A view from the castle of Cacchiano.
It is illegal to cut down an olive tree in Tuscany without a permit. That’s not to say that there are thousands of Giovanni Appleseeds in jail in Florence. If you do cut down an olive tree you just have to plant another one to replace it. The law is a product of the last century. But the idea isn’t new. There have been laws regulating olive trees since Hammurabi ruled Babylon nearly 4,000 years ago.
Part of what makes Tuscany so charming to us visitors is that the countryside looks pretty much like it did 400 years ago. The landscape is still all rolling hills topped with fortified castles that overlook forests, vineyards, and groves of olive trees. The castles used to house nobility that maintained small armies to protect the local peasants from marauding soldiers (for a price, naturally). Today many of the castles are still private residences, but the main industry has shifted from war to agriculture. The primary products are wine and olive oil.
Olive oil isn’t a cash crop in Tuscany.
Many Tuscan olive oil producers lose money on their oil. The yield at Castello di Cacchiano, a thousand year old estate near Siena in Tuscany, is about fifteen pounds of olives per tree. That translates into less than a liter of oil per tree. On average, they’ll get about 4,000 liters—8,000 bottles— of extra virgin olive oil from their grove. By contrast, in the South of Italy, yields can be over 400 pounds per tree. The bigger Southern yields are the product of warmer temperatures, which let the olive trees—and the types of olives they produce—grow to be bigger. By the time you get as far north as Tuscany, the occasional hard frost every 30 years or so kills off most trees before they get to be so large. (By the way, the last hard frost in Tuscany was in 1985—so the next one is statistically due to happen any time now.)
If they could many Tuscan landowners would chop down their olive groves to plant vineyards. The wine they produce—especially in more famous regions like Chianti, where Castello di Cacchiano is located—is a real breadwinner. But since it’s illegal to remove the olive trees, they keep on producing oil each year, and we get to reap the benefits.
Olives ripen and are harvested in fall.
The olive harvest runs from October to December. Unripe olives are green, ripe ones are black. In Tuscany they pick them just as they start to ripen. They’re pressed into oil right away, usually the same day. The fresh oil is stored in casks for a few months to let any leftover bits of olives or other sediment sink to the bottom. That way, when Cacchiano olive oil is bottled in the spring, they can do so without filtering it. That makes the flavor more powerful.
Just like different vintages of wine vary, olive oils are different from year to year based on weather and other changing conditions. But unlike wine olive oil does not get better with age. Fresher olive oil has bolder, more vibrant flavors. As olive oil ages, it mellows. After a few years it will go rancid. But you’ll be done with your bottle long before that happens so there’s no need to worry.
We get our first shipment of the new oil each year in May, imported directly from Tuscany. The day they arrive is a little like olive oil Christmas morning: we know what we asked for but we don’t know exactly what we’re going to get. We can’t wait to open the boxes and find out.
Cacchiano olive oil is powerful.
We crack open a bottle as soon as our container is unloaded. Cacchiano’s aroma is usually incredibly grassy. Someone once described it as “fresh cut lawns on a suburban Sunday.” It has bitter notes, like unripe walnuts and green bananas. At the end there’s a slow-building, strong, peppery kick that tingles down your throat long after you finish.
Oils from different places have different flavors. There are all sorts of reasons for that, including the type of olives grown, the ripeness when they’re picked, and the way they are handled when they’re turned into oil. Different regions tend to favor different qualities. Oils from Liguria in Northern Italy are appreciated for their delicate flavors that make them great for making pesto or pouring on fish (Liguria being the Italian riviera). In Provence in Southern France, olives are often left to ferment a bit before pressing them in order to develop a rich, buttery flavor in the oil. In Tuscany, bold, peppery flavors are king.
Cook up a taste of Tuscany at home with five classic Tuscan dishes.
1. Fettunta: toasted bread with plenty of olive oil poured on top. Think bruschetta without the tomatoes.
2. Panzanella: leftover bread tossed with tomatoes and other vegetables, then soaked with good vinegar and olive oil.
3. Zuppa di fagioli alla Toscana: thick soup made of beans, salt, pepper, garlic, and a hefty glug of olive oil.
4. Pasta al pomodoro: pasta cooked al dente, then tossed with a generous amount olive oil, garlic, tomatoes, and basil.
5. Bistecca alla Fiorentina: grilled T-bone steak served with olive oil and a squeeze of lemon.