Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Sicily's Ravida is a Genuine Gregory Peck

Last week Crush+Press presented the regal and elegant Colonna, the Audrey Hepburn of extra virgin olive oils. To continue with our Roman Holiday, or in this case Southern Italian, we must have Gregory Peck. Without question, Sicily’s Ravidà Organic extra virgin olive oil wins the audition. Being a constant resident in my pantry for the past 10+ years, this olive oil/juice is suave, manly and always gives a stellar performance—Gregory Peck!

Once again, similar to Marina Colonna, we have the daughter of a noble Italian family, Natalia Ravidà, who urged her father to begin bottling his own extra virgin olive oil and exporting around the world. Nicolò Ravidà, like any adoring and appreciative father, listened and acted. He applied his engineering background and implemented modern production practices resulting in one of the truly finest and most consistent olive oil estates in the world. After his retirement, Nicolò handed the reins to Natalia, our co-guest of honor at the “ Celebrate the Taste of Southern Italy,” sponsored by Washington Wine and Wine and Crush+Press benefiting Dress for Success.

The accomplished Natalia once lived the life of a broadcast journalist based in London. Recently she published a marvelous cookbook, Seasons of Sicily, which is a celebration of generations of Sicilian culinary culture. Her eggplant rolls with béchamel sauce are pure yummy and was a major hit at my dinner parties last summer. She continues to travel the world promoting the fine attributes of premium extra virgin olive oil and Sicilian cuisine. She lives in Palermo with her husband, Giuseppe Spatafora, and son, Alfredo.

For those in the Washington, DC metro region, you have a fun opportunity to chat with Natalia and taste the Gregory Peck of extra virgin olive at an informal reception at Potenza restaurant on Thursday, June 24 from 7-9 p.m. Please register in advance at http://www.washingtonwomenandwine.com/pdf/wwwbrochure-potenza.pdf or email your RSVP to info@washingtonwomenandwine.com. Tickets are $65 in advance and $75 at the door.

Please join us in celebrating these two legendary women olive producers from Italy.

Photos: Promotion poster for "Roman Holiday" and the Ravidà villa in Menfi, Sicily.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Audrey Hepburn & Marina Colonna—Enchanting Spice

My recent tour of Marina Colonna’s estate in Molise gave me a mild version of Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck’s frantic Vespa ride through the streets of Rome in the 1953 cinema classic Roman Holiday. Prior to my arrival, rain had turned the roads and fields on Principessa Marina Colonna’s farm into a nearly unnavigable sea of mud. This didn’t stop Marina. We hopped in her truck and began our tour, first stopping to bring mid-morning coffee to the workers pruning her olive trees. We continued by slipping, sliding and spinning up and down hills all across the farm. As we rolled along near one of her beautiful lakes at a decent speed, we plunged suddenly into a deep mud hole sending muddy water in every direction. After my head bounced off of the ceiling of the cab a couple of times, Marina glanced at me and quipped, “Everyone thinks this is scary, I think it’s normal.”

It wasn’t normal when Marina stormed onto the private label olive oil stage in the 1980s. Her father, Prince Francesco Colonna, had always sold his olive crop to the large industrial olive oil processing companies. Marina challenged him to “stop selling to those people” and bottle and brand his own olive oil. His response was, “No.” After further urging from Marina, he wavered finally telling her if she felt so strongly, “then you do it.” She did.

For her leading role in Roman Holiday, Audrey Hepburn won an Oscar for her first role as a leading lady. Since making her plunge into the estate olive oil business, Principessa Marina Colonna has been winning her share of awards by producing outstanding premium Extra Virgin olive oils. Her extra virgin olive oils have won awards from such prestigious organizations as Slow Food. The Italian olive oil producers’ Consortium Unaprol has given Marina Colonna the “100% Italian Quality” award for “her efforts to promote the quality of real Italian extra virgin olive.”

Villa at the Colonna Estate in Molise

A couple of years ago, I began using celebrities to describe flavor profiles of premium extra virgin olive oils. For this hands-on farmer/principessa, there’s only one celebrity to describe the Colonna Classic Blend, Audrey Hepburn—elegant, regal with a gentle touch of enchanting spice.

