Thursday, March 29, 2007

And now a word from M.F.K. Fisher

..who speaks of her time in Dijon, that started in 1929:
It was there that I learned it is blessed to receive, as well as that every human being, no matter how base, is worthy of my respect and even my envy because he knows something that I many never be old or wise or kind or tender enough to know.
from Long Ago in France.

She speaks tellingly about her fierce and frugal landlady, Madame Ollangnier, who scours the markets and badgers the food sellers into handing over the lamest and haltest of edible foodstuffs which she then transforms into excellent meals for M.F.K. and her other lodgers.

So having read that last night I was delighted by the coincidence of this morning's speaker, Andrea Segre of the University of Bologna, who told us a fabulous tale about his students' food economics project that has blossomed into a many-fingered enterprise: Last Minute Market began as a way to turn the horrific waste of supermarket surpluses - those imperfect, unwrapped or dented items the ordinary consumer won't touch with a ten foot euro - into nutritious meals for the local needy.

More food economy in the afternoon with Riccardo Vecchio who walked us through the ins and outs of PDO (Protected Denomination of Origin) and PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) marks on foods, from a marketing and economic point of view. They're not just in Italy, not just in Europe or the UK, but potentially all over the place now. And he gave us a briefing on farmers' markets, which are new to Italy (being gradually brought back in after they died out here around 1900, that is). There are plenty of food markets in Italy, it's true, but the stall-holders are typically not farmers or food producers selling their own wares.

And now, back to my books. Food technology exam tomorrow. More later.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Arrivederci Apulia

Sea urchin ("UNI!!" shrieked the sushi-eaters), part of Friday's lunch.

One of our speakers said he'd prefer to refer to the place we've been calling Puglia by its alternate and more ancient name, Apulia. We were rich in speakers this week.

Thursday we kicked off with a talk by eminent enologist Severino Garofano, about viticulture in the Mediterranean, as well as an overview of the Puglian grapes which we'd been encountering in liquid and nascent form all week. Negroamaro, primitivo, aleatico and susumaniello had all figured in our glasses, and we had a few more drops to sample the range of Garofano's Azienda Monaci, over a lunch at our excellent hotel. It began with a clever little bundle of shellfish and ended with a triumph of torta: a warm, perfectly-sized almond souffle-ish marvel, melting with cream and a flourish of chocolate.

We took a chilly stroll through the vinyards of Tenute Rubino which are interlaced with fields of artichokes; a combination that works for me. The owners wanted us to get a sense of the land our evening wine would come from, and we certainly experienced the salt winds that flavour the grapes.

We travelled to Cisternino, a Slow City, where we enjoyed a meal of meat with our wine, in Rosticceria Antico Borgo Di Menga Piero, a fornello, a butcher shop where you can buy meat by day as in a regular butcher's, but by night, when you approach the display cases as a steady stream of locals were doing, you choose your cut of meat much as North Americans might do with lobster. The offerings included involtini di trippa soffocati (tripe rolls), capretto (young goat), and costata di asino (donkey in a red sauce).

On Friday, there was another talk on fishing in the region which included discussion of garum, a Roman seasoning which lives on in the Vietnamese fish sauce nuoc mam, yet another food whose sustainability and provenance is under question (covered during the week in the (thanks Ruth) Christian Science Monitor).

We heard a lot about the different nets and traps used to catch seafood, including the technique of octopus-fishing requiring nothing more complicated than a chicken leg and a fishing line. Of course once you have your octopus you have to kill it, and then you have to beat it with a stick in order to tenderise it enough to eat.

We were given the opportunity to taste it raw, an opportunity that I do not think I will need to seek out again. It made me think how nice is octopus simmered in red wine. Or cooked in anything, really. Ditto the cuttlefish.

After lunch we headed out to see where the meal had come from, to the docks at Brindisi. We were on the brink of turning back, as it was windy and it seemed the fishermen may not have gone out, when a boat returned and its cargo was swiftly unloaded for a speedy fish auction.

One last supper - at the stylish Menhir - where we dined on fish of many faces including some local clams with broad beans and orecchiette.

