20 October 2013

Melanzane Sott'Olio (Pickled Eggplant) and a Journey to The Olive Press

Melanzane Sott'Olio (Pickled Eggplant)

Many times in Italy I stayed in an Agriturismo which is an Italian term for what we might call a farm holiday or a form of agricultural tourism. In 1985, the Italian government passed a law encouraging struggling farmers to convert their unprofitable farmhouses or derelict farm buildings into holiday accommodation. They are exactly what they claim to be, a working farm, surrounded by breathtaking natural beauty. It offered just what I longed for on an Italian vacation. An authentic Italian rural experience, the chance to live with an Italian family, and the opportunity to slow down from the normal tourist pace. The most difficult task each day was to decide how to spend my time.

It was late October when the air has that hint of crispness. The fall after all is my favourite season and the perfect time to travel in Italy. Along the Sorrentine peninsula I had been swimming in the sea and sunning myself along the pebble beaches, but, as we drove higher into the Lattari mountains, which are the backbone of the Sorrentine Peninsula, the countryside revealed that it was indeed late October with the leaves in the chestnut forests taking on a goldenrod hue in the shadow of Mt. Vesuvius. The air smelled of firewood and the earth of rain!  The forests and cultivated terraces were blanketed by an ethereal early morning mist and hot pink cyclamens dotted the landscape.
Piano de Sorrento
As I and countless tourists have discovered there is no better way to soak up the atmosphere and history  of Italy than on foot. As I walked to the main road it was like walking through a postcard. Walking past ancient homes draped in bougainvillea and even a secret castle hidden behind a stone wall the silence was disturbed only by the chirping birds and a rooster in the distance that seemed to have no idea of time. I breathed in the fresh country air and took in the fabulous view of the olive groves and the hills of the Sorrentine Peninsula. Walking this quiet country road past fragrant orange and lemon groves and olive groves draped in netting brought me to the junction where I could make another decision. Turn left and I was metres from the jaw dropping Amalfi Coast, or, turn right and take the short drive along the Sorrentine Peninsula towered over by the daunting Mount Vesuvius.

In Piano de Sorrento Salvatore and his brother Angelo were in the throws of harvesting olives so were busy from dawn till dusk. I had had in mind to help with the olive harvest but the family were dealing with their dad in the hospital so I did not want to impose. It wasn't until I spent some time with Baroness Cecilia Baratta at Tenuta Seliano on a buffalo mozzarella farm in the Cilento that I became up close and personal with olives.

The Cilento shows the unknown side of Campania. A little gem south of Sorrento that is best known as the Amalfi Coast's quiet neighbour. Not yet largely present on the tourist map, it is full of mozzarella farms and rolling hills covered in vineyards and olive trees. It is the land of the buffalo, where arguably the best mozzarella in all of Italy is produced. The extraordinary beauty of this area has been preserved for centuries thanks in part to its isolation which has left the gorgeous countryside unspoilt and local traditions preserved. The Cilento is a true slice of heaven on earth where nature meets up with history. It is wonderfully authentic.

Cilento is famous for its olive oil, one of the best in Italy, that has earned the denominational marking "Olio d'Oliva Extravergine Cilento DOP." Denominazione Origine Protetta (DOP) is a national designation defining agricultural products whose quality and reputation are specific to their geographical origin. Other specialties with this designation in the area are the white fig, the buffalo mozzarella and the artichoke of Paestum IGP.

Cecilia was the most gracious hostess and took me on many journeys throughout my stay. A well-groomed garden and some 91 hectares (225 acres) of land complete her property, part of which is dedicated to raising buffalo (for mozzarella, of course). It is the sort of place you'd never want to leave.
Seliano's setting is idyllic. It's an agriturismo of the purest kind where everything served at the table is produced on the farm, including the wine, olive oil and cheese. In fact from my room and the flower-filled balcony I could look out on to the very trees that the olives are harvested from. The views to the haze-shrouded coast were bewitching any time of day in this hypnotically peaceful spot. A few days of this and I was blissfully rested and refreshed.
Tutto Seliano

One evening we travelled along increasingly narrow roads and over streams in the flatlands of the Sele and Alento rivers that snaked through her property and through groves containing over 1,500 olive trees to her other farm property Masseria Elisio where workers were gathering olives in long nets. They loaded up the olives in trucks and headed to the frantoio, or olive press.

It’s not just the taste of new olive oil that knocks you over, it’s the smell.  November and December in Italy a visit to the olive press is essential to see how extra virgin olive oil is produced. When you walk into the frantoio, your senses are overwhelmed:  the roar of the machinery hard at work macerating and centrifuging fresh olives into liquid gold and the heavy organic greenness of the air assaults you.  While just tasting the bright new oil is a delicious experience, a visit to see the process is a chance to delve into tradition.
At the frantoio

 Olive oil is the pure oil obtained from the fruit of olive trees. Olive oils described as ‘virgin’ are those that have been obtained from the original fruit without having been synthetically treated. Once the olives have been picked, pressed, and washed, no other process has taken place other than decantation, and centrifugation to extract the oil, and filtration. There is nothing added, no water, no inferior oil...the end product is only oil pressed from the fruit.

