Friday, June 27, 2014

Saint Mary of the Olives

    Tuesday morning Fernando rounded us up to take us north to the archaeological museum in Salerno, his second city.  Salerno is a city of a bit over 100,000, a port town with a lungomare (coastal stretch) but most of which is sort of glommed onto the precipitous cliffs inland.  Pretty, but difficult to maneuver in.  We had come up the coast road, logically, but Sandy made an offhand remark about a picture of the sea, and, Fernando being the enthusiastic photographer he is, that’s all it took to send us off on a search for a spectacular vantage point.  Now, we were under the impression that the museum, like most such facilities in this part of Italy, was keeping morning and late afternoon hours only, and as the minutes ticked by and traffic became more and more intractable, I began to see my chance of seeing this gem of a museum slipping away.  Fortunately Sandy was kind enough to relent, and we took the next exit off the ‘beltline’ and headed downhill into the central city.  Along with everybody else in Salerno.  Salerno is filled with modern buildings, all on Medieval streets.  We inched our way through stop-and-roll, doglegging right and left, to the bottom of the cliff where we finally accessed the parking lot along the lungomare.  We strolled up to the corso, the main drag, now lined with modern office buildings on the ground floor of which were shops for some of the most famous names in fashion. Sandy perked up alarmingly, and I suspect her clone across the ocean in Brooklyn had tingling ears as well.

The museum building itself is a treasure.  Incorporated into its fabric, so to speak, is the western third of the cloisters of a medieval Franciscan monastery.  The middle third is now occupied by an ugly street, so typical of the disregard for the past in this country in an earlier era.  The eastern third and the bulk of the monastery is now a military camp.  What would gentle San Francesco think of that?  The museum is a hodgepodge of materials from all over southern Campania, mostly things excavated (haphazardly) during the Fascist era.  Once again, part of Mussolini’s mania for recovering the glorious Italian past—in the service of one of Italy’s most inglorious political hacks.  True to form, there were glorious things there:  neolithic artifacts from Sala Consilina, Pontecagnano, Eboli; gorgeous bronze and ceramic Etruscan goods from Fratte, a suburb of Salerno, Greek colonial ceramics so gorgeous our eyes were bugging, a good sampling of Roman sculpture, realia.  All incredibly poorly provenienced and documented.  The watchword for many of these excavations was, “Get this shit out of the ground and on display, and archaeological standards be damned!”  Not that I blame those poor guys; Mussolini was not noted for his gentle tolerance for those who did not cooperate with his megalomaniacal ambitions.

Happily, the museum remained open past 12:30, so we had ample time to savor it all.  Outside in the courtyard, a group of what appeared to be third graders was busy with some sort of art project and Sandy was happy to see that ‘cut and paste’ and the enthusiasm it engenders are universal.  My favorite of the courtyard artifacts was a Roman dolium, one of the huge terracotta fermentation vats for wine that the Romans used, almost 5’ tall, easily 4’ in diameter and holding some 200 gallons.  The Romans embedded these up to their shoulders in sand in the floors of their wine cellars.  Not so easily dinged and broken (one of these would easily have cost the equivalent of several hundred dollars) but, more importantly, offering thermal stability.  Cool fermentation and aging is the key to good wine.  The Romans new this perfectly well, but artificial refrigeration was beyond their technological capability so they found the best form of natural refrigeration they could.

After a rather disappointing lunch at a local restaurant—why would you drown fresh seafood in a heavy brown gravy?—we headed southeast down the A-3 autostrada toward the Monti Alburni, one of those dramatic-looking ranges we see in the Cilento that just seems to rocket out of the plain and whose limestone escarpments on top make them seem twice as tall as they are. We exited the autostrada, wound our way across the valley of the Calore River and into the foothills of the range to the beautiful little Medieval village of Serre, where Fernando had arranged to meet Antonino Mennella.  Signore Mennella is the proprietor of a local olive orchard and frantoio (oil processing plant).

We meandered out of town to the east, toward those gorgeous mountains, and, wow, what a place!  The Azienda Agricola Madonna dell'Ulivo is directly across the road from the lovely medieval church from which it takes its name.  Saint Mary of the Olives.  We have seen Mary associated with lots of things in our travels, from the sublime to the banal (one of the Greek isles venerates Santa Maria of the Public Baths), but this was a first.  And how appropriate!  Mary has simply subsumed the role of Athena/Minerva, ancient goddess of the olive tree.  Again, some of my Christian friends find those reflections of paganism in Christianity uncomfortable at best, but I think it was (and is) the genius of the Church that it tried to minister to the peasants where they lived, not on some exalted level.  And, make no mistake, the olive tree has been nothing short of life itself for Mediterranean peasants for thousands of years.