We had some beautiful wines from Candido, including a mind-blowing Aleatico dessert wine. Then, clutching our tums and our lovely Maglio easter eggs, we stumbled off to bed to ready ourselves for the flight back to Milan early the next morning. Enough eight course suppers to fell an ox, more wines than we could count on two hands, and more enlightenment about the variety of local food products in this area than we would have believed possible. Next stop Vinitaly, in Verona this weekend, where we'll certainly be seeing several of the wine-makers we've already encountered on our travels in Le Marche and Puglia.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Puglia Wednesday: wine and white cities

Wednesday's schedule included a trip to la Riserva di Torre Guaceto where olive trees and other growing things are being protected. The olive trees we saw were at least 500 years old, and were part of a scheme to involve farmers in organic production methods by creating a co-op to produce and market organic extra-virgin olive oil.

There is also a marine park which includes the beach below, which we were told accommodates as many as 5000 visitors a day in the summer.

Although Italian marine parks like this one are off-limits to commercial fishermen, it seems that, through its conservation efforts, the reserve has enabled a 400% increase in fish stocks, and now a small local fishing enterprise is permitted, under strict scrutiny by the University of Lecce which monitors the size and type of fish that are caught.

We travelled next to a restored olive mill, Frantoio Locopagliaro, in the midst of a large olive grove. Underground mills were once the norm in this area, because they were practical to build - aboveground constructions required specialised labour - and their rock ceilings could withstand the pressure exerted by manual presses. The underground setting also maintained the oil and processing at optimal temperatures.

The press itself: after the olives and their stones were ground to a paste beneath horse-powered millstones, the paste was put in round woven baskets that were stacked and placed beneath the wooden screw which was turned by human effort. The oil was then separated from the rest of the liquid, and the paste was transferred for further pressing.

This olive crusher was used for the second crushing, to reduce the olive paste residue further for processing into lamp oil or other industrial use.

After a tasting of Puglian extra-virgin olive oils, we sat in intermittent sunshine to enjoy a terrific lunch which included such local novelties as chicory (a kind of spinach-like green) with pureed fava beans and roasted green peppers, a bit of burrata, some cacciocavallo, and a nice piece of capocollo tucked into an addictive little biscuit called taralli. And some lovely oily bread. And a glass of wine.

After this, we were whisked off to Ostuni - la Città Bianca - where we ascended to the summit for a quick look over the forests of olive trees below.

Then a speedy and very chilly visit to the vineyards, just starting to leaf, of Lomazzi & Sarli, who'd provided our previous night's wines - including Dimastrodonato, a particularly good dessert wine made from a characteristic Pugliese grape (Aleatico) - and back we went to the hotel to rest up for supper.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Pausing in Puglia

Greetings from Puglia, where pigs fly.

Here in the heel of Italy, the weather has turned wet and cold and I have passed on a trip to Lecce to catch up with a few things. Naturally now that I have made that decision the rain has lifted and the sun has come out... Ah well.

We arrived in Brindisi yesterday at a desperately early hour and carried on to IAMB, the Bari centre of the Mediterranean Agronomic Institute: we will be visiting the institute's Chania centre when we visit Crete next month.

Our Escher moment at IAMB.

They offer research training to agronomists from Mediterranean countries to study such issues as irrigation and water management, aspects of organic agronomy, and methods of managing endemic insects such as the olive fly.

Clever way to catch crawly insects on an olive tree: a collar of fiberglass.

We had an incredibly good lunch of local dishes, many of them seafood, and then paused for half an hour or so to view the characteristic conical houses, the Trulli, which are found in abundance in the area but particularly in a town called Alberobello.

On we sped to our appointment with butchers in Martina Franca where we watched the making of capocollo, another cured meat made of a whole cut of pork.

This one is trimmed to size, seasoned and dried for a few days, then marinated in boiled wine must and white wine, then wrapped in pork intestine, tied in a tea towel, dried a bit longer, unwrapped, hung to dry, then briefly smoked, and then hung again until start to finish it has gone through its paces for a total of about 120-150 days. By then it is a firm, sweet, slightly salty and lightly smoky treat, made in small quantities between October and Easter, when the climate is suitable for the cool dry winds it needs over part of the process.

After that we had a surprise gift of music and dance from a local folk troupe, then watched a bit of hand-crafting of orecchiette and maccheroni and sat down to another wonderful meal. We had a couple of soups - zuppa verde and zuppa di carciofi - and some pastas including the ones we had seen made. There was, for the strong, a further buffet featuring such specialties as Puglian salumi, raw artichoke and cheese salad, and a kind of risotto made with orzo (barley) and mushrooms. Some pastry and fruit followed, and a merciful sleep.

