Thousands of kilometres separate this town in central Calabria from Uxbridge, Ont., northeast of Toronto, but they are intimately close by virtue of family, culture, and love and near reverent appreciation of pure olive oil.
The families are the Fazaris here, their cousins, the Tramontis in Uxbridge, the culture is southern Italian and their olive oil rated one of the best in the world.
European Union-accredited olive oil taster and author Charles Quest-Ritson tasted more than 2,000 olive oils from the world's top producing countries and rated Olearia San Giorgio No. 1 for value in his book Eyewitness Companions Olive Oil.
For a world awash in adulterated, fake, mislabeled and inferior olive oil, that is saying something.
“The results are stupendous,” he writes in the book.
That's what Vincenzo Tramonti, a retired auto worker with a longing to better connect his former homeland to his adopted homeland, found when he used to bring a few bottles of his cousin's olive oil back home for family and friends. “They kept asking for more,” he says.
That good-natured pressure and an entrepreneurial bent led Mr. Tramonti and one of his sons, Angelo, to form a company about eight years ago, Sarafino, to import the olive oil and other specialty Italian foods. The San Giorgio olive oils can now be found in restaurants and stores throughout Southern Ontario.
On the Fazari estate, on the edge of the Aspromonte Mountains in the middle of the Italian peninsula, Domenico Fazari gives a tour of his olive groves and his modern mill and bottling plant.
Always, his focus and emphasis is on maintaining high standards of growing, picking and pressing. For example, his olives are pressed within 24 hours of being picked. That is crucial to minimize oxidation and enzymatic reactions. The olives are milled using continuous-cycle machines, then separated, filtered and stored in temperature-controlled stainless-steel tanks. Light, heat and oxygen destroy olive oils health-benefiting properties. Refining olive oil or applying heat destroys the vitamins, essential fatty acids, antioxidants and other nutrients.
At one time, much of the olive oil grown in this area was lampante – used not for consumption but for lighting oil lamps.
In fact, Mr. Fazari says, the Spanish king of Naples, who held dominion over southern Italy in the 19th century, ordered that most of this region’s olive oil, produced on world’s tallest olive trees, was to make enough lampante to light Naples on the Tyrrhenian Sea and Bari on the Adriatic.
Starting in the 1980s, dovetailing with rising global demand for extra virgin olive oil, the Fazaris started to shift strategy, focusing on using Calabria’s ancient cultivars (mainly ottobratica and carolea) planted on about 140 hectares to produce world-class oil by marrying old-time labour with innovative technology.
“The olive tree represents the hard work of the Calabrian farm workers. It is a plant that requires ancient know-how about its cultivation and a devotion that is typical of the men and women from the south,” says Mr. Fazari, whose grandfather started the business.
“Nowadays, this knowledge about olive growing is expressed in terms of quality and professionalism, two distinctive characteristics of our company policy that we intend to preserve and protect.”
These days, that’s tough to do. “It’s not easy,” Mr. Fazari says. “Today oils are sold from €3 to €25 [$4 to $33]a litre, and uneducated consumers don’t know the difference. It’s a difficult thing.”
In 2007, the New Yorker exposed the underbelly of the global olive oil industry, in which consumption had skyrocketed and the temptations of easy profits proved irresistible: Widespread fraud involving so-called Italian olive oil that came from other countries, purported olive oil that was half hazelnut oil and oil made from pressed olive waste masquerading as virgin olive oil.
In Canada, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, in its random testing, has caught several companies importing oil labelled as extra virgin olive oil that was, in fact, blended with 50 per cent sunflower oil.
For producers such as the Fazaris, protecting the brand name by maintaining purity is key. Their biggest customer is Germany, where their olive oil is in Michelin-star restaurants and boutique stores. This summer, the olive oil is coming to Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue Eataly store, a Turin-based food emporium associated with the slow food movement.
For Mr. Tramonti, his labour of love is made complete not only by his family in San Giorgio Morgeto, but also by being able to bring together his former and present homelands.
“I’m really proud to be a Canadian citizen and I’m really proud of being born in Calabria,” he says. “That’s given me the best of two worlds, and has given me the privilege of bringing an incredible olive oil to Canadians.”
Olive oil 101
Extra virgin olive oil
This is the best oil that can possibly be produced. It should not be subject to any manufacturing or refining process. It should have an organoleptic organolepetic score (based on the taste, colour, odour and feel) of 6.5 or higher, and an acidity level below 0.8 per cent (0.8 grams per 100 grams).
Virgin olive oil
This oil’s acidity grade is approximately 2 per cent, and the organoleptic score is 5.5 or higher.
Virgin olive oil lampante
This oil’s acidity is more than 2 per cent.
‘Refined’ olive oil
This is oil that has been chemically treated to remove excess acidity, oxidation or unpleasant taste. It has an acidity of not more than 0.3 per cent.
This is a blend of virgin olive oil and refined oil; its acidity is not more than 1 per cent.
What to cook with
All oils have a smoke point, or a temperature at which it will literally smoke, turn into harmful trans fatty acid and lose its flavour and nutritional benefits. This is will occur at about 250 F with extra virgin olive oil and at 350 F with virgin olive oil. Therefore, virgin olive oil should be should be used for cooking and baking, not extra virgin olive oil.
Reading the label
Pay attention to:
* Family’s name
* Country of origin (should say made in, not product of; the latter may mean the oil comes from elsewhere and is only blended in the country)
* Cultivars used
* Address of estate and production (this is important because the estate and mill should be in close proximity; the sooner a picked olive is milled the better)
* Importer’s information
* Best-before date
* Lot number; European Union and/or country-of-origin, region-of-origin classification
* Amount of monounsaturated fat (should be about 75 per cent of total fat content)