I grew up in a family of many religions, where Jewish and Catholic faith was blended accordingly. On top of that, my father is a surgeon and a researcher in the medical field, which allows him to find escape and comfort in alien-driven evolutionary theories, Aztec and Mayan end-of-the-world predictions, with a very peculiar result: Our calendar is a real mess!
I have always celebrated religious holidays with the utmost respect and truly profound conviction, even when Passover really messed up with Easter; if dad was on Passover there were no cakes or bread in the house, but if Easter overlapped, how could I enjoy a slice of colomba cake?
It was not always easy.
Yes, our family calendar growing up was a real exercise in faith, patience and culinary gymnastics for my mother, trying to fit ingredients, as different faiths had different necessities and expectations.
However, there has always been a common denominator in our calendar of festivities — something that is communal to us as a family but that also includes friends and neighbors, something that always required and received the biggest celebrations. That was, and still is, the olive harvest. It happens sometimes during the month of November, when olives are finally ripe for the harvest and the first bottles of freshly cold-pressed, unfiltered olive oil enter people’s kitchens. Everyone who owns even just a few olive trees celebrates as if it was New Year’s Eve, inviting friends and family for an evening of bruschetta with Tuscan kale and the new oil.
For as long as I can remember, our farm was an epicenter of festivities. My father would jump between the fireplace and the piano, cooking, drinking and singing. My mom would be blanching tens of bunches of kale in the kitchen and slicing enormous amounts of bread. My brother and I, along with tons of friends, would be dancing and chasing each other around the big dining room table, sometimes hiding under the above mentioned and sipping Chianti!
My olive oil is my liquid gold. It holds the key to some of my best memories and family traditions. It’s the most-important celebration I could attend, and I relentlessly work to pass on this heritage to my American daughters by bringing them to my farm in Fiesole, Italy, and participating in the harvest as often as possible.
It is a staple in our diet and a very big part of who we are, and as far as I am concerned, there are only a few rules to follow when purchasing extra virgin olive oil. Never buy blends, as there is no enjoyment in tasting something that did not in fact came from one orchard but is simply the result of chemistry research. The best oil is achieved by pressing olives as soon as possible after the harvest and bottling it on site, so read labels carefully and make sure your oil traveled the least before getting to you.
Find oil from small growers rather than big distributors. Good extra virgin olive oil is not always that expensive, and if you live on the West Coast, you might want to try some from Northern California — it’s not Tuscan, but it would be more local, hence fresh and more enjoyable than many other brands that travel very far before arriving at your grocery store.
Tune in to Extra Virgin tonight at 8pm ET to watch Debi and Gabriele harvest their own olives, make their own oil and then use it to prepare some simple and delicious Tuscan dishes like Pasta e Fagioli and Pollo al Mattone, a traditional chicken dish.