This morning we had a talk by Gino di Mitri, author of a book on Tarantism, the historic and region-specific ailment of Puglia, attributed to the bite of a spider, and which may have its pagan roots in Dionysian rituals, while its Christian expression took the form of prayers to St. Paul, saint of spiders. Affecting mainly, but not exclusively, women, tarantism was treated by music and a highly energetic dance, in which the sufferer used her body to describe the circumstances of the bite, and which ultimately evoked a trance that would allow the sufferer reconciliation with the spirit of the spider. The musicians - a tambourine player (almost exclusively female), accompanied by violin, guitar and accordion - would diagnose the colour of the spider, which corresponded to the nature of the ailment: for example, a blue spider would express melancholy and disharmony with the community. Homosexuality, we were told, was often entwined with the condition. Women who did not want to marry might claim to have been bitten, and the contaminating nature of the spider bite might in any case render them unmarriageable.

Last week is already a blur, but we had some wonderful people talking to us, including Stuart Franklin who walked us through a fraction of his formidable portfolio and spoke movingly about his latest project and forthcoming book on the changing landscapes of Europe, a depressing tale of overproduction, land-grabbing, overdevelopment and standardisation. We also enjoyed Richard Baudains who led us through some of the issues of wine reviewing: the extreme ends of its readership and the difficulties of communicating subjective analysis of an edible subject. We saw some wonderful films as well, from the Slow Food on Film curator, including a fantastic documentary called Life Running Out of Control which encapsulated the complex issues of genetic engineering, including the contamination of organic seed stocks by GM crops in North America, the risks to the farmers of India of the dubious economics of GM seed developers, and the moral and practical issues of experimental animal development. Shades of Oryx & Crake...

Monday, March 12, 2007

Modena: more than vinegar

Spent Saturday in Modena; near to Parma and blessed that day with great weather. There was some kind of Ferrari show going on which was a little confusing as I think we came away with a distorted sense of the proportion of Ferraris to centrally located parking spots. We had a nice amble and a nice lunch. Here are some sights...

A couple of the carvings on the duomo.

An old English friend makes an appearance in a food shop in Modena.

Michael Schumacher - shorter and hairier than I thought he'd be. We were constantly reminded that Modena is cartown as well as vinegarville.

An excellent covered market with lots of my favourite things...

In Modena, the dogs are careful and the pumpkins are haunted (is that why the tortelli di zucca taste so good?):

Monday, March 05, 2007

Le Marche - lotsa pasta, a bit more wine

So, this account is jumping around a bit, but then so did we.

Last Wednesday's pasta tour of Spinosi was great fun. We found ourselves on another hilltop, in the village of Campofilone, in more glorious sunshine, where we donned our paper outfits and toured the small factory that distributes its dried pasta around the world, and its fresh products locally.

Afterwards, we had a lunch (Spinosini with lemon and prosciutto) prepared by our host Marco Spinosi himself and after that, we did our best to the shelves of the Spinosi shop, and all piled back on the bus to commence our previously reported afternoon of pork.

Some of Spinosi's Spiritosini biscotti for afters; these ones were almond, very nice indeed.

On Thursday, we had another wine talk, from the excellent and extremely well-travelled Gianpiero Rotini, Export Director for Umani Ronchi. He showed us round their cellars, including the new one which is something of an architectural marvel, buried in the hillside, with state of the art brickwork and underground humidification controls.

He was hugely informative and interesting on the subject of wine marketing and shared a lot of great tidbits for our grateful cogitation. He cleared up one area of confusion for me as a wine consumer: the Montepulciano grape is native to Le Marche, but is often confused with a Tuscan Sangiovese product from the Tuscan village of Montepulciano.

He also told us that wine is subject to the most restrictive legislation after food, which always makes for interesting challenges when approaching new markets. He told us about the punitive taxation on alcohol that is hindering European exports to India; the difficulties in distributing to a diverse and segmented market in the US; and the inward regional focus of the Spanish market which make it a difficult one to penetrate.

Italy, he said, was the hardest country to sell wines in. A well-established culture of daily consumption is offset by difficulties in transport and distribution: there is not a good road transportation network (those mountains again!) which makes it hard both to work as a distributor and to ship your product around the country. And a lot of the consumption is local, largely by preference and tradition, so it can be hard for new wines to break in.

On the theme of profit-driven distribution, we heard that international marketing has been subject to the greed that the market economy invites: so the imported wines we often recognise as characteristic of Italy - Chianti, Lambrusco - had in the past swamped export markets simply because they are immensely profitable for export = cheap to buy and can be sold for huge mark-ups.

