The world can be divided into two camps – and no, my US friends, I’m not talking about Democrats and Republicans. There are those who love olives and those who hate olives. Anyone who claims not to fall into either camp must be voting for Gary Johnson or Jill Stein (I have to throw in a little bit of politics…). For my first 38 years I have been a proud, vociferous olive-hater. Being an olive-hater isn’t easy because olive-lovers don’t have a lot of empathy; they simply can’t understand what it’s like to have olives smeared over an otherwise perfectly delicious pizza. Go ahead, olive-lover, try removing all the olives (and the juices) from a pizza without destroying the cheese, not to mention looking ridiculous at a party. If the picture below makes you anxious then you understand what I mean.
Well, like Saul on the road to Damascus, I’ve come to tell you that I’ve seen the light and am fully aboard the olive train (at least in Europe – let’s see once we’re back in the US).
Earlier in our trip, as I started tasting olives in different European dishes, I noticed that the flavor seemed a little more subtle than its US counterpart and it felt more closely related to the flavor profile of olive oil (which I have always loved). Fast forward to this week and we’ve fully immersed ourselves in the olive culture in the heart of Tuscany. I think it’s safe to say I’m never going back…read on to learn why!
Introduction – where are we and what are we doing?
We’ve kept our trip itinerary mostly open-ended in order to be able to take advantage of authentic opportunities that would inevitably pop up on our travels. When planning our trip through Italy I figured that nothing would be more authentic than learning how to cook Tuscan food. After combing through several way-too-expensive options, I found a really great cooking school called Tasty Tuscany, which promised to take us on some great Tuscan excursions by day and teach us to cook Italian-style by evening (and was reasonably priced which included a late-season discount of 20%). We ended up experiencing all of that and much, much more. But before we get into that, let’s meet the crew.
- Paolo – Tango dancer extraordinaire. Nicknamed ‘wiki-Paolo’ for his extensive knowledge of many subjects. In one word – passionate!
- Manul – Teacher of all things related to mindfulness and living a balanced life. Extraordinary chef of all types of Italian food. In one word – wise!
- Terra – astoundingly beautiful and talented.
- Nate – excels at tasting food.
Manul and Paolo’s guest ranch is about 45 minutes Southeast of Pisa. The property is tranquil, relaxing, and filled with olive trees and other flora with views of the beautiful Tuscan countryside stretching out in all directions.
Allora…our daily excursions
Paolo and Manul each have their niche; Paolo is in charge of the daily excursions and Manul is in charge of the nightly cooking classes. (By the way “Allora” is an Italian’s way of saying ‘so then’, and it’s the one word I’ve heard the most in Italy. Everyone says it, all the time – but especially Paolo.)
We went on a couple of excursions with Paolo – one to Volterra and the other to a Carthusian monastery near Pisa. I won’t go into depth on the particular excursions here, although they were both amazing. What stood out to us is the way that Paolo can bring architecture, history, and geology to life; he has such extensive knowledge on just about every subject. He literally spent an hour telling us the fascinating story of the order of Carthusian monks who started the monastery we went to (as well as hundreds of other monasteries throughout Europe). ‘Wiki-Paolo’ gave us very interesting talks throughout the week that covered anything from the history of Argentinian tango to how olive oil is produced to how Italians make pizza.
Turning Us Into Italian Chefs
Each evening we met up with Manul, and she guided us through making 4-5 different types of dishes per night (including dessert of course). Shawn, another American gal, came and joined us for these sessions and together we had a blast making different Italian dishes.
Manul has such an extensive knowledge of Italian cooking. She was very patient with all of us as we followed her instructions. All the dishes were amazing, but our favorite was a broccoli pasta dish; the pasta was homemade using a musical instrument. I kid you not, look at the picture.
After cooking for 2-3 hours each night we had a big feast that sometimes included neighbors and friends, some who spoke English and some who didn’t (or not very well). On two separate occasions people who didn’t speak English very well insisted on starting a ‘Hilary or Trump’ conversation. Although we didn’t have many words to exchange we all were able to communicate basic concepts to each other (and had a lot of agreement overall!).
Manul is a big proponent of organic, locally-grown produce, as well as the connection between where and how the food is produced, how we view food, and how it all connects with wellness and health. Good stuff!
From Olive-Picking to Tango Dancing
All of this was great, but the icing on the cake was the extra activities that we got to do by virtue of lucky timing and incredibly generous hosts. The first of these activities was olive picking.
It just so happened that we came at olive harvesting time, which is the last harvest of the season. Paolo explained the way that he harvests olives as compared with the larger producers. As with most other forms of farming, big producers use machinery and take shortcuts that lead to massive profits, leaving out the little guys that do it right. For example, for a number of reasons it’s much easier to harvest the olives when they are all black, but this leads to a stronger flavor that can really change the flavor of a dish. Picking the olives earlier (and mostly by hand) ensures a healthy amount of green olives, resulting in a milder olive oil that enhances rather than takes over a dish.
Terra, Paolo, and I picked olives for a good part of the day and came away with over 100 pounds of olives! When we did the math on how much olive oil this would actually produce, it was pretty depressing. But it was an amazing experience nonetheless, and we will definitely be purchasing our olive oil from Paolo this year (if any of you are interested please let me know). It’s kind of cool that we can say that we potentially picked some of the olives that end up in the bottle we purchase. This is the experience that forever moved me to the pro-olive side, as it gave me a deep appreciation for the connection between the Earth that produces the olives, the fruit itself (yes olives are a fruit), and the oil that