You have a rare opportunity to meet the leading lady of the Colonna estate at the “Celebrate the Tastes of Southern Italy” on Thursday, June 24 from 7-9 pm at Potenza restaurant in Washington, DC. The event is sponsored by Washington, Women and Wine, Crush+Press and Dress for Success. For more information and registration:


Note—The use of celebrities is in no way intended to suggest these celebrities have endorsed these products, but is a simple way to give the consumer a glimpse of what can be expected from the juice in the bottle.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Celebrate the Tastes of Southern Italy

On Thursday, June 24, 2010 from 7-9p, Crush+Press will join Washington Women & Wine and Dress for Success as we ”Celebrate the Tastes of Southern Italy” with two extraordinary women olive oil producers, Principessa Marina Colonna, Molise, Italy, www.marinacolonna.it and Natalia Ravidà, Menfi, Sicily, www.ravida.it. You’ll enjoy sampling exquisite southern Italian cuisine featuring olive oils from the Colonna and Ravidà Estates, paired with a selection of beautiful southern Italian wines. As part of the launch of the new Crush+Press ecommerce web site for REAL handcrafted extra virgin olive oil, I will be assisting Marina and Natalia with the informal demonstrations.

Our event will take place at Potenza, DC’s favorite new trattoria, bakery and wine store, named for a scenic town in southern Italy. This is an opportunity to learn more about Crush and Press, www.crushandpress.com, the programs of Dress for Success, www.dressforsuccess.org/washingtondc, and join Washington Women and Wine, if you are not a member. Advance registration is strongly recommended. The event fee is $65.00 for those registering by Tuesday, June 22,2010 and $75.00 at the door. Please register in advance at http://www.washingtonwomenandwine.com/pdf/wwwbrochure-potenza.pdf

Stayed tuned to this blog over the next few days as I post more about Marina and Natalia. (Photo--Natalia with her parents Ninny and Nicolò Ravidà)

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Hungry Memphis

Our Tunisian olive oil tasting at the Madison garnered some nice press from the Memphis Flyer.


Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Memphis and Ole Man River Enjoys a Taste of Tunisia

Our trip to Memphis begin predictably with its famous barbeque and a visit to Beale Street. A short walk from our hotel was Blues City Cafe, which served us their "Best Deal on Beale Street," half slab of ribs and fried catfish. Here's heaven in Tennessee. Of course, a tablespoon of EVOO before bed provided a much needed digestive aid.

We began our participation in the Memphis in May Salute to Tunisia with an early appearance on the CBS affiliate WREG, Channel 3,"Live at 9" daily show with veteran anchors Mary Beth Conley and Alex Coleman. On behalf of 100% Tunisian Olive Oil, Al Hamman and I gave viewers an olive oil tasting demonstration with Rivière d'Or Organic Extra Virgin olive oil. And what fun it was.

When a person swallows high quality olive oil for the first time, particularly on live TV, a fun visual is certain. I instructed our hosts to breath through their teeth as they swallowed the olive oil/juice. As she swallowed, Mary Beth quipped simultaneously, "Why? My response, "You're about to find out." At that moment, her eyes nearly popped out of her head as the peppery grip in the back of her throat erupted like a volcano. "WOW!" By the end of the segment, Mary Beth was coveting the amazing health benefits of EVOO by mimicking drinking straight from the bottle. This was fun TV. Thanks Mary Beth and Alex.

Next came our primary purpose for the trip to Memphis, the Tunisia Olive Oil Tasting at the Madison Hotel Rooftop from 5:30-7:30. Formerly a bank, the Madison rooftop offers one of the best views of the mighty Mississippi River, and its over stretched banks due to recent floods. With a blazing sunset, this was the perfect venue for over 60 guests tasting wines from the Mediterranean, Tunisian olive oil and feasting on Chef Chris Windsor's Tunisian- Southern fusion cuisine. The presentation of Marqiz (Tunisian lamb sausage), Briks (Tunisian tuna and egg stuffed turnovers), calamari and olive salad, falafel with harissa chili sauce, and lamb sliders looked so yummy as those trays cruised past our tasting table. They tell me the food was fantastic. Al and I wouldn't know. We were totally and happily engaged in continual olive tasting demos during the entire two hours (photo).