After tasting some wines (Verdicchio), and eating some lunch and tasting some more wines (Montepulciano), we had a whirlwind tour of the Moreno Cedroni factory, which was apparently in its afternoon clean-up mode, so we didn't actually see anything being made. Probably most factories don't need 24 shutter-happy foodies sticking their noses in production, but it was a bit disappointing to be whirled round in 20 minutes flat. Pretty jars and interesting ingredients, though. Not everyone can spin a buck from a tin of stewed monkfish tripe, or sea-snail (raguse) with tomato, garlic and wild fennel. And the fig and tangerine marmalade sounded promising, though I couldn't see any back at the shop at Umani Ronchi. So I satisfied myself with a bottle of top-flight dessert wine (Maximo) and another of Montepulciano (Cumaro, named for the small red berry that grows on Monte Conero).

Our day ended, more or less, with a fabulous shop-a-thon at Azzurra, a purveyor of all things Marchese ("vini e tipicità delle Marche") in another seaside town, Numani. Upon first arrival we pressed our noses hopefully against the windows, which were ominously dark: oh no, said someone, it's Thursday afternoon. Which of course is the giorno di chiusura we all know and love (not) in Parma, which makes those from twentyfourhoursevendayaweek retail cultures stomp their feet and wave their credit cards in rage. But of course this tale has a happy ending: somehow we managed to get in the door and buy, buy, buy. I'm still not sure if it was by special arrangement, but we think our saintly driver Franco might have had a hand in it...

Le Marche - Tuesday: The Gastronomic Landscape, Shrine & Wine

We began our Tuesday last week in a room at Garofoli Winery, with a talk by Dott. Antonio Attorre (President of Slow Food Marche and teacher at the Università Politecnica delle Marche) about Le Marche as a food-producing region, which is largely a story about landscape. While - as we'd previously learned - Italy is 80% mountains, which affects everything about the country; this region has 13 rivers, which means 13 valleys and 13 different food traditions. It is further divided into mountain-dwellers and a coastal population, and still shows the pattern of the feudal system that marked it in previous centuries: houses are surrounded by a small piece of land, so it is not a system of intensive farming, but a more fragmented patchwork of vines and olive groves.

We'd heard at some length the afternoon before (during a talk on a Presidia product, the Portonovo “mosciolo” / wild mussel) that in coastal areas, the farmers who worked land in the hills also often doubled as fishermen, in order to supplement their diet and income with seafood. So, we were told, somewhat unique in Italian cuisine is Le Marche's preference for dishes that combine vegetables with seafood. (To be honest, we didn't notice many vegetables in the food we ate last week, but we had been noticing, in Parma, the segregation of vegetables and meats which are, where both occur in a meal, often served in different courses.) He also mentioned that the seafood recipes of the region have an obvious historical link with local meat-based cuisine, since the techniques for cooking fish often mirror those for meat - you simply substitute the protein source.

Le Marche, he said, was the first region in Italy to embrace organics, and ten years ago began organic trials. It also pioneered beef certification (for traceability, post-BSE), and seven years ago was able to win EU exemptions for small scale cheese producers who had been crippled by regulations designed for large scale operations. He mentioned A.S.S.A.M., l'Agenzia Servizi Settore Agroalimentare Marche, which provides research and advice for the region's agricultural industries.

Next we had a talk about and lunched on three Le Marche Presidia products: the Mele Rosa dei Monti Sibillini (a sweet, long-lasting heritage apple, mountain-grown, brought back from the brink of extinction); Salame di Fabriano (a seasonal, hand-cut salami, with cubes of lard and whole peppercorns, made from prime prosciutto-grade pork); and Pecorino dei Monte Sibillini (pecorino fresco, a young, soft version of the sheep's milk cheese we've been happily encountering at every turn).

Over the lingering lunch hour we took a side trip - thankfully at the wise and persistent urging of our art history grad Fabi - to see the Basilica del Santuario di Loreto, a stunning basilica built around the shrine of Santa Casa Maria (the Virgin Mary's house, in which the Enunciation is said to have taken place). It had been, so they say, spirited away from Nazareth by the angels, and arrived here via Croatia in the fourteenth century. It was encapsulated in the basilica in 1507 and has been visited by pilgrims ever since.

We returned to Garofoli for a talk and tasting to embrace the region's long wine-making tradition, dating back to those early vinificators, the Etruscans, who took a turn of influence here.

Started as a family enterprise in 1871, it is run today by the brothers Gianfranco and Carlo. Carlo is the enologist, and he gave us a short history of the region's wines, and the transition of Italian wines from the 1950s through the present. We had been hearing a lot about Verdicchio, and he explained its status as the first DOC wine of the area.

Some sources, he said, claim it has been grown in Le Marche for 2000 years, but he would be willing to bet on the past 150 for sure. This varietal grows well in the area, usually within 20 km of the sea, favouring the mild climate and sandier soil, but is susceptible to diseases, especially moulds, and matures quite late. While exposure and altitude affect the alcohol content and acidity of wines, the interesting piece of trivia he shared about Verdicchio grapes is that the river Esino, which empties into the Adriatic north of Ancona, separates production areas into yields of higher and lower acidity.

Verdicchio began as a strong, high-alcohol wine, but has been refined into a fruitier, milder wine with a lower alcohol content. I think he was saying this was a result of American tastes for such wines, and is also the product of Italian wine-making efforts over the past thirty years to stabilise the quality of wines, while retaining their individual characteristics.

He talked about his growing methods, which we'd learned a bit about in our wine history classes. He said that previously they'd used four vines per plant but discovered that using only one would give more light to the plant, make it hardier and healthier, and therefore give a more reliable yield with less need for fertiliser. And then we tasted some wines (a couple of Verdicchios: Podium and Serra Fiorese, and a red from the other big Le Marche grape, Montepulciano: Grosso Agontano) after which we rampaged through the shop and then had a free supper. Which we enjoyed very much at Trattoria La Rocca, where - after running amok in the enoteca next door - we dined on fresh anchovies, fried sardines, crab pasta, battered wee fish and a lovely, lovely salad. And a sort of creamy lemon slurpee for dessert, followed by a very potent 'fisherman's coffee' and a pleasant amble back to the hotel along the tree-lined sea front.

Ghosts of the orange tree, Porto San Giorgio.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Le Marche - Our Day of Pork

View from a Trattoria.

The topic of vegetarianism has been well discussed by all of us on this pork-fest we call food school. This is repeatedly no course for vegetarians; even as the borderline veggies among us are starting to scramble back to the clean side of the line, the omnivores are talking more and more obsessively about vegetables, between bites of whatever part of the pig we're eating this meal. It was all taken to extremes on Wednesday when we had a food history lecture on pork, followed by a bit of salumi, followed by a six course meal of... pork.

Salumi, including (I hope I have these right): Ciavuscolo, a soft, spreadable salami flavoured with garlic; Salame di Fabriano, a knife-cut salami with whole peppercorns; and Testa in Cassetta, or head-cheese, this one including olives and almonds.

The lecture, by Prof. Hermes Ercoli, Università degli Studi di Macerata, took place in the breathtaking (view as well as temperature, which slowly plummeted through the afternoon) hilltop setting of Trattoria Damiani e Rossi.

First course: Filetto di maiale farcito con il suo fegato e pistacchi, salsa di bergamotto (the bergamot is what looks here like lemon rind but tastes like, well, Earl Grey tea!)

We watched the sun set over the Sibilline Mountains while we heard about the pig's rise and fall in myth, religion and practical matters of the table (an excellent post-script for me, having listened only last week to Barbara Klar's similarly broad-ranging treatment in Swine Before Pearls on CBC).

Second course: Maccheroni con il sugo delle costine.

We heard about the 'intolerance soup' made of pork that was served in a far-right sponsored soup kitchen in Paris only last year, which sought to divide the hungry - through religious dietary observance - into the 'real French' and those who the group sought to exclude through a culture of food.

Third course: Zuppetta di trippa di mailale con fagiolina del lago Trasimeno (tripe soup: who knew it could be so delicate?)

Then on to the pig's misfortunes which begin in etymology, its name tangling with the human body in Latin languages; in Italian, porco/corpo; in Latin, porcus/corpus; in French, porc/corp; and so on.

Fourth course: Polenta con sangue di maiale al profumo di arance. (Blood flavoured with oranges; we couldn't quite work out, even after eating, which part was blood)

A forest-dwelling creature, and one whose diet makes it a competitor for food with a hungry human population, the pig's fortunes suffered with the historical rise in agriculture and the reduction of its habitat. And religion stuck its oar in. St. Clement of Alexandria bad-mouthed it for its omnivorous and unwholesome appetites which might contaminate those who ate it with similar behaviours, and advised that a pure life is one without pork. Unfortunately for believers in pure theory, at the end of the Roman Empire, with Goths battling the Byzantines all over Le Marche, the area suffered a 98% reduction in its population, with whole villages committing suicide in times of imminent starvation. So the hungry inhabitants turned back to more practical pagan worship which at least allowed them to eat something that was gaining ground as the forest began to reclaim agricultural land.

