Sunday, 19 May 2013

Olive oil and lazy journalism

OK - I had to write this before I exploded with frustration and irritation! Just one example of the poorly researched rubbish I have been reading this weekend - EU bans dunking bowls. Or how about this one which is a little better but the comments are ridiculous - Olive Oil Diktat. And finally - Olive Oil jugs banned.

Yes, the EU has agreed a tightening up of the rules for labelling and use of olive oil in restaurants. You would think to read the UK press that they had proposed the dismembering and eating of live babies. The hysteria is ridiculous. They have not banned dipping bowls or anything else! Do feel free to read it for yourselves here: Marketing standards for olive oil.

Let me debunk some myths:
You can still have a dish for dunking your bread into. The oil just needs to come from one of the new bottles that you pour yourself at the table rather than a dish that has stood around for a while collecting detrius.
You can still have the same olive oil you always had - it just has to be in a non-refillable bottle (not single-use as I have seen reported) with a tamper-proof top (so that unsrupulous restauranteurs cannot refill it). On what level is this an infringement on your consumer rights or even a bad idea give the recent horse-meat scandal?

Let me ask you a question (slightly rhetorical of course):
Would you accept a bottle of wine in a restaurant that arrived at the table already open and without a label (even though the waiter assured you it was crushed by the feet of virgins)? I have to assume not. In which case why would you accept olive oil presented in this manner? Olive oil is just the fresh juice of the oil - nothing more, nothing less.

This legislation is a partial adoption of one that came into force in Italy at the beginning of this year. It requires all oil producers to adhere to strict labelling rules that state what type of olives were used, where they were grown and where they were pressed. In addition to this the oil must now be served to customers in the non-refillable, tamper-proof bottles mentioned by the EU. The idea is to discourage fraud, make it easier to discover and try to promote the same kind of discernment that consumers exercise when buying wine.

Corruption in the olive oil world is rife. What do I mean by corruption? I mean the mixing of inferior oil with extra-virgin (often adding chemical colourants and flavourings in the process) and flogging it at 100% Italian extra-virgin olive oil and charging accordingly. There are millions to be made by doing this. The unscrupulous big producers by cheap 'lamp oil' (what we call poor quality oil that years ago would have been used to light lamps and never used on food) or seed oils (completely different in their chemical make-up from live oil which is really a juice) and chemically treat them so they look like olive oil and maybe chuck some olive oil in too and sell it as extra-virgin. This happens in all the oil producing countries not just Italy. Tom Mueller, an America journalist who lives not far from us in Italy, wrote a fabulous book exposing the tricks these crooks use. This Guardian article is a precis of that book - Extra Virginity. In a recent test conducted on the West coast of America, 69% of the European imported oils were not what they said they were. As I said - it is rife.

How does this new legislation help?
Well, it now means that producers cannot pass off non-Italian oils as Italian first of all. They also cannot call something extra-virgin olive oil when in fact it is chemically enhanced sunflower oil. If the oils are blended they have to say so. Of course there is still nothing to stop the crooks from doing what they have always done but because of these new labelling rules and the rules governing the serving of the oil, it is much easier to check up on them and catch them out. If a mill has been found to be complicit in the adulteration of oil then these new measures mean any oil processed there can be found.

So, the upshot is that for us small producers this new legislation means we can now operate on a more level playing field. What we sell is exactly what it says on the tin or bottle and now the big boys have to do the same. It may go some way to educating the general public about what a good quality oil really is. Now they can see where it came from, the hope is people will be more discerning about what they use and buy - just like with wine.

OK rant over!

Saturday, 11 May 2013

Another walk - to Moudena

View of Apricale from the mule track
This winter and spring has been exceptionally wet (I could also say and miserable). It has held up our work on the land and kept us cooped up indoors far too much so the opportunity for another wak with the Apricalese from ASD A Draira was too good to pass up. It was a very last-minute affair as the weather had been so wet no-one knew if we'd be able to do the walk. The guys from A Draira had been busy clearing the mule track in preparation for our walk.