Offering an olive oil tasting can cause some raised eyebrows. A usual response is often, "Are you serious?" This was not the case with this group overlooking "Ole Man River." The fun, adventurous folks of Memphis heartily embraced the idea of tasting olive oil the professional way, straight, without bread. Their enthusiasm and eagerness to learn and understand more about EVOO, and in particular Tunisian EVOO, was gratifying....and a rush. Also, Al and I were amazed at how many of the guests had actually visited Tunisian, and recently, too. This was a well traveled gathering.

For our brief travels, Al and I extend special thanks to Josh Spotts and Chef Windsor at the Madison Hotel, and our new friend, Randy Blevins of Memphis in May International Festival, Inc., who briefed and shepherded us through our visit.

And a river of thanks, to the good folks of Memphis!

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Memphis Meets Tunisia

Memphis is celebrating exotic Tunisia the entire Month of May. Celebrity Chef Rafik Tlatli from the seaside resort city of Monastir, Tunisia recently prepared a five-course menu at the famed Peabody Hotel. You will be comforted to know that duck was not on the menu.

Now, on behalf of 100% Tunisian Olive Oil, Al Hamman of Hamman Marketing Associates and I will journey to Memphis tomorrow for media rounds early Tuesday morning followed that evening by a Tunisia Olive Oil Tasting on the Madison Hotel rooftop. Madison Chef Chris Windsor is preparing a menu of traditional Tunisian cuisine blended with a southern twist. Hey folks, how about lamb sliders?

We will conduct informal olive oil demonstrations from 5:30 to 7:30. While gazing at the setting sun, guests will have the opportunity to sample several 100% Tunisian olive oils for their tasting pleasure.

Surprising to most people, Tunisia is the fourth largest olive oil producer in the world, dating back 3,000 years. Historically, Tunisian olive oil has been sold in bulk to the large European industrial companies, which export to the U.S and other countries under their own country label ("Packed in Italy"). Now, times are changing. Following the path of their Spanish and Italian neighbors, Tunisian growers have begun to bottle this flavorful, healthy nectar under their own labels, thus giving them better quality control. Tunisian olive oils, Riviére d'Or and Terra Delyssa, are available currently in the U.S., but more are coming. Actually, the EVOO from Newman's Own is 100% Tunisian olive oil.

If you live near Memphis or passing through join us Tuesday, May 19 on the rooftop of Madison Hotel. For advanced reservations (only $35), please contact the Madison Hotel--901.333.1224 or www.grill83.com

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Extra Virgin JUICE!

“THEY JUST SELL FAT,” cried Manfredi Barbera as we cruised through the winding turns to his mill located 45 minutes outside of Palermo, Sicily. Barbera, the producer of Frantoia Extra Virgin olive oil, was referring to the bulk, industrial olive oil companies and other seed oils on the shelves of large supermarkets. He explained further, “These oils have no antioxidants, carotenes and other health benefits that consumers expect from Extra Virgin olive oil. ”

Sadly, many of these companies are blending older or adulterated oil with fresher oil to improve the chemistry and slapping an Extra Virgin label on the bottle and shipping it to the U.S. There is some good news. On Wednesday, April 28, 2010, the USDA finally published federal standards for Extra Virgin olive oil, including enforcement against these fraudulent activities. The standards will take effect October 24,2010.

In contrast to these inferior oils, high quality Extra Virgin olive oil is a FAT (monounsaturated-good fat)... and a JUICE! It’s the JUICE that contains the polypenol antioxidants, vitamin E (nature’s longevity drug) and other other healthy compounds. There is an undisputable wide gap between the quality of estate grown and most mass-produced olive oils. Inexpensive industrial olive oils, on the other hand, are just fat, and possibly defective.

This point was echoed repeatedly during my recent 26 nights and 19-bed tour of great olive oil regions of the Mediterranean. Top Extra Virgin olive oil producers in Tunisia, Italy, France, and Spain expressed uniformly their displeasure and frustration at the flood of fraudulent defective olive oils on the market. To illustrate the JUICE factor, the clever brother and sister team of Francisco and Rosa Vañó (photo) in Jaen, Spain manage the family company called Castello de Canena Olive JUICE SL. They clearly know what they're growing.

How can you, the consumer, ensure that you are buying Extra Virgin olive oil, which is a JUICE and not just a fat?

First, know your source. Know from whom you are buying. Do these folks know anything about olive oil? Most large retailers have little knowledge of olive oil, particularly the importance of proper storage. Here’s a tip. Never buy a bottle of olive oil from the top shelf. Always grab a bottle from the darker center of the shelf. Light, heat and air are the major enemies of olive oil.

How can you detect if a bottle of olive oil is defective. The reason Fresh is Best is my primary mantra about olive oil is because, like all JUICEs, olive oil oxidizes, eventually reaching a nasty state of rancidity. Here’s a test. Remove the cap from your bottle of olive oil and take a series of short, rapid whiffs (like a dog). Do you detect aromas of nail polish, nail polish remover or paint thinner? If so, the oil is rancid. There are two other primary defects. Fusty is the smell of fermenting fruit, likely resulting from taking too long to process the fruit after picking. Another severe defect is winey, which is evidenced by a vinegar aroma.

Within a few days of an olive oil demonstration, I will often purchase a bulk Extra Virgin olive oil from a major supermarket. Participants smell this oil first giving context for the fresher, high quality Extra Virgin JUICE. This never fails to be an enlightening. You can safely try this at home with your kids.

Why is the JUICE factor important in using olive oil? Cooking with any oil, olive or otherwise, which is merely a fat is not harmful, just inadequate. The JUICE element with its higher polypenols offers a higher smoke point for cooking purposes. Moreover, most of the healthy stuff is lost during cooking. Greater healthy benefits from the JUICE are garnered from drizzling over your food after being removed from the heat, immediately before serving. Not only are you adding the health benefits of Extra Virgin JUICE, but flavor and freshness too. Chefs always talk about layering in flavoring with seasoning. You, the home cook, can layer by drizzling Extra Virgin JUICE.

Remember—all Extra Virgin olive oils are not the same. Go for the JUICE!

Sunday, April 4, 2010

A Rainy Saturday in Burgundy

Saturday, April 3, 2010

It’s Easter weekend and pouring rain in Burgundy. What is one to do? Spending the day in Beaune, the commercial heart of Burgundy, seemed to be the most viable option. Programmed the GPS and off… Arriving in Beaune, I strolled through the renowned Saturday farmers’ market. Everything is available, including flowers, sausage, fish, vegetables, and clothing. Oh, how I want a kitchen here.

Being a holiday weekend, requesting appointments with local vignerons for wine tasting is inappropriate and fruitless. Alternatively, my favorite wine shop, La Boutique des Domaines, was a logical next stop. As always, the proprietor, Fréderic Henry, recognized me from past adventures and handed me his weekly printout of available inventory and… a glass of wine. This is the civilized way to shop.

This is my third trip to Burgundy in the past three years. Thanks to the advice of Oregon Pinot Noir producer and Burgundy importer, Scott Wright, I have found La Boutique des Domaines to be the best of the countless wine shops in Beaune. Finding a couple of hard to find gems at a good value (relatively speaking) is always doable at this address. This year was no exception. As in the past, a Domaine Armand Rousseau grand cru was among my discoveries. The Ruchottes-Chambertin is a tiny grand cru located above the Mazis-Chambertin and Close de Bèze Grand Crus and next to Bel Air, one of my favorite premier crus.

From Burghound fame, here are Allen Meadow’s comments on the 2007 Ruchottes-Chambertin - Clos des Ruchottes: “Rousseau noted that in 2007, the Ruchottes received 25% new wood whereas in the past, the percentage was zero. An elegant, cool, restrained and lilting nose of rose petal, cranberry and raspberry aromas merges into medium weight flavors brimming with minerality and culminating in a relatively powerful finish underpinned by ripe tannins and excellent length. This really stains the palate and I very much like the underlying sense of tension.” 92/2015+

2015! Since when have I had patience?

There’s more—a bottle of Humbert Freres’ (a personal fave) 2006 Gevrey-Chambertin, Les Estournelles St. Jacques Premier Cru, is also coming home with me.

Now, after all that shopping, Je suis faim—starving A few doors from the wine shop is one of my favorite Beaune culinary havens, Caves Madeleine. A renowned food writer, whose name escapes me, was once asked to share the name of his favorite restaurant. He answered, “The one that knows my name.” Although, the owner, Lolo (phot0-showing the bottle), didn’t know my name, today, he recognized me clearly from many past visits (the last was over two years ago) and offered a hearty and warm greeting. At Caves Madeleine, you feel more like a guest in a home, than a restaurant. There are fancier restaurants in Beaune and Burgundy with higher culinary reputations, but none are more fun. Lolo always seats you next to the most interesting people at the long community table. And to choose a wine, simply scan the bins along the wall. Take your choice from the bin and set it on the table. Lolo will pop the cork for you. The price of a bottle of wine is retail, not restaurant mark-ups. Where else can you find a reasonably priced Meursault and a 2000 premier cru by the glass? If desired, a hefty wine list is available for those older gems in the cellar.

Following lunch, a tour of the Hospices de Beaune, Hôtel-Dieu (Phot0-R), Beaune’s most famous landmark, proved to be the perfect activity for a rainy afternoon. Built by the Duke of Burgundy in 1443, this hospital has been preserved completely. From the Middle Ages to the 20th century, this charitable hospital served the poor, middle class and nobles. The artwork includes Isaac Moillon’s illustration of the miracles of Christ and Flemish artist Roger Van der Weyden’s Last Judgment. The kitchen is any foodie’s fantasy.

For more photos go to www.facebook.com/crushandpress

Despite the weather, this was a full and fun day in Burgundy—and still raining. Tomorrow, Easter in Paris!

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Takes Three at La Riboto de Taven

Tuesday, March 30, Soir

Can you imagine entertaining for a maximum of 18 quests nearly every night of the week? Planning meals, prepping, cooking, serving, entertaining, cleaning and washing dishes by hand, and all with a smile--every night. Plus, there's only three people doing all of this work. This happens at the elegant La Riboto de Taven in Les Baux en Provence. Magically, Chef Jean-Pierre Novi and owners, Christine and Philippe Theme (photo) create culinary magic.

I'm not a critic, just a promoter and enjoyer. On this four week adventure, the dining has been extraoradinary and memorable from Tunisia, Sicily to Tuscany, except for the focaccia pomodora pizza that I attempted to eat from the autogrill on the Austradra while driving to Roma on Monday. Last night, however, achieved supreme grandeur.

Castelas olive oil producers, Catherine and Jean-Benoît Hugues managed to convince the owners to open the restaurant just for the three of us (another couple showed up). Jean-Bientȏt predicted this will be an experience! And how right he was.

Get this—Chef Jean-Pierre keeps a record of the courses he prepares for his quests to never repeat one. And Philippe was born in a kitchen following generations of chefdom...He said, "The kitchen was warmer for pregnant women." I will take is word on that one.

What did they prepare just for us? We began with succulent and heavenly foie gras. Next was the innovative dish of the trip, Royal de languistines (Shrimp-like) and flan on three different types of pasta (linguine) woven together by hand, smothered with a Castelas ginger olive oil emulsion. The main course was guinea hen and FRESH spring veggies (snow peas and fava beans). This was followed by the cheese course. Jean-Benoît suggested adding some olive oil to the cheese plate. The Hugues TV dinner is cheese, olive oil and bread. What's dinner without dessert? Fresh strawberries marinated in Castels olive oil (surprise surprise) and a small, warm soufflé.

And you're asking about the wine. There were two wonderful red wines from the the local area. We began with the 2005 Equinoxe Domaine de Lauziérs from Les Baux Provence, AOC (Grenache, Syrah, Cinsault blend). One was not enough so we had Madame Dominque Hauvette's 100% Cinsault, which you never see as mono-varietal wine. All were a perfect accompaniment to a nirvana culinary experience.

Now, if that wasn't enough. As we left the restaurant, we were met by a full moon hovering over the cliffs of Les Baux. To recap the day, a rainbow, a full moon, a magical dinning experience shared with wonderful friends. I'm living large.

Castelas: The Amerian Dream Lives in France

Tuesday, March 30, 2010, Aprés-mIdi

Arriving at Castelas, there was Jean-Benoît Hugues in the olive oil mill dressed in a blue suit (having returned from a speaking engagement) with a wrench and black, greasy hands. He and two employees were working on the centrifuge, the heart of the olive oil production process. They weren’t simply working on it. They were dissembling and reassembling entirely. “We must know and maintain this equipment ourselves. We can’t rely on finding a technician during the peak of the harvest,” Jean-Benoît stated emphatically. Not only does Jean-Bientôt’s team know the equipment, they have discovered flaws and improved the system. “It works better now than when we first bought it.”

This attention to detail stems from an earlier career as an engineer in Arizona. After 15 years in the U.S. Jean-Benoît and his wife, Catherine, who has her master’s degree in biochemistry (or something near to that—I avoided that world in school). They returned to their roots in Les Baux en Provence with their French accents in tact to raise a family and produce high quality Extra Virgin olive oil. Jean-Benoît asserts proudly that he and his wife are living the American dream. “Had it not been for our American experience, we would not be living our dream of producing high quality olive oil here in Provence."

Castelas brings new meaning to high quality Extra Virgin olive oil. The bar has been raised. His engineering skills have created a production system that requires no outside water during the process. Water can dilute flavor and freshness. It is common to add tap water during the production process to help extract the oil from the pomace. At Castelas, water comes from the olives only, not an added outside source. The result is a more flavorful, fresher and healthier oil. Castelas Extra Virgin olive has a length on the palate and the shelf, which far exceeds typical olive oils proclaiming to be Extra Virgin. Castelas is the real deal.

With Jean-Benoît, high quality Extra Virgin olive oil begins in the grove, which includes productive trees that are estimated to be 500 years-old. He is a strong proponent of irrigation, which gives the fruit the natural and necessary water required in the production process.

During an impromptu olive oil seminar given to a group of Australian visitors, the Hugues advised folks to not be afraid of bitter and peppery olive oils. These characteristics are signs of quality and will dissipate with cooking and add complexity to your food by drizzling after cooking.

Castelas is worth visiting on any trip to Provence. The estate is located on the foothills below the breathtakingly majestic village of Les Baux.

During our visit, a large rainbow appeared above us. Jean-Benoît quiped with a smile, "It's a sign." Yes—of the of the joys and prosperity of the American dream alive in France.

Friday, March 26, 2010

3/23/10--Reveling in Ravidá

Hotel Villa Esperia in the beautiful seaside resort town of Mondello, near Palermo, is a couple of blocks from the Mediterranean Sea and a few blocks from the beautiful and stately home of Natalia Ravidá, her husband, Giuseppe and their endearing son, 9 year-old Alfredo. After a burst of expresso and an unsuccessful attempt at an Internet connection, Natalia and I embarked on the one-hour plus drive to Menfi in southwest, Sicily. Upon arrival, we drove over dirt roads through the farm observing welcoming signs of spring including a bright blue sky, blooming lemon flowers among the vineyards and the olive trees. Our first stop was a reserve of wild olive trees and fennel, followed by a grove of ancient trees, 200-500 or more years old. These trees were crafted from the nearby wild trees. Interestingly, these trees were not planted in rows, but spaced randomly and obviously not planted purposefully. With their twisted trunks, these trees exude authentic character. If they could only talk… According to local folklore, the twisting is a result of the spinning earth over the centuries.

After watching a team pruning the olive trees and picking some lemons, Natalia gave me a tour of the mill, including an explanation of their innovative storage system. Using a bag and box technology with smaller 1000-liter tanks, olive oil is stored in two-day lots. Not only is the olive oil stored by varietal, but by time of harvest. My olive oil mantra is “Fresh is Best.” Here is an outstanding example of maintaining the critical freshness of Extra Virgin olive oil.

