While there are plenty of wine tours in Tuscany, olive oil tends to get short shrift in peoples’ imagination of liquids to get to know better during their travels. They’d be wrong to imagine it doesn’t offer just as wide a range of flavours or interesting facts as wine, though I guess wine attracts since it’s fun to drink. Oil less so. Yet I encourage you to take your time in Italy as an opportunity to learn about what makes a good olive oil, what makes one bottle cost $5 and the other $20, how olive oil is produced and how varieties differ from each other.
If you’re in an olive oil producing area during harvest season (that’s mid-October to mid-November here in Tuscany) the best way to learn is by attending an olive oil tour or participating in one with a longer stay on a farm. Coral Sisk, aka Curious Appetite, highly recommends this (and can set you up with one): “People should consider visiting an olive oil farm because they can see up close and personal all the hard work that goes into the production, to really see why a $5 bottle is not artisanally feasible. Plus, they can see different varieties of olives and see that not every olive is equal!” Arianna Cini of Km Zero Tours agrees, adding that picking olives is a rewarding experience because “unlike wine, the result will immediately cheer our palates up, in fact the oil expresses its character best when freshly pressed.”
If this timing is not an option, through November and December you can look for an olive oil festival to broaden your oily horizons. Outside of the harvest time, there are also olive oil tasting tours most of the year round, both in Florence and out in the countryside. I’ve rounded up suggestions for all of the above.
Olive oil harvest tours
Although there are plenty of olive oil producers in Tuscany and many of them could use a hand picking olives come harvest time, not all are equipped to include and guide tourists in this experience. Arianna Cini of Km zero tours is one of those people who does want to get her guests involved in the harvest. At her agriturismo, a 13th-century villa in the Chianti area, she offers 4 or 6 day olive harvest experiences, with a package that includes everything from olive oil massages (which you’ll need if you’ve been picking!) and a visit to a olive woodworker!
If you can’t stay that long, she also offers a 1 day tour during the harvest period (October 20 to November 20). You might not get to pick the olives yourself (especially if it’s raining) but you will see pickers at work, and you’ll learn a lot about the process: the day starts with a brief introduction about different harvesting methods and olive trees species given by Alessio, a qualified and passionate olive tree pruner directly in the field. Afterwards, you visit an oil mill (frantoio), and then there’s an educational and professional tasting of extra virgin olive oil with, of course “food pairings” which means you get a great lunch. In the afternoon you visit a nearby town and attend a wine tasting at an organic winery. (Want to go? Email firstname.lastname@example.org !)
Year-round, though also during the harvest season, Tuscany’s only dedicated olive oil resort, Villa Campestri, offers a range of experiences from an olive oil tasting seminar to olive oil massages!
Olive oil festivals in Tuscany
Festivals offer an opportunity to taste and buy the year’s olive oil and compare producers side by side, though don’t expect a technical tasting unless that’s a special activity offered (usually at a specific time). These events are often held in town squares and usually free to attend.
I’ve looked for recurring annual olive oil events and come up with the following list, with the 2015 dates.
- Dievole (Vagliagli, Siena), a producer of wine and olive oil as well as an agriturismo, has an Olio Day, a celebration of the new olive oil, with a technical tasting and a set lunch in their historic winery, on November 1, 2015, from 11am. The cost is €30 per person including lunch with wine. Click here for details.
- My friend Gloria’s town of Civitella Marittima (in Maremma) has the funniest named oil festival ever: la festa del buco unto. This name literally means “greasy hole” and refers to the rear end. See her 2013 blog post about it.
- The Festa dell’Olio Nuovo in Trequanda (Siena) and nearby towns is one of the most elaborate, and is held the last two weekends in October, with walks in olive groves, oil tasting, aperitivi and other oil-related menus, and more.
- In the month of November the following towns have olive oil specific festivals (not just harvest or new wine and new oil festivals): Pergine (Valdarno), Vinci, Calenzano (FI), Pomarance (Pisa), Montelaterone (Grosseto), Montemurlo (Prato) – one of the best, Semproniano (Monte Amiata)
- The fun continues in December in San Quirico d’Orcia (Siena) with a festival on the first weekend of the month.
Olive oil tasting tours
Can’t make it during harvest time? That’s ok. Although just-pressed, new olive oil is a gastronomic experience you’ll never forget, you can learn about olive oil year-round through tastings organized by producers or food-tour guides. The one thing I recommend is not to do this too late in the season – by September, most peoples’ stock of olive oil should have run out, and unlike wine, oil doesn’t age well – it starts to oxidize as soon as it hits air, so basically, as soon as it’s bottled. Best to wait for November for the new crop.
Coral Sisk is a gourmet blogger and 100% foodie who offers food and wine tours including olive oil tastings in the city or countryside (make a request via Curious Appetite Travel). She explains: “a guided tasting at a quality shop is great because we contrast varieties and territories, to also see the importance of consuming mono-cultivar oil products. I.e. nuances between Sicilian and Ligurian olive oil. Plus, an on-site expert or foodie guru guide can breakdown olive oil basics and how to purchase them/decipher a label in order to make the best quality decision.”
Every month, a group of fun-loving Italy bloggers dreams up a common topic about which to post (and cross-link) on our blogs. The Italy Blogging Roundtable has been around for… longer than we can remember. This October we’re talking harvest, so head on over to see what the others have dreamed up!
- Jessica – A Little Stardust Caught
- Melanie – A Special Harvest: Anatomical Theaters in Italy
- Kate – My favourite festival: Harvest
- Rebecca – Digging for Umbria’s Black Gold: Truffles
- Honourary roundtable addition this month: I really liked Eleonora Baldwin’s post about harvest foods in Italy on Casa Mia blog, see “The Italian Harvest“
- Gloria talks about Chestnuts in Tuscany