Olive oil at its glorious green-golden best is an ingredient of joy for cooks. Chefs love to use it to finish a dish to add that final touch of glistening brilliance. However, few understand where and how it is produced. Chandos Elletson went to Italy to join the harvest.
Maurizio Bocchi is not a typical Italian chef. You can't be typical if you decide to open an Italian restaurant that specialises in rigourously traditional Italian cooking in the middle of a Lancashire village that is really in the middle of nowhere.
La Locanda, the restaurant Maurizio runs with his wife Cinzia, is in Gisburn which is situated on the busy A59 between Clitheroe and Skipton. Parking is difficult and if you are driving through you could be forgiven for giving a fleeting thought to stopping before pressing on to somewhere more convenient.
Those who ignore convention are given a warm welcome and a treat. Maurizio's food is like being in Italy for real. But Maurizio's real passion is olive oil and he's become a passionate advocate for Italian olive oil that he cherishes above all others.
To demonstrate this he invited me to come with him to Le Marche in Eastern Italy and witness the olive harvest and see how one of his favourite oils is produced. Of course I said yes. There is no greater joy as far as I am concerned than visiting a foreign country with a knowledgeable guide and the promise of something good to eat.
So, with camera in bag, Maurizio and I flew to Rome from Manchester, took the coach to the main railway station and got on a train across Italy from one side to the other. Our destination was a town called Recanati on the Adriatic coast and there, Maurizio told me, was one of the last two remaining stone olive presses in Italy.
As we bumped and rocked our way across Italy, crossing mountain ranges and swollen rivers, Maurizio explained why olive oil production was such a big deal.
"Olive oil is like wine in that the olives are harvested from a tree like grapes but the similarity stops there. The moment the olives are picked they start to oxidise and from that point on the deterioration begins.
"It is imperative that they be pressed as quickly as possible to preserve the vital ingredients they contain. The most important of these ingredients is polyphenol which is becoming more and more widely recognised as an important anti-oxidant in one’s diet.
"The problem is that polyphenols can be lost if the olives are not pressed straightaway or there is too much heat used to press them."
My head was already starting to swim. Strange-sounding chemicals was not what I signed up for but the mention of heat aroused my interest. They don't heat them do they, I asked?
"When the olives are crushed they produce a pulp and that pulp is then pressed. This literally squeezes out the oil. This process produces heat and if the temperature is not regulated, the olive pulp can overheat. The perfect temperature is 27°.
"That is the reason for the stone and the natural method of pressing. The stone keeps the temperature down but it is labour-intensive and that is why the vast bulk of olive oil is made using mechanical machines that use a variety of methods to automatically remove the oil. Some use tiny needles, for example, that puncture the olive skin. But all this produces heat.”
After nearly four hours on the train we reached our stop at Jesi and were collected by Gabriella Gabrielloni, one of the two sisters who run the olive oil business. She took us straight to the factory unit (which it really wasn't) to see how the process worked.
I was expecting something a bit antiquated, a bit like an old windmill with a huge stone press, but actually it was a modern unit. The stone press was two huge stone wheels, like tractor wheels, that turned remorselessly and crushed everything underneath them with terrifying ferocity.
But all that was for the next day. Gabriella took us to their home which is surrounded by olive trees and has a wonderful view over the hills to the nearby sea. It really is quite magical.
At this point in the story it would have been easy to put my feet up, enjoy the hospitality and watch the olive oil being produced. I could then have written a very worthy story about olive oil. But that's not the way I work.
I had come to Italy with a chef and I wanted to experience the oil with some food that Maurizio cooked. So, we sat down at dinner and made a plan. It turned out that the food we ate was of equal importance to the oil. Indeed, it could be said, that without food the oil would be pointless.
I understood this perfectly when the first course was served. You read about Italian home cooking but somehow the magnificence of it doesn't hit home until it is there in front of you face to face. Our first course was ravioli filled with fresh sheep's milk ricotta. This was drizzled with fresh olive oil from that day and tiny, beautiful rosemary flowers from the garden.
