Printer Friendly

Oil's well in Puglia.

Summary: While it's the more glamorous neighbourhoods of Florence and Tuscany that usually garner globalattention, this exotic strip of land in the South of Italyquietly calls out to the olive oil connoisseur.

As we get ready to touch down on the tiny airstrip of Bari on a cold November evening, I watch the city sprawled below like a luminescent lotus leaf floating on a dark sea. We're on an olive oil trail in Puglia, lodged discreetly in the very "heel" of Italy's boot.

During the one-hour ride to our hotel in the nearby town of Brindisi, old trees cast strange shadows along the dark stretch as we eagerly look around for olive groves. But we would soon learn that the vegetation in the countryside comprises little other than olive trees-gnarled giants that have stood here for hundreds of years, some for millennia, watching whole empires and provinces being built and razed. Far and in between, you find neat patches of bright green spinach and flush-red tomatoes, their lush colours and youthfulness a stark departure from the tortured venerability of the olive trees.

To the casual visitor, Puglia is associated with the exquisite beaches along the Adriatic Sea. Its sunny weather and tourist centres like the beautiful Baroque town of Lecce and Trullis of Alberobello are especially popular among domestic travellers. But as our local guide Luciano tells us, olive cultivation drives Puglia's economy. Over 40 per cent of Italy's mass consumed olive oil originates from this region. Some estimates put the figure at over 60 million olive trees, 240,000 farms and over a thousand crushing plants that operate in the sector - making Puglia the top regional producer of olive oil in Italy.

It's not just quantity but also the high quality of oil and fresh vegetables - tomatoes, aubergines, zucchini and greens are considered tastier due to the region's proximity to the sea - that make Puglia an epicurean delight. At restaurants in its urban centres of Monopoli and Corato, we munch on the favourite local appetiser, the season's freshly harvested black and green olives lightly fried in olive oil.

The pungency of the oil offsets the fresh bitterness of the olives. Fresh fish and robust vegetables make its cuisine one of the best in Italy, though it lacks the global recall that Florentine and Tuscan cuisines command. Olives form the very cultural soul of Puglia. Growing slowly into solid, monumental and generous trees, they create a strong link between entire generations. The ones growing in Puglia's red, rocky, water-deprived soil may be of shorter stature than those in the lush northern regions, but the olive oil produced here is considered to be the most palatable in the world - and known for its high vitamin content. At Pantaleo Agricoltura, a particularly lush green organic olive grove, younger plants share space with trees that are a few hundred years old. The 4,000 organically maintained trees here produce about 25 tonnes of premium extra virgin olive oil. A good thing too, considering the rising demand for the product in Europe, USA and even Japan.

Eager to acquaint myself with the delicate art of making the fruity pungent extra virgin olive oil, I ask senior journalist, writer and olive oil "oleologo" Luigi Caricato about the processes and parameters that go into identifying good oil. He says the complexity of the olive oil's flavours depends on the stage of maturity, time of harvest and swiftness with which it is crushed upon harvesting-the fruit should go into the crusher within 12 to 24 hours of being harvested. Underlining the fact that mature olives produce undesirable sweet oil, Caricato says, "Squeezing should happen when they haven't fully matured, the batch must have fruits of all colours and shades."

The kind of olives is also of prime importance - Italy grows 77 per cent of the 700 varieties found across the world. We are at the Pantaleo Refinery in Fasano, where India's top selling olive oil - Leonardo - is bottled. Here, extra virgin olive oil, refined olive oil and olive pomace oil is bottled and shipped to India. Their oils, infused with herbs and Mediterranean spices, are also being imported by Dalmia Continental.

Olive oil is serious business, not just as an economic driver, but as the subject of academic study. For connoisseurs like Caricato, it is a passion. Picking up freshly pressed oil, he sniffs and rolls it on his tongue to release the intense notes, before disclosing the quality, origin of the olives and the oil. For the farmers and personnel of crushing units spread across every little town in Puglia, it is knowledge that has been passed down generations.

Here, adherence to strict parameters ensures good yield as well as high quality produce. At the Oleificio Cooperative in Ostuni, a historic town marked by splendid architecture, farmers bring fresh harvest that is promptly loaded into the two crushing units-one for olives that have been plucked from the trees and the other for those picked off the ground. "The acidity of olives that hit the ground changes fast, and they don't make the best oil," Caricato says later. The author of several books on the subject, he explains why it is important to transfer the knowledge of choosing the right oil for the right purpose to the consumer - something that VN Dalmia, chairman of Dalmia Continental Pvt Ltd, has been trying to do in India for the last decade. "Ever since we launched Leonardo Olive Oil in 2003, a large part of our work has revolved around increasing awareness on the different varieties of olive oil, and how it can be used in Indian cooking," he says.

In the last 10 years, Leonardo's business has grown by 66 per cent. As much as 56 per cent of its sales are from pomace oil, while the extra virgin segment has remained constant at 17 per cent.

Unlike pomace, extra virgin olive oil is unprocessed - providing the benefits of anti-oxidants, vitamins A, B, E and K, and healthy fats. With 220 molecules affecting its taste, pungency and colour, it grows on you quickly, like it did on me, as I travelled along Puglia, dipping freshly baked breads into every variety of extra virgin I could lay my hands on. Sometimes it's grassy, sometimes it smells of tomatoes, sometimes artichokes. Once, the pungent oil gently scalded my throat, but I was told that it was just the polyphenols at work. My love affair with olive oil had only just begun.

Olive trails Puglia has four Strade dell'olio or olive oil routes - Castel del Monte, Terre d'Ulivi, Bitonto, Collina di Brindisi, and Daunia. Originating from the port town of Brindisi, the 140-kilometre stretch of roads provides you with a chance to taste and purchase the local oils. Restaurants serve a taste of Puglia's riches. These routes connect to old mills surrounded by mammoth olive trees that are probably as old as time itself, and some out-of-use farms that have been converted into museums. These routes are also being tied to Italy's enogastronomy tours-food and wine trails-which focus on small inland villages, so tourists can experience and rediscover the natural resources and local traditions. When here, seek the Regione Puglia-recognised signposted routes that protect the quality and history of the region's assets - the green and purple fruits that no gourmand or fitness enthusiast in the world can do without.

Reproduced From Business Today. Copyright 2014. LMIL. All rights reserved.

Copyright 2014 India Today Group. All Rights Reserved. Provided by , an company
COPYRIGHT 2014 Al Bawaba (Middle East) Ltd.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2014 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Publication:Business Today More (New Delhi, India)
Date:May 9, 2014
Previous Article:Flights of fancy.
Next Article:Make it a round trip.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters