independent

Wednesday 16 April 2014

Extra virgin is best with a bite

"THERE are animals in them," the man explained. He was talking about windfall oranges, fruits that have fallen from trees rather than those that have been plucked, basketed and bagged and displayed for sale on roadsides.

Select your own, and then deal with the man with the van, middle-aged or older and strikingly reminiscent of an Irish countryman of the Fifties clad in jersey and cloth cap.

The "animals" are worms of varying types. As with all fallen fruit, no matter how tough the skin a host of insects will infiltrate and feast. This is a windfall for thousands of minuscule lives which usually take their time, unlike the voracious Congo ants which cleaned a crocodile carcass on a riverbank overnight to leave the hunter with a pristine skull and bones to sell.

A Portuguese man of my acquaintance had been missing from his grocery counter and I surmised he was away with his family in the north country helping at the harvest; not oranges, though, but olives – a scarce and valuable crop this year after a dry summer.

The work pattern is like a meitheal in Mayo – sons, daughters, in-laws all assemble at a parental small farm to pick and crush the fruit for the precious oil and to eat wonderful dinners and drink family wines each evening after work.

In the past the tree branches were cleared using long-handled wood rakes; now there is a machine which whirrs through the treetops knocking the fruit to plastic sheeting spread below.

After the berry-pressing, family members take a supply for each household, the balance going to a co-op. I usually get a bottle to take back to Ireland. It is delicious.

There are about five classifications or strengths of oil, the best being always peppery with a bite on the back of the tongue, with the blended proprietary oils, whose smoothness we have become accustomed to, regarded as of lower quality.

Whatever your choice, olive oil is going to cost more in the shops now with the wholesale price of extra-virgin already leaping by 60 per cent. This is because of the drought in the Iberian Peninsula, which produces almost half of the world's supplies.

But the Italians have a strong arm on the trade, and always had since Roman times. They remain the olive kings, helped by an old law that allows any oil bottled in Italy to be sold as Italian, though 80 per cent of it may come from Spain, Portugal and North Africa.

Italy sells three times as much oil as it produces.

There have always been deceptions in the world of green nectar. Among the Sumarians in the Holy Land there were sniffers and tasters employed to sort out the plonk. They are needed in today's marketplace where the profits of olive oil crime are "comparable to cocaine trafficking without the risks".

There is an ancient olive tree on a neglected small-holding I walk past most days. It has a wide and knarled trunk and must be many hundreds of years old. Fresh fruits are produced from high and widespread branches year after year, mostly to fall as food for birds and small mammals. It is probably too romantic to imagine it having been planted by Roman camp-followers on their passage through the Iberian landscape, though its fruit certainly garnished food for many generations thereafter.

Sunday Independent

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