When olives are picked they are hard, bitter, and inedible. They can be green, straw-coloured, brown, purple, or black, depending on the variety and how ripe they are when picked. Throughout my travels in Italy I saw roads and groves draped with a blanket of green netting to catch the olives before they hit the ground. Each olive will drop when it reaches "its time" but they are helped along eventually. Here, the olives are picked by hand or raked from the trees into the nets while still green and milled within 24 hours of picking. Olive oil is produced with the traditional millstone system and cold-pressed only once. This system produces fragrant extra-virgin olive oil that is full of flavour and has a distinct fruity taste.

Cecilia stood with the rest of the farm owners who had procured an appointment. Each owner must accompany the olives and wait for their oil. They stand around, chatting in Italian, and there is an excitement in the air as the old farmers wait to see how much oil their olives yield this year.  As with all farming, a good or bad harvest depends on the weather the trees were subjected to during the previous 10 months.

Olive trees grow best in a Mediterranean-like climate–warm, sunny, and arid. Olives are grown commercially in many countries, including Italy, France, Spain, Greece, Peru, Australia, and the United States.  Olive trees can live and bear fruit for hundreds of years. Many trees producing fruit now in California are more than a hundred years old–young by European standards.

I tried to stay out of the way but I saw the farms olives with sticks and stems loaded into the machines and tasted it as the "liquid gold" came out on the other side. This "grassy" product was straw yellow with greenish reflections. It had an aromatic balance with a delicate hint of fruitiness and herbaceous tones of rosemary and mint.
"The aromas of olive oil are a critical part of its flavour. Pour a little bit of extra virgin olive oil into a small glass. Hold it, swirl it, warm it for a minute or two. Then put your nose in the glass and take in the aroma or “nose” of the olive oil. You may notice the smell of fresh-cut grass, cinnamon, tropical fruits or other aromas of ripe or green olive fruit.
 Now take a sip. You want to get the impressions of the entire mouth. Suck air through the oil to coax more aromas out of it, and then — this is important — close your mouth and breathe out through your nose. This “retronasal” perception will give you a whole bunch of other flavour notes. Retronasal perception is possible because your mouth connects to your nose in the back.  Now swallow some, or all of the olive oil.
 Pungency is a peppery sensation, detected in the throat, and a positive characteristic of olive oil.  It is a chemical irritation, like the hotness of chilies, and equally appealing once you get used to it. Pungency can be very mild—just the tiniest tingle—or it can be intense enough to make you cough. Olive oil aficionados will sometimes refer to a one, two, or look out, a three-cough oil.
The third positive attribute of olive oil, in addition to fruity and pungent, is bitter. Bitterness, like pungency, is also an acquired taste. As anyone who has ever tasted an olive right off the tree can attest, bitter is a prominent taste in fresh olives. Since olive oil is made from uncured olives, varying degrees of bitterness can be found; oil made from riper fruit will have little to no bitterness, oil made from greener fruit can be distinctly bitter.
 North American taste horizons are broadening; we are exploring bitterness with foods like dark chocolate, bitter salad greens and now, robust olive oils.
The fruity characteristics you may notice in the mouth include nutty, buttery and other ripe flavours, and a fuller spectrum of green fruity notes.  The traditional palate cleanser between olive oils, is water, plain or sparkling, and slices of Granny Smith apple."..from The Olive Oil Times

This post has been a long time coming. It has been almost a year since I stood with the farmers of the Cilento and felt their pride in what they gleaned from their land. In Italian fashion they were always more than willing to show you what they have to offer, each feeling what they produce is "the best". This must be true since what we make ourselves is the best made from good quality ingredients. I wanted to highlight my time at the frantoio with a recipe that used high quality olive oil such as what I would find in the area.

Pickled eggplant (Melanzane Sott’Olio) has been a staple in Italian pantries for generations. Along with giardiniera (a mix of pickled vegetables including carrots, cauliflower, celery, etc.) sun dried tomatoes in olive oil, and pickled mushrooms, Italian family friends keeps large quantities of pickled eggplant in their cool basement pantry.  Melanzane sott’olio and giardiniera (and all their pickled goodies) make great side dishes for roasted meats, impromptu lunches with good bread, canned tuna, cheese, and salumi, and, on occasion, in a sandwich or panino.

It’s vital when you cure vegetables in olive oil that you thoroughly clean the jar itself as well as all the ingredients and utensils used in the preparation. Families have been curing and pickling vegetables (as well as canning tomatoes) for centuries years and have not had any health issues. Many food safety authorities advise against preserving tomatoes and garlic in oil due the risk of bacterial contamination and proliferation of spores, especially clostridium botulinum, which could be fatal.