I am not a micro herb fan, I admit. I feel that this current movement to adorn all dishes with cress-like stems and leaves is pretentious and pointless, but here in Italy I was shown how it should be done.
The tiny rosemary leaves were wild, seasonal and were naturally in the garden. One on each raviolo was all that was needed and their effect was incredibly subtle. More would have been an insult and this is a lesson I feel all chefs need to learn. Less is more. Natural is always preferable over contrived. Food, at its best, is simple not clever. Those ravioli were a delight.
The next day was rain, a lot of it, and the sisters were concerned. They'd had a good run of weather but now the rain could have a big effect on the olives. Water now means that the olives swell up and absorb the liquid rather than produce more oil.
We went to see the process in action at the unit before going shopping by the seaside for fish. The previous evening I had spotted a wood-fired oven and a huge stone shelf that was used for grilling over embers. My task for Maurizio was fish, bread and oil - all cooked outside.
I mentioned bread because Maurizio used to be a baker. He had grown up in Northern Italy on Lake Maggiore near Milan and had studied farming at college before finding his heart in cooking.
At the unit I got to see how the process works. The olives are separated from the leaves and then washed before being thrust under the giant wheels of stone. The pulp is then taken and put between mats until a huge cylinder of mat, paste, mat, paste is formed - a little like a giant döner kebab.
This is then taken to a pressing machine which slowly squeezes it all together, releasing the oil and the water they contain. This liquid is collected and put through a second machine that separates the oil from the water.
This is the first olive oil and the one we were using back at the house. It is not a pure oil yet but it is celebrated at the time of the harvest. It is a deep green and is completely heavenly. It is full of peppery polyphenol and they say, when you drink it, that you should cough. I did. This is a sign of the high polyphenol content.
To finish the oil it goes through a final machine that separates out the last bits of fibre and water and becomes the finished product. It is then stored in tall metal containers and flushed with nitrogen to keep the oxygen at bay. It is not bottled until it is ordered.
Olive oil hates light and must be kept in the dark. Light quickens the oxidation and olive oil will start to lose its properties after about a month after opening. So the advice is always to buy it in small vessels that can be used up quickly.
As it was raining I mentioned to Maurizio that we hadn't actually seen the harvest but I was assured that the next day would be better and we'd actually get our hands dirty. So, with that settled, we headed off for Porto Recanati and fish.
We bought local squid, octopus and a type of mackerel as well as a box of small fish for fritto misto. Maurizio was excited about his cooking and when we got back he got to work with the wood-fired oven and the grill.
That afternoon I watched him work with the fish along with the Mama of the family. It was wonderful to watch the women work in the kitchen with such passion and authority. The squid and the octopus were reserved for the next day and were marinated in olive oil, garlic and lemon juice.
The next morning it was time to harvest. This was a simple process of stripping the olives off the branches with bare hands and letting them fall onto nets that caught them. That was it. They were then driven off to be pressed. It really was a simple process.
In the late afternoon Maurizio lit the oven and got olive wood for the grill fire. He had made bread dough that morning and baked it in the wood-fired oven. He built up the grill fire and put the marinated squid and octopus on the grill.
He also took the mackerel and baked them in the oven on stone roof tiles. I picked at one when it came out of the oven and it was sensational, but the best was yet to come.
I need to describe what happened in detail because this was one of the greatest moments of eating I have ever experienced.
The table was being laid for dinner. The day had been fabulous. The blue sky came out. I had watched transfixed as the octopus was laid over the embers and started to cook. The smell of the bread in the wood-fired oven was intoxicating.
Maurizio declared that the first of the octopus was ready and we stood there ripping the tendons off and smearing them with that morning's oil and eating them with the bread from the oven. It was messy, it was spontaneous and it was heaven. The faint char on the octopus along with the sweetness of its flesh which revealed itself with every chewy mouthful was a sensation and all this rotated with mouthfuls of hot bread.
There comes a time when food just needs to be eaten there and then. There is no time for manners or plates or even knives and forks. It is at these primal moments when the joy of eating is at its most sublime.
It proved that the oil married to the food in the right moment ignited all the senses in one magic moment that I will never forget.