Best of Sicily
Food & Wine
Map of Sicily
Ms Gangi and this publication are not associated in any way with the firms mentioned here. For purchase information
please contact Tenuta Baronale directly.
Two years ago we published the results of our
first Sicilian olive oil tasting. The response was eclectic;
most readers enjoyed the "contest" idea and were curious about the results --and eager to try out the oil
selected. Predictably but most unfortunately, a few (particularly
vendors of oils which did not win) were disappointed, even irate. That's too bad; in any contest there are winners and losers. One
American retailer adamantly advocated a well-known "Sicilian" brand he sells in his store without knowing that half the olives
used to make their oil aren't even grown here in Sicily but in Puglia and Tunisia! In the interest of discretion, and to avoid rude recriminations, we chose not
to inform him of that inconvenient fact (but see the "reality check" below).
With that said, which Sicilian olive oil was
judged the the best for 2008? We maintain, for the reasons cited in the article reporting our April 2006 tasting, that most Sicilian
olive oils are unexceptional, but we found ten that were, and they formed the basis of this year's comparison.
Our tasting featured "estate-bottled" Sicilian extra-virgin olive oils produced
in limited quantities by smaller firms using the olives harvested from a
single place (usually their own farms). As a "control," we included the "better" brands
of two "cooperatives" which market the oils of numerous producers as a single product. This was a blind tasting; nobody
knew the brand of oil they were sampling, and no producers or marketing
representatives were present. This was not a commercial or promotional exercise,
merely a culinary one, and none of the six tasters --all experienced in
preparing Mediterranean cuisine-- are associated with any olive oil vendor. While most of the oils
tasted are organic, we did not make that a requirement for consideration.
In first place was Tenuta Baronale, made by a small firm at the other end of Sicily in the
Nebrodi and Madonie mountains. Their unfiltered oil is a "quasi-varietal" based on the Nocellara (75%) and
Verdello (25%) olives. It is actually organic, though not formally certified as such. In Italy an oil is
recognised as organic if made from olives harvested from trees that have not been treated
with chemicals of any kind for at least two years. The oil was extremely fresh-tasting, having
the flavour of crushed olives, but the Verdello olives --a large green variety often used in
salads-- gave it some sharp top notes. This is a very dense oil; some of our tasters found the foggy
texture and the sediment appealing. Tenuta Baronale came in third in our 2006 tasting.
In second place this year was Titone, our 2006 winner. The vintage Titone (we
opened a bottle from the 2007 season) is an organic, minimally-filtered oil made
from three varieties of olive (50% Nocellara, 25% Biancolilla, 25% Cerasuola)
produced by a family-run firm near Marsala.
The oil in third place was Sant'Andrea, an organic produced in Petralia Sottana in
the southern Madonie region from four olive varieties.
Of course, the best test is tasting the oil yourself, by itself, dipped in fresh
white bread. Oil making is an art practiced in Sicily for around three thousand years.
REALITY CHECK: Many of the best known "Italian" olive oils, even those
classified "extra-virgin," are actually produced from olives imported from Spain, Greece, Turkey
and Tunisia. (For that matter, very little "Italian" pasta is produced from wheat grown here in Italy.)
In fact, much of the "Sicilian" olive oil sold in the export market is not made from locally-grown
olives but under European Union law there's little accountability for the precise origin of the product. In some cases the olives are pressed abroad (outside Italy) and the oil is imported into
Italy for bottling as "Mediterranean" oil with little regard for precise extraction standards
(cold pressing versus refining) or quality. Much is "lampante," i.e. pressed from dried, dirty olives
found on the ground rather than harvested from the trees, and from which oil is extracted --in the case of Spain and
Tunisia-- using talc. There are no import controls for oil which arrives in Italy from other
EU countries. A controversial 1995 law permits much lampante oil to be sold as extra virgin. The scandal
is too complicated to explain in detail here. Caveat emptor!
About the Author: Roberta Gangi has written
numerous articles and one book dealing with Italian cultural and culinary
history, and numerous food and wine articles for Best of Sicily Magazine.