May Day dawned slightly cloudy and damp-looking but the forecast was not for rain, despite the downpour the night before. 9.30am was rendezvous time in the piazza in Apricale. A bit early for a bank holiday but we made it - even Ruby who was walking with us both this time. The plan was to walk down to the Romanesque bridge and then up the other hill a little way to the point where the mule track split off to Perinaldo. Here we would take the path for the little chapel of Moudena and the big clearing with its table and benches with a big BBQ. During the walk we would learn about the wild plants and herbs that grew in the areas and eat some for lunch. I was really keen on this as I love the idea of foraging for food. It would give us ideas for food at our future agriturismo too.
The ground was pretty wet and this time we had brought lots of water and dressed for warmer weather. Ruby had a hat, change of clothes and something to lay on if she needed a nap and we knew we'd probably have to carry her some of the way. 
The cobbled mule track
We set off downhill. Opposite the pharmacy we started on the wide, cobbled mule track down to the Romanesque bridge. We stopped several times while this or that plant was explained to us. Sadly I hadn't bargained on a grumpy daughter who wouldn't let me use my camera as she wanted to press the butttons or be picked up. This didn't bode well as we had only just started on our way! I managed a few pictures but couldn't take any notes so I now know you can eat these things but not which bit or how to prepare them. I'll have to find someone to fill in the gaps when I get a chance. That will make a separate blog post. The mule tracks are an incedible feat of work as they are wide and clearly well-made although many have fallen into disrepair. These would have been the only routes from one place to another years ago - with everything carried by mule or donkey.

Ruined water powered olive mill

Ruby eventually settled down and we past a beautiful ruined olive mill next to the river. Then we climbed onto the humped back of the bridge and peered down the river. It was surprisingly fast moving but still looked inviting as at various points the water runs through little rock pools. Could be wonderful in summer when the river is not so swollen with the Winter & Springtime rains.

The hump-backed bridge
Over the bridge we all went and here we started to climb. It was not too onerous for us but quite wet and muddy in several places. The cobbled steps were also quite high for little legs so up on Daddy's shoulders went our little Ruby. It is a beautiful wood and looks as if it was managed at one time as it is still very clear between the trees. 


Up we went a little further until we reached the crossroads we had been seeking. One way to Perinaldo and on to Moudena.
Ruby on Paul's shoulders
By now, any prentence of investigating wild plants has been abandoned. Stomachs were rumbling and Ruby was tiring. We were keen to reach our destination and the promise of lunch. We strided ahead (Ruby still on Daddy's shoulders) until the forest cleared and we passed little fenced areas growing vegetables and fruit. There were a couple of 20th century houses behind the plots. 

By this time Ruby had decided she had had enough but she had walked an incrediby long way for a 2 1/2 year-old with very little complaint. Luckily the great thing about living in Italy is there is always a 'Nonna' (Grandmother) to adopt and the lady in front of us took her by the hand and they walked together the rest of the way, stopping occasionally while the lovely lady pointed something out to Ruby. They even found a beautiful crystal with little pieces of wood inside which Ruby has in her box of treasures.

When we arrived at the chapel, which looks as if it was built in the 40's or 50's there was the lovely smell of charcoal burning and sound of children laughing and dogs barking. The rest of the children had arrived in the car with Petra and the others from Apricale. A group of men were tending the BBQ and there was a very long concrete table with concrete benches laid out with paper tablecloths, water, bread & wine. The table has a metal structure above it, perfect to cover in bamboo for some shade. What a great place for a BBQ. I was imagining it at night with candles and music and the metal frame covered in clematis or some other fragrant climber - another mental image filed away for our own place. Noris took a wonderful picture of us all with a pinhole camera.
Lunch Apricalese-style captured on a pinhole camera
We ate a salad of the wild plants gathered during our walk, torta verde, frittata and melanzane (aubergines) 'sotto olio' which were truly delicious. All washed down by organic red wine. Then came some fantastic sausages from the BBQ. We all ate very well. There was even coffee and liquers! Paul snuck off at some point to go and get our car. There was no way Ruby would walk back so he did the same walk back to Apricale to collect our new 4x4 Panda and drive it for the first time offroad to get to the chapel to pick us up. He came back with a huge smile on his face. He had thoroughly enjoyed himself and he has no interest in cars whatsoever. He loves this little car though!
Another wonderful day in Apricale.