First of all, the olive tree will grow in marginal land where practically nothing else, not even the hardy vine, will grow.  It requires a minimum of care and in exchange for that care gives back the precious olive, year after year after year.  There are olive trees alive in the Mediterranean today that witnessed Roman soldiers marching by.  Or at least the shoots of those trees; olives are like redwoods in that the upper stories may be destroyed by cold or fire, but it is practically impossible to destroy the roots.  It is common to see a rugged old stump 8’ in diameter and all around its perimeter young shoots have developed into new, productive trees in turn.  In some cases where the stump is not too large these shoots will gradually merge to form a large, reticulated new trunk.  We see many of the old timers here in the south as well as the rejuvenated forms.  But not in the north!  Back in 1987 a severe freeze hit northern Italy and persisted at subzero nocturnal temperatures for 3 days.  And killed practically every olive tree north of Rome!  But the first summer we lived in Italy, 1995, we lived in Tuscany, and all across the landscape the young olive trees that had sprouted from those old roots were 15’ tall or so and were beginning to produce olives.  Old timers here used to say you planted an olive orchard for your grandchildren; it takes the tree almost 20 years to become fully productive, but then it will produce a bumper crop every other year for hundreds of years.

And not just any crop, but the precious olive.  Olive oil is packed with enough energy—a single tablespoon has something like 350 calories—to sustain an adult human for several months in a famine.  And not just any calories, but calories in one of the most healthful foods on earth.  A blessing indeed.
So we were predisposed to enthusiasm when we hit the ground at Signore Mennella’s azienda, but were still bowled over.  Beautiful ranks of olive trees cascaded down the hillside in perfect order, those lovely grey-green leaves shining in the sun, and off in the distance those dramatic cliffs.  Turning westward, there was the azure of the sparkling Tyrrhenian Sea.  And everywhere those delicious scents of wild rosemary, oregano, nepitella, spearmint.  Interspersed between the olives were fruits trees and we took the occasion to enjoy our first apricots plucked straight from the tree.

The frantoio was in an old farmhouse, but was anything but primitive.  Outside Signore Mennella showed us a brilliant stainless-steel apparatus for cleaning and destemming the olives.  Made in Germany, ironically, where they grow not one single olive. Inside, a large, brightly lit room with tile floors contained the other equipment for producing oil.  But not just any oil.  Signore Mennella produces a special kind of oil called nocciolo, very expensive but exquisite.  A word of explanation:  The olive is a berry that consists of a pit, a pulpy mass around the pit, and a tough, waxy skin.  The pulp, in turn, contains solids, the precious oil, and an aqueous liquid that it so bitter and astringent that if you were so foolish as to attempt to eat an unprocessed olive, even one dead ripe, your mouth would pucker up so tight you’d find it hard to speak for a few minutes.  Any southern kid who’s been stupid enough to try to eat an unripe persimmon (yeah, you know who) will know the feeling.  So the key is to separate the oil from the watery stuff.

No problem, right?  Oil and water have very different densities, as any cook who’s mixed a vinaigrette too early only to have it separate will know.  The problem is that as soon as those two components hit the air the bitter water (amurca is the Latin name) will start a fermentation which can be tasted in the oil.  So Signore Mennella has a special filtering device that separates the two as soon as they are macerated, rather than waiting for the physical action to do the trick for him.  More expensive, but a superior product.  Another surprise:  in the chapter of my book on olive processing I had commented it was odd that the Roman mill for pulping olives had a mechanism for ‘tentering’, that is, separating the millstones ever so slightly so that the pits would not be crushed.  Modern olive processors like to crush the pits because they make a very effective filter bed when pressing the pulp.  And then I made some excuse for why the Romans had screwed up.  Guess who screwed up?  The same dope who ate the persimmon.  Signore Mennella’s oil is called nocciolo because it is made from oliva denocciolato, pulp from which the pits have been separated, in this case by a centrifuge.  And why?  Because the pits also contain tannins which will taint the oil, ever so slightly.  

But appreciably.  We thanked Signore Mennella, made our way across the road to pay our renewed respects to St. Mary of the Olives, trundled home, and when we exited the car dear Fernando presented us with a bottle of the magic elixir.  It is hard to explain how much fruitier is this oil than the typical, even excellent, commercial oil.  So I’ll let you judge for yourself!  Fernando had actually explained to me about this special oil back in 2009 and I was so excited, despite my mistake, that when I returned to the states I googled it and bought some from an on-line specialty food purveyor.  Now, I ordered in November and after six weeks or so and no oil I wrote a snarky email asking where my oil was.  To which a nice young lady replied that this oil was produced in very small quantities and so was available only once per year while supplies lasted.  As the on-line ad had clearly explained.  I wrote a contrite email of apology and waited for my oil to arrive.  And when it did, in February, I was glad I had waited.  Signore Mennella’s oil is about double the price of a typical high-grade oil here, and he explained he had trouble selling in Italy, sadly, except to four-star restaurants, and so makes most of his sales through purveyors in Canada, the U.S. and Japan.  So imagine my delight when he showed us several bottles and I recognized the same logo I had seen on the bottle I had ordered!  It is available through out of Seattle and I encourage you to try it; these artisinal producers need all the encouragement they can get.  And in any case, the next time you enjoy a delicious, healthful olive oil, say a special little prayer to one extra-virginal lady who is the patron saint of, among many other things, one extra-virginal oil.

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