Wordlessly smiling, the old man in the faded red overalls hands me a plastic cup. He gestures at the thick green column of oil tumbling from the trumpet-shaped spout and I realise he’s inviting me to take a dip. I plunge the cup into the opaque stream of oil, squeezed from tiny, wrinkled olives just moments ago, and tentatively raise it to my mouth. An astonishing scent of marzipan hits my nose before the liquid slides to my lips and starts singing with freshness on my tongue. It’s like tasting the green heart of the tree itself. Sap-like, woody, nutty, vegetal. A peppery warmth tickles the back of my throat as I swallow. “E delizioso!” I gasp, but my wide-open eyes are more eloquent, and turn the oilmaker’s face pink with pride.
I’m in the empty, mountainous hinterland of the Italian Riviera, sampling one of the world’s great olive varieties. Carefully cross-bred into existence by monks five centuries ago, the Taggiasca olive is grown only in western Liguria – in narrow spaces heroically snatched from the steep landscape. Here mountains are turned into ziggurats by the intricate terraces that endlessly climb their slopes. Low dry stone walls shore up the highland staircases, and eight million olive trees cling to the thin strips of flat land they create. The arrangement is only broken by small medieval villages, which spill decoratively down the odd patch of hillside.
Sleepy now, but well-kept, these mountain villages once teemed with life. Built inland to elude the piratical raids and sea-battles that bedevilled the coastline, they housed thriving communities who made a decent living producing, among other things, good wine and top-class olive oil. Both are still made here today – and in pretty much the same way. The thin, tricky terraces defy the mechanised techniques of modern agriculture. All that’s changed is that the harvesting-prong used to coax the olives off the trees now has an electric rotating head, and the tumbling oily fruits are carried away by buzzing Api carts rather than by donkeys.
Except for these tiny engines, Liguria’s mountains are so much quieter than they used to be. For the last three or four generations, the local population has been increasingly lured to the sea a few miles away. The coastal pirates and warfare have gone, replaced by smiling holidaymakers with ample wallets. The local seaside, crowned by San Remo, is a sandy, flower-strewn string of resorts beloved by well-heeled foreigners in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and well-visited today by Italian families. It retains its old genteel charm, keeping up a kinship with the neighbouring Côte d’Azur in southern France.
The big extra of a seaside holiday here in western Liguria is of course the hinterland – an immediate entry into another world, the hushed medieval alleys and mountain vistas replacing the populous gaiety and bright colours of the coast. Villages like Apricale and Dolceacqua (with its high stone bridge immortalised by Monet) are quietly becoming fixtures in the tourist’s itinerary, but head higher into the hills and you’ll find medieval gems like Valloria, its front doors daubed with folk paintings, or mountaintop Triora, atmospheric scene of Europe’s first witch trials. Along the way, you’ll pass welcoming enoteche by the side of the road, selling high-quality local wines and nibbles, or spot unassuming-looking restaurants in which you’re guaranteed to have one of the best meals of your life. Inspired by the herbs that grow at these altitudes, Ligurian cuisine is dubbed la cucina profumata or ‘fragrant cooking’. The intensity of the flavours is unforgettable.
It was while driving exploratively from one pretty village to another that I spotted the olive oil mill, one of about thirty in these parts. Remembering the fabulous, fragrant oil I’d had with dinner each night since being here, I decided to stop and ask if I could see the stuff being made. The spry, elderly man I speak to is very happy to oblige. He begins by showing me the mounds of freshly-picked olives lying in red plastic crates outside. Black and green, wrinkled and tiny, he tells me they’re the magical Taggiasca variety and that they never plump up any bigger than this. Each is a concentrated little bomb of flavour. I watch as the olives are tumbled into a big silver funnel on a machine standing outside the mill. It washes them and out they eventually cascade, shining like wrapped sweets teeming off the production line in a chocolate factory.