Course five: Sella di Maiale arrostita con castagne e tartufo nero (with --ahh, even a bit of crackling, Italian style).

Needing to restore control, the pragmatists in the Christian church had to think of something. In accordance with the long tradition of Christian colonisation of pagan festivals, Feriae Sementivae, the winter feast of Ceres (Cerere / Demeter), the Roman goddess of grain, to whom swine were sacrificed, morphed into the feast of St. Anthony, who picked up the Christian thread and became friend to swine. At his feast there might be blessing of the animals, or the serving of bread, the crumbs of which would be taken home for the animals.

And finally, dessert: Savarin con gelato di pistacchi salata (as far as we could see, pork-free, but I'm not betting my life on that)

There is much more pig mythology we didn't get into, and much more to say about pigs in general than can be reported here, but our speaker left us with a few tantalising thoughts: pigs helped us to reinvent our world, he suggested; should the American flag not more appropriately feature the hot dog rather than the stars or stripes?

Saturday, March 03, 2007

A week in Le Marche - Olives

Ok, so I had never heard of Le Marche before I came to Italy. Well I had, I just didn't know what "The Marches" meant - it was a phrase out of turn of the century literature, I thought; and if I'd thought about it I probably would have believed it was an old demarcation that no longer existed. And in fact the term, meaning "borders" or "boundaries" has been used to describe the margins of many different countries.

In Italy, the name was bandied around through history due to this area's position between the north and south of Italy, which at one time marked the border of the Holy Roman Empire. It has been settled since paleolithic times, changing hands at intervals as the Picini gave way to the Romans who gave way to the Goths who gave way to alternating spheres of ownership by emperors and the papacy, until the fiefdoms gave way to free communes, and the area joined the kingdom of Italy in 1860 and that gave way to the republic in 1946. Now here we are in the modern era, watching successive colonisations by various armies of tourist and agribusiness.

We stayed pretty firmly in the central province of Ancona for our visit, named by previous owners for the "elbow" (agkonas)/Ancona, the eponymous industrial port that sits above Monte Conero, but caught glimpses of the others. Facing the Dalmation coast, Ancona is a big chunk of mountainous land well-provided with beaches for summer visitors.

Our hotel was in Porto San Giorgio, an off-season seaside town if ever there was one, the fronds of its palm trees bound up in bamboo against the winter storms, shutters drawn, shops and restaurants closed for the season. Or maybe not, since there are apparently a lot of out-of-towners from Rome and elsewhere with a proprietorial toe in the Adriatic who come up for weekends.

Among the many delights we tasted over the week, olive ascolane deserve special mention. These Italian equivalents of scotch eggs are made from olives (originally the nice big juicy Ascolana olives, of course) stuffed with or around meat filling, then breaded and fried. Lesser versions can be found in almost any supermarket in Italy, and there are many home-made versions. The ones we had were particularly fresh and tasty, so we're spoiled (yet again) for life.

We managed to hit a warm, breezy day for our tour round the 25 hectare olive grove at Azienda del Carmine, where they grow Ascolana (the first to ripen, in May), Leccino (a smaller olive), Frantoio (the name means 'olive press' we learned), and other varietals.

Our translator explains the use of pheromone traps which the growers use to check the progress of the Bactrocera oleae, the olive fruit fly which is the main pest for olive growers. It lays eggs in the olives which not only destroy the fruit but make the crop unpalatable for use in olive oil; because of the volume of olives you need to put through the press, it's impractical to try to sort the damaged olives, so prevention and chemicals are the only weapons there are. Instead of routinely treating their trees with pesticides as some of their neighbours do, these growers check the trees and fruit for flies and then treat only infested trees. Unfortunately it's been a bad year for them this year.

Every ten years, the olive trees need a rigorous pruning, which takes them a year or two to recover from, so the grove is pruned in sequence, 5 hectares at a time.

After a welcome opportunity renewing and showing off our olive oil-tasting skills on a couple of their top oils, we were treated to a big spread of breads, cheeses, salumi and salads.

Yep, marvellous mozzarella - and a couple of different pecorinos, a young one (fresco) and a stagionato, all delicious with splodges of condiments which included a peperoncino jelly. The revelation for many of us was the wonderful combination of top quality olive oil taken in a single lingering mouthful with a chocolate shot cup, and an equally surprising and equally fine idea: drizzled over vanilla gelato.