Interview: Famiglia Creanza Olive Oil

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Tonio's olive oil is one of our shop's best-kept secrets. From personal experience, I can attest that it is the most delicious olive oil I have ever tasted. With that said, Janaki and I decided to interview Tonio, who provides us with his tasty product, and a second interview about his wonderful company, Messors, is up next.

Tell us about your family's olive grove, the type of trees, cultivation, and area.

Our family farmland and olive groves are located in the central Murgian plains of Puglia, the southern heel of Italy. My family has grown durum wheat, almonds, and olives for six generations. The orchards are located on ventilated hills which are rich with limestone. We have 700 Olea Europea trees and grow three varieties of olives that are indigenous and typical of the region; ogliarola (20%), silletti (40%) and coratina (40%). The trees vary in age from 4 to 400 years old, with the majority of them being around 80 years old. We use natural methods of fertilization that we mulch into the soil (partially made up of spent crops, especially fava beans, for their nitrogen-accumulating properties). We rely on the natural average rainfall as our method of irrigation, and do not pump in water from other sources.

What is unique about your olive oil's flavour, what is its flavour profile like?

The oliarola olive is very fruity and dense, the siletti has a smooth taste and the coratina is peppery, bitter and fruity. Together the blend produces an olive oil that is a vibrant, rich green colour. It is dense, and fruity with bitter notes and a peppery aftertaste. The peppery notes you taste indicate the contents of polyphenols, which are healthy, beneficial antioxidants, and preserve the olive oil itself. Our family, The Creanza family's olive oil is extra virgin, and cold-pressed.

What are some misconceptions about some of the types and uses of olive oil, and how can people use it better?

A true extra virgin olive oil is obtained from crushing and pressing the fruit of the olive trees, and is extracted through a mechanical steel milling process. Other definitions often seen on labels, like pure, refined or lite are used for marketing purposes: These label definitions often mean that the oil has somehow been altered from its purest form. Lite or refined gives the impression that it is somehow better for you than the virgin oil itself -- it is not. As consumer, you want to look for extra virgin olive oil, to obtain its natural health benefits. And if you can, look for olive oils that are from smaller producers that indicate where the olive is grown and pressed, rather than ones are labeled as Italian blends. The only other definition on labeling of extra virgin olive oil is cold pressed, which means that the process of extraction has been monitored in a way that the temperature doesn't go above 27°C, which retains the integrity of the oil's properties. It is very important to keep a bottle or can of olive oil in a dry, dark place, because olive oil is sensitive to light, which can change its properties.

In Italy, and especially in my region, Puglia, olive oil is basic in our diet. We use it for dressing, cooking, baking, and preserving. We do not make a distinction between finishing oils and cooking oils. Cooking with olive oil at a low temperature makes for a very flavourful dish with a very low saturated fat content. With my own family here in Canada, I've introduced olive oil instead of butter, for making pancakes and for sandwiches, etc.

What are some of your menu suggestions for how to serve or use your olive oil?

I use it for everything! We use it on all our salads with a little vinegar (we don't traditionally use balsamic), salt and pepper. We drizzle it on all our fresh pasta dishes. We use it in it simplest form as our flavour or spice.

  • Puglian brushcetta: Rub bread slices with sliced garlic cloves, toast, top with spoonfuls of an olive oil-marinated mixture of fresh sliced tomatoes, wild arugula and salt.
  • Preserve fresh mushrooms and peppers in olive oil: Boil water and vinegar, add fresh sliced cardoncelli (oyster) mushrooms for a couple of minutes, place them in a jar with sliced garlic and parsley, eat them next day with dense durum wheat bread. Keep them stored between 12 and 16°C; they get better every day.
  • Taralli: It's our savoury snack food, made of a flour dough, salt, and lots of olive oil. It's then rolled into tiny twists that are baked in the oven until crispy. You can find recipes for them online.
  • Octopus and fennel salad: Boil octopus in water and a little vinegar for several minutes. Let it rest, then mix with sliced fennel, parsley, garlic, salt, pepper and a very generous amount of olive oil. Let it marinate for several hours and serve at room temperature with crusty bread.
  • Make your own rustic pesto: Slightly brown walnuts, crush them with salt, fresh basil and lots of olive oil. Let it rest for a couple of hours, mix it with cooked warm tagliatelle pasta, and sprinkle with freshly grated parmigiano.
  • Dry your own very thin slices of zucchini in the sun, then mix with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper.

My very favourite dishes from home are simple and traditional:

  • Mashed fava beans and steamed bitter greens (example: wild chicory) with olive oil and garlic
  • White beans with pasta, dried hot peppers and olive oil
  • Beef or horse carpaccio, with grated hard flakes of Grana Padano, Pecorino, or Parmigiano, wild arugula, and drizzled with olive oil.
  • A very traditional lunch for shepherds and or farmers, called cialehed, which is an egg, a tomato, bitter greens, onion and garlic boiled and served over day-old bread and drizzled with lots and lots of olive oil.

When I was growing up, olive oil was also used as a remedy to calm inflamed skin irritations, eaten by the spoonful to calm an upset stomach, and as a moisturizer for very dry skin or hair.

Tell our readers about your volunteer program that people can attend, to harvest olives and explore Italy?

Every season we host volunteers to help with our family's yearly harvest, which takes place in November and December. Volunteers are involved in the daily process of the harvest: Picking the olives, laying nets out under the trees, raking the branches, filling crates and transporting them to the local press in town at the end of each day. The help is invaluable, and makes the stressful process of harvesting before the possible onset of frost go that much smoother. Volunteers learn about how the fruit of the olive is grown, harvested and made into oil, and we like to share our methods of organic farming, and what has been our family's culture for so many generations. I take the volunteers on excursions to historical sites, museums, neighbouring towns, and the coastline. We also try to socialize with locals in town for music and theatre events, festivals, etc after dinner. Also, in exchange, there is no cost for meals or accommodation.

I heard that it's grueling, but satisfying work. Can you expand on this?

Its a yearlong cycle of the olives' cultivation, and pruning and tending of the trees. When the right time arrives to harvest the olive, it's really hard work, no joke! The daylight during harvest season is short, so the morning work begins very early. This season can be erratic, so we try to judge when exactly to pick. It can be very very warm, but there is always the threat of rain or even possible frost, so we work intently and fast. The product of live oil is very precious; a tree yields 40 pounds of olives, producing 3 to 3.5 litres of olive oil; a person can pick 200 pounds of olives per day, or about 15 to 17 liters of oil. To try to beat the unknown factors, our tendency is to try to get as much picked in a day as possible. It usually takes around two-and-a-half weeks of full 8-hour days if everything goes well. Rain can slow the process down, and sometimes if it has rained during the night, we try to wait for the sun to dry out some of the wet soil that can feel like boulders cemented to each boot as you lift them, making work that much more difficult. I grew up doing this, so I am accustomed to the work. I know from volunteers that the work is very very hard, but there is a pleasure that they say comes from it later, a satisfaction of having worked so hard physically that was personally satisfying, and knowing how something that they consume was made - Where it comes from, what's involved, meeting the people who make what they eat and buy, etc. They say it's rewarding, and instills a sense of pride once they are back home, and can say "Hey, I made this!" , or "I know about how this was made, let me explain." It's a great kind of wealth, knowing where our food comes from and understanding the work that goes into making it, and it does provide a cultural exchange of understanding.

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