This time around I served my pickled eggplant with paper-thin slices or proscuitto, buffalo mozzarella drizzled with balsamic cream, and chewy Italian bread.

**Pickled Eggplant (Melanzane Sott’Olio)**

4-6 garlic cloves (left whole or cut in half)
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 pound of eggplant (Sicilian or standard variety are fine)
½ cup white vinegar
½ cup water
1 teaspoon salt
fresh basil leaves
fresh hot pepper(s)
1 whole bay leaf (optional)
Extra Virgin Olive oil (enough to cover contents of the glass jar)

Peel eggplant and cut into long strip (about three inches long and a quarter inch wide) – thick of hand cut french fries.

Place the eggplant strips in a large metal colander and sprinkle liberally with Kosher salt. Place a weight on top of the eggplant and let the salt, eggplant, and weight do its magic for 2-3 hours (viz., remove the moisture).

Remove the eggplant from the colander and squeeze any remaining liquid out of the eggplant by hand.
In a large pot, bring the vinegar and water to a boil and add the eggplant. Cook for 2-3 minutes (any longer and the eggplant will lose it’s crunch).

Drain via a colander (with a weight, again) and lit sit for 12-24 hours (in the fridge if you’d like).
Remove the eggplant strips and squeeze any excess water/moisture by hand. In a very clean glass jar fill with the remaining ingredients: eggplant, garlic, hot pepper(s) – chopped or un-chopped, basil, oregano, and extra virgin olive oil (the olive oil should completely submerge the ingredients – do this slowly).
Put eggplant in glass jar with fresh garlic cloves , fresh cut into big chunks hot peppers, fresh mint and good drizzle of olive oil. Shake up and refrigerate. Makes 1 quart. Enjoy!

Note: 1 pound of eggplant will make one quart. My friends usually make this recipe in large quantities about 15-20 pounds worth and pickle multiple jars.

Recipe from Scordo

You are reading this post on More Than Burnt Toast at http://morethanburnttoast.blogspot.com. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to the author/owner of More Than Burnt Toast. All rights reserved by Valerie Harrison.
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  1. Great post, Val. Lots of interesting information presented in an interesting way.

  2. I would love the smell the first press of olives. What a fantastic adventure Val. Really like the touch of heat in your pickled eggplant.

  3. What a fantastic experience, Val. Visiting an olive press and learning how it all works is a great dream of mine. I'm so glad you shared your adventures and photos. :-) Your eggplant dish sounds absolutely delicious!!

  4. I think October in Italy would be amazing.

  5. A delicious speciality! Perfect when served like you did...



  6. Wow, so much info!!! Although I don't live in Italy... which I wouldn't mind... I'm soooo grateful to live in the Mediterranean... I love it here :D I'm so fortunate.

    See? today, it's 24ºC and sun is shinnying. A beautiful day in Barcelona... make it your next choice Val!!!!

  7. Thank you for this delightful recipe..

    Loved my trip to Italy..5 yrs ago..

    Sometimes it feels like yesterday.. other times.. a century ago.

  8. I just read an article about the Agriturismo in Italy. I love the idea of seeing the operation of an actual working farm. The fragrances must have been overwhelming, Val. Love this post and all the information you shared.

  9. Strolling around Piano de Sorrento sounds like heaven. So does the pickled eggplant with buffalo mozzarella!

  10. Both the pictures and this genuine recipe capture wonderfully the rustic and most fascinating side of that beautiful part of the world. My grandma used to make melanzane sott'olio every year, it's funny that I've never actually thought of making it myself. Thanks for sharing your story with us. It's been a pleasure reading it!

    1. Not growing up with an Italian nonna Daniela I tried it for the first time this year and needed to make it myself.

  11. The trip that keeps on giving … :)
    I just bought a bunch of small eggplant today. Made one dish tonight and was thinking about what I'd do with the other eggplants. Problem solved.

  12. Much of Italy is similar to California, especially in autumn. I'll take that as comfort as I sit here in So Cal wishing I were in Italy. GREG

  13. Joan is right. I'm so jealous you should just pickle me. XOGREG

    1. You could use some of that lovely California olive oil Greg. I had the opportunity for tasting our first year at Foodbuzz in SF. Still by far my favourite of all the Foodbuzz events with an Outstanding in the Field dinner at long snaking tables in a warehouse.

  14. Hi Val!
    I want to share this on my friday link roundup.
    I know a lot of people will love this.
    Thank you!!

  15. Val, I am re-rereading this post in preparation for my own trip to Spain. It is so beautifully written, I feel that I just walked in your footsteps. I am linking to it from my blog (that article section I mentioned).

    1. Thanks Dina. In January and February in Spain perhaps as in Italy there will be a riot of lemons and oranges in season. To pick them straight from the trees they grow is a miracle of nature.


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