.
Disclaimer: lodging was provided to journalists for the purposes of review.
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