Words by Cacinda Maloney
I arose early, not knowing what was in store for the day. A misty, cloudy chill was causing me to button up my jacket around my neck and readjust my camera strap. I was waiting for the morning sun to take that perfect photograph of Tuscany. I searched in the almost darkness to get my bearings straight in order to find the main road, as I had decided to take a walk that early morning.
I had found Dante’s Paradiso and I wanted to absorb every moment of it, by not letting a single second slip by without Tuscany enveloping me. It was here, in Montestigliano, where I found that hidden spot in the world that I never want to leave my soul. In my mind, I could hear the angels singing.
I had died and gone to Heaven. It was here where I encountered the peeling beauty and colors that are Tuscany’s countryside, as I stepped into another world.
Soon enough I had joined the group for the day and with one big sniff, I thought I could faintly smell something spicy. I was avidly swirling, sniffing, slurping and swallowing a thick liquid out of a shot glass and I wasn’t even in a bar. I was actually in a starkly lit, stone 19th century storehouse sitting around a large wooden table. There was a table up in the front with bottles of different shapes covered in aluminum foil and then labeled “A”, “B”, “C”, “D”, all set up for a blind taste testing.
I was about to embark on a reproduction of an official olive oil panel test! Next to the samples on my table were bottles of sparkling water and a bowl of Granny Smith apples with a knife and a scoring sheet. The water and apples are apparently the key for cleansing the palate after trying each sample.
I was here to see if my palate had what it takes to discern the cheapest mass-manufactured olive oil from the home-grown Italian version, to see if I could pick out even the most minute and subtle flavors, anything from musty and fermented to fruitiness, pungency and grassy. In order to gain these skills, I had to be taught about the characteristics of fine olive oils and what makes some so much better than others. While there I learned about the merits of the extra-virgin olive oil made right here at Montestigliano.
But first, they took me out to their lush gardens where I was able to tour a small portion of the 2,500 acre estate with their 2000 olive trees. The trees looked healthy and alive, but back in 1985, there was one week where a frost killed almost 90% of all the olive trees in Tuscany. However, an olive tree is an amazing plant and can live through virtually any condition; they simply slow down and do not produce any olives, but can come back years later and produce them. Of the oils we tried, two were of protected origins (DOP), one was a general olive oil and the last one was a mass produced olive oil.
Basically the steps to evaluate an olive oil are to look at the oil and check its color, where it should be clear of a greenish-yellow consistency and not cloudy or orange. Then you sniff it and at the same time keep your hands close to the cup to start to warm up the oils. Then you taste it by slurping the oil to get air through it and let it coat your tongue. This is where I got the most out of all my skills to help identify the good ones. The winner in this case was “B” due to its pungency and gorgeous liquid gold color.
So if you are up for an amazing adventure in Tuscany, I cannot recommend the luxurious Montestigliano enough, where you will get a chance to see a bit of the countryside, as well as tour Siena, with its interesting contrade system. Montestigliano is a privately owned farm estate (agriturismo) with its own town square and restored 18th century holiday villas surrounding it. Once you have visited, you too will think you died and gone to Heaven!