Any visit to this famed olive oil estate would not be complete without tasting some olive oil. Having a close relationship with this oil for over ten years, the familiar lemon/citrus, grassy, tomato leaf aromas exploded on the nose—classic Ravidá. This oil always takes me back to my youth, strolling down a row of tomato vines. Natalia is developing a new product, a lemon flavored oil. I’ve never been a fan of flavored oils. After all, the oil by definition is no longer Extra Virgin. Plus, most flavored oils on the market use a poor quality olive oil. With this lemon-flavored oil, my conversion is possible, showing nice pepperiness in the back of the throat—a perfect condiment for those summer salads.

Another innovation at Ravidá is the 3 and 5 liter box and bag packaging. Similar to the new wine boxes, exposure to air is minimized preserving freshness for a year or more after opening—Fresh is Best!

Now comes pure pleasure—lunch with Natalia’s mother and father, Ninni and Nicolo, in their magnificent home dating to 1770. My daughter, who is an interior designer and adores old, old stuff, would never leave this home.

Now, when God invented lunch this is what he had in mind. Greeted with a glass of Sicilian white wine made from Greciano, we had a lovely get acquainted chat. Then, Ninni and Nicolo Ravidá, elegant and charming, escorted us to their regal dinning room with a large burning fireplace. Signora Ravidá began with a wonderful potato and mushroom soufflé-like dish. Natalia referred to it as Sicilian Shepherd’s pie—No comparison, this tasted much better. Cod fritters, sautéed chicory and a dessert of refreshing orange slices drizzled with an adult beverage finished out the yummy culinary parade. Of course, a local red wine (Syrah) accompanied the experience. Although Signor Ravidá has owned vineyards across Italy for decades, he’s never bottled under his own level. He has supplied some of the finest vino estates in Italy, including the famed Antinori in Tuscany.

Natalia has authored a marvelous cookbook entitled, Seasons of Sicily. The recipes are simple, authentic and great for entertaining. She and her mother conduct cooking classes at their home in Menfi.

Following lunch, Signor Ravidá and I hovered next to the fire for a brief interview. Two hours passed in a flash. After finishing the video portion of our visit, he rose slowly from his chair. With a little twinkle in his eye and a sheepish grin, he asked, “Would you like a little something?” Having never said no in my life, he emerged with two small glasses and a bottle of Pravis Dolomiti Bianca, an orange blossomed dessert wine from northern Italy.

Hearing Signor Ravidá's engaging stories behind the creation of one the greatest olive oils of the world is a memory that I will cherish forever. Video excerpts of this interview will be shown in the future on Crush and Press and www.facebook.com/crushandpress

After interviewing Natalia, we raced back to Palermo to join Giuseppe for dinner at Bye, Bye Blues Ristorante in Palermo. Chef Patrizia Di Benedetto is the first major female chef in Palermo. She presents a modern twist of traditional Sicilian dishes and ingredients, based on her global travels. The affable chef once cooked with Roberto Donna, the famed Italian chef in Washington, DC. Simply divine describes her octopus carpaccio with oranges and perfectly cooked clams.

Following dinner, Natalia and Giuseppe gave me a tour of the old Palermo with its fabulous architecture, dating to the 17th century. Two days in Sicily is not enough. I shall return.

Exhausted, full and gleeful, I was asleep before my head hit the pillow.

Photo: Natalia, Ninni and Nicolo Ravidá

3/22/10-A Sicilian Cowboy and Maker's Mark

My Tunis Air flight touched down in Palermo, Sicily on time at 12:15 pm, The friendly and beautiful smile of Anna (formerly from Brooklyn) from the office of Manfredi Barbera office greeted me and drove me to Manfredi’s home. Manfredi Barbera owns Premiati Oleifici Barbara, which has been in business since 1894. Manfredi produces many labels of Extra Virgin olive oil, but the most important to me is Frantoia, which will be available for purchase on the soon to be released Crush and Press. This olive oil has outstanding value and has kept a regular spot in my pantry for over ten years. Despite leaving the next day for a 10 day visit to Brazil, Manfredi set aside the afternoon to visit with me.

Understanding this Sicilian cowboy requires a glimpse at his 400 year-old house. This was once the home of the Prince of Naples, but because of gambling and other activities “finished his money before finishing the house,” according to Manfredi. This home has been in the Barbera family for 120 years and was a country hunting house originally. Forty years ago, the land surrounding the home was developed into apartment buildings and other commercial establishments. One row of trees still lines the street leading to the house, which once provided the traditional picturesque long driveway to this magnificent home.