Then the olives are thrown into the grinding pit inside the mill, and the cold pressing process begins. Two huge stone millwheels roll about, mercilessly transforming bouncing green and black ovals into wet grey-brown mush. The smell in the room is glorious – the fresh tang of pummelled olives mingling with the thick perfume of sawdust, the latter strewn liberally across the floor to absorb spillages and prevent the mill-workers slipping onto the floor. I watch fascinated as a silver nozzle squirts the ground olive paste onto woven fibre discs. Each one is about two feet across and has a hole in the middle to secure it in place when stacked up. The paste is thickly spread across each one and then they’re piled on top of each other like so many iced layers in a cake. When twenty or thirty layers have been amassed, the whole oozing cylinder is moved to one of the mill’s two presses. As the press compacts the discs tighter and tighter together, the oil is forced out of the paste and runs in long honey-like drips off the edges. Separated from the water which has also been squeezed out, the pure oil falls gushes from a single spout at the other end of the mill.
As is always the case in matters of taste, it’s impossible to say definitively that the Taggiasca olive makes the world’s most delicious olive oil. But many gourmets have said so. What’s less contestable is that Taggiasca oil is exceptionally light, and has exceptionally low acidity. Normal extra virgin olive oil is required to be less than .08% acid, while Taggiasca oil has an acidity of .05% or even .03%. As with a fine wine, the secret behind the olive’s deliciousness lies in what the French call terroir – the interplay of specific local soil and climate conditions. Taggiasca olives simply grow best in exactly the terroir of western Liguria. The steep land, the narrow terraces, the mild climate which never gets too hot in the summer nor too cold in the winter – all of it suits the Taggiasca down to the ground. This being Italy, the olive’s quality and geography are fiercely protected. Akin to wine again, the oil has D.O.P. status (Denominazione d’Origine Protetta). The rules that go with this can be arcane – oil described as ‘Riviera dei Fiori’ must be made from at least 90% Taggiasca olives and be bottled inside the province of Imperia, oil described as ‘Riviera del Ponente Savonese’ must be made from at least 50% Taggiasca olives and be bottled inside the province of Savona, etc., etc. All this to ensure you know exactly what you’re drizzling onto your toasted foccacia!
To the local people, especially those who haven’t made the move to the coast and still cling on to traditional ways in the mountains, Taggiasca oil is regarded as something of a cure-all. People suffering toothache will rinse their mouth with it, people with bad digestions will swallow a spoonful before every meal, those planning a big drinking night will sip some beforehand to line their stomachs. Whether medicinal or not, the oil is certainly precious. As the local landscape doesn’t allow for mass production, not much is made each year. And with so much care taken in the production process, and it’s easy to see why Taggiasca oil is expensive.
I confess I treated myself to five bottles of the stuff – each made by different makers but all of the minimum 90% Taggiasca kind. I lugged the bottles all the way home and spent the next few months joyously working my way through them. Was one better than the other? It was hard to tell, give the mind-fogging rapture that followed every mouthful. Certainly there was a discernibly different balance to each, but the same essential components were always there – the sweet almond or marzipan notes, the fresh sap-like quality, the woody warmth. Nothing was quite as breathtaking as that first sip from the trumpet-shaped spout I’d had inside the mill, but it wasn’t far off. This was oil too good to cook with, with flavours too tantalising to let vanish in the heat. Instead, I poured it over tomatoes sprinkled with rosemary, or chick peas covered in chopped basil. Naturally in harmony with its native cucina profumata,it sang with any kind of herb. It was a very happy few weeks in my kitchen. Until the awful day when the Taggiasca ran out. Still in mourning, I haven’t bought a bottle of olive oil since!
Olive oil plays a significant role in the health and longevity of people living in Mediterranean countries. Packed with carotenoids, polyphenols and antioxidant vitamins, olive oil has been proven to protect against diabetes, arthritis, heart disease, and stroke. Regular consumption lowers incidence of cancer of the bowel, breast, colon and prostate. It also helps prevent cognitive decline in old age. Which goes some way to explaining the common sight in Italy of sprightly old folk nimbly scaling the steep cobbled streets of medieval hilltowns! To maximise the healthy effects of olive oil in your own diet, always choose extra virgin.