A Winter Tradition In Tuscany: Fresh Olive Oil Over Everything

Posted: March 14, 1993

FLORENCE, Italy — In Italy, scorpacciata (skor-pah-CHA-tah), or just simply scorp, is a focused binge that concentrates on specific foods that are frequently seasonal and/or regional.

Spring strawberries, cherries or asparagus, tomato or truffle season, a special dessert, a midnight spaghetti snack or a big holiday dinner may all be opportunities for a serious scorp.

One of the most serious scorps takes place each winter in Tuscany, when freshly pressed, almost phosphorescent green, aggressively peppery olive oil is abundantly poured over practically everything at the table.

The Tuscans top bread-thickened soups with a C-shaped drizzle of just- pressed extra-virgin oil and drown beans in it. They use it to dress potatoes and black cabbage, and dip raw winter vegetables into it.

Just-pressed olive oil is a special condiment - don't think of it as a regular oil. It's used raw, straight from the bottle at the table, and is definitely not for cooking or frying.

On farms outside Florence, after the grapes have been picked and wine has been made but before winter arrives, green olives ripen and turn red, then purple and finally black.

Pickers on ladders use wooden combs to pull fruit from the branches of olive trees bred specifically for oil. Parachutes are spread under the trees to catch the olives, a mixture of immature green, partially ripe speckled red and fully developed purple-black fruit. This blend of olives and ripeness contributes to the complexity of central Italy's extra-virgin olive oils.

Olives from warmer, coastal or lake regions with milder climates have more time to mature and produce a sweeter, fatter, riper, yellower oil.

The harvested olives are quickly transported in low crates, barrels or burlap bags to an oil mill. Speed and delicacy are required, since a massed pile of bumped-around olives may start to heat up, ferment and acidify, ruining the oil before it's even processed.

At traditional mills, olives are washed, most leaves are removed and the fruit is ground under a granite wheel. The paste thus produced is piped onto round woven disks (which are piled up like a stack of records), and the paste is lightly pressed. (The pits facilitate drainage.) The juice that streams off the mats is collected and centrifuged, separating the lighter oil from the vegetation water.

This is virgin olive oil, made from first-time, lightly pressed (no excessive methods used for greater extraction) olives, with maximum acidity of 2 percent, but most quality extra-virgins have far less. The stuff known as olive oil is extracted with chemical solvents, then refined, deodorized, deacidified and blended with virgin for flavor and color.

Faced with a shelf of olive oil bottles of different sizes and shapes, oils of different colors and a wide range of prices, how can the consumer choose a quality extra-virgin?

Just look for three little words on the label of any extra-virgin: ''prodotto e imbottigliato" (produced and bottled). Those words guarantee that the oil is made from a producer's own olives.

Imbottigliato means bottled, and olives or already-pressed oil can come

from a neighboring grove, southern Italy, Spain, Greece or even north Africa. It can still be first-rate, blended by a master, but you're taking a chance that it migadded at the last moment, before serving, and never heated.

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Busy olive-oil millers barely have time to eat during the crush. They prepare an easy-to-execute garlic bread snack on a heater/stove while working at the cold, damp, oily-aired mill. Bread is lightly toasted, rubbed with garlic and dipped in newly pressed olive oil, resulting in the dish known as Fettunta, a contraction of the words fetta (slice) and unta (oily).

The recipe is fast, easy and tasty. It has no cholesterol, it needs no special equipment or skills, and it calls for only five ingredients (four for garlic-haters), including salt and pepper. It's meatless and milkless, and the olives don't suffer.

Unsalted, rustic Tuscan bread, white or whole-wheat, is the bread of choice to pair with fresh olive oil. Almost any basic, water-based, butterless, country-style bread will do. One slice per person isn't enough for a good scorp, but it's a beginning.

FETTUNTA

(TUSCAN GARLIC BREAD)

4 slices (1-inch thick each) rustic bread

4 cloves garlic (see note)

About 3/4 cup freshly pressed extra-virgin olive oil

Salt and fresh ground pepper to taste

Toast, grill or broil bread slices until lightly browned on both sides. Rub 1 clove unpeeled garlic over surface of each slice. Liberally pour oil over garlicked bread. Sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately. Makes four servings.

Note: Garlic grates itself on hardened toast.

Cavolo con le Fette is an austere, easy-to-assemble, first-course soup.

Tuscan black cabbage is boiled until tender and served atop a piece of toasted, garlicked bread, then moistened with black cabbage broth and garnished with newly pressed extra-virgin olive oil.

This cabbage is rarely seen outside Tuscany, but kale can be substituted. And although red, Savoy or regular cabbage may not be the choice of Tuscan purists, they can be used if they're the freshest stuff around. The vegetable and broth can be prepared in advance and reheated before serving.

CAVOLO CON LE FETTE

(TUSCAN CABBAGE SOUP)

8 ounces kale or cabbage

6 cups salted water

4 slices (1 inch each) rustic bread

4 cloves garlic

1/2 to 3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Remove tough central ribs and/or core of kale or cabbage leaves. Tear into pieces or coarsely chop. Cook in 6 cups salted boiling water until kale is tender and water is flavored with kale, 15 to 20 minutes. Tuscans overcook vegetables, so traditionalists should use a large pan of water and boil kale at least 1 hour, covered. Reserve 2 cups of the broth and drain cabbage.

Lightly toast bread. Rub each slice with 1 clove unpeeled garlic and place in 4 soup bowls. Layer cabbage on toast and ladle over 1/2 cup broth per bowl. Top each with 2 to 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper and serve. Makes four servings.

Note: A more substantial dish can be produced by pureeing half the cooked cabbage with its broth and topping toast with broth-puree, cabbage, olive oil,

salt and pepper.

White beans, soft and starchy, a Tuscan favorite, are drowned in freshly pressed extra-virgin olive oil. At the mill, a dish of drained canellini (white beans) is placed under a spigot gushing newly pressed extra-virgin olive oil.

In a reversal of traditional roles, the condiment costs more than the food it adorns. If you've got phenomenal oil, it would be a shame to use canned beans, but quick-soaked or pressure-cooker cooking methods may substitute for the slow, low-heat, Tuscan bean-pot technique.

FAGIOLI AFFOGATI

(DROWNED BEANS)

2 cups white beans

6 quarts water

A few sage leaves

1 teaspoon salt, plus to taste

1 clove garlic, peeled

Freshly ground pepper

1 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Soak beans in 3 quarts of the water overnight in a large pot. (Tradition- bound Tuscans use a glass wine flask, which is placed in a fireplace near embers, or a bulbous red-clay bean pot with a tapered neck is placed over a low flame on a stove.)

Drain beans and return to pot along with 3 quarts fresh cold water. Add sage leaves, 1 teaspoon salt and garlic. Place pot over minimum heat (the lower the better) and cook until tender, which may take up to 2 1/2 hours, stirring occasionally with wooden spoon.

Drain beans and place in serving dish. Season to taste with salt and pepper and cover with olive oil. Makes 16 side-dish servings or about 8 heartier servings.

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