Shortly after greeting Manfredi, we were sitting down to a typical Italian lunch, a simple and tasty tomato-based macaroni and a red wine. We ate and ran. With his lovable 5 year-old son, Lorenzo, joining us, we began the 45 minute drive to his mill in Custonaci, near Trapani on the western tip of Sicily.

It was not long into the drive that I discovered Manfredi’s love of Kentucky bourbon, particularly Maker’s Mark. A treat to himself on any trip to New York City is a mega steak paired with Maker’s Mark on the rocks. Come to think of it, Bill Samuels, President of Maker’s Mark and Manfredi share a similar eccentric DNA. Introducing these two is a must. Joining them for dinner could be an unparalleled hilarious experience.

Speaking of steaks, Manfredi, who is an exceptional cook, prefers to finish his steaks after cooking with sea salt, fresh lemon and olive oil, Frantoia , of course—and bourbon.

At the mill, he demonstrated a new milling technology that he is experimenting with. This new technology has four separate grinders for crushing. These grinders can be switched and two of them can work collaboratively. This gives the capability of producing six or seven different flavor styles from the same olives. One grinder rolls similar to a traditional stone wheel, but without the exposure to air. The second is a hammer, which is similar to a coffee grinder. Third is an iron disc that acts as a masher. Finally, one grinder removes the pits before crushing giving a softer flavor profile.

Furthermore, the mill is divided into clean and dirty zones to preserve the integrity of the oil and achieving optimum sanitation. This process and picking olives when they are green (adding bitterness and pungency) explains how his Frantoia has the capacity to maintain its freshness beyond most Extra Virgin olive oils.

Manfredi resolved one mystery for me. His main oil is called, Frantoia. In Italian, Frantoio means mill. Frantoio is also a prominent Italian olive varietal. What’s with “Frantoia?” With a big smile, Manfredi said, “It’s fantasy. No meaning. It’s woman, which is better.” I’m in agreement. The romantic cowboy invented the feminine of Frantoio.

To conclude our visit, Lorenzo and I played in a huge ancient cave at Grotta Mangiapane and saw a 500 year-old frantoio (mill). After a thrilling drive back to Palermo, dinner with the Ravidás.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Tunisian Olive Oil: Change is Inevitable Except from a Vending Machine

As I depart Tunisia, today, and reflect back over the past week, I'm amazed by the enormous size and importance of the Tunisian olive oil industry. Yet, outside of Tunisian and some bottlers in Italy, Tunisian olive oil is unknown. Tunisian has 1,600,000 hectares (2.47 acres per hectare) of olive trees, 56 million trees and produces an average of 200,000 tons of olive oil per year (66% is exported). Tunisia is the fourth largest producer of olive oil with Spain, Italy and Greece. Folks, that's a sea of olive oil.

I’m sure you're asking, if they produce so much olive oil, then why haven't I tasted Tunisian olive oil or seen it on the shelves in the U.S? You have, but didn't know it. It's disguised. If you've purchased a bottle labeled, "Packed in," "Imported from," or "Product of Italy," you’ve had Tunisian olive oil. Historically, Tunisia has been a major supplier of the bulk bottlers from Italy. These bottlers or bulk producers buy product from countries in the Mediterranean and blend with Italian olive oil and ship to the U.S. and other countries.

Now, change is coming. And to quote an anonymous source, "Change is inevitable, except from a vending machine." The growers of Tunisian are beginning to bottle and label their own Extra Virgin olive oil (including organic) and seeking global importers and distributors from the U.S to Japan.

In recent years other new world countries including the U.S, Australia, Argentina, and Chile have stormed on to the world olive oil stage by planting an astounding amount of olive trees. These are young trees. To its advantage, Tunisia has mature trees and a whole bunch of them. Their challenge is changing the mindset of a bulk supplier for other countries where yield (quantity) is the most important factor to a quality-focused production process. This transformation is occurring rapidly and will be driven more and more by consumers as awareness increases about high quality Extra Virgin olive oil. Hey, world! Here comes 100% Tunisian olive oil.

My next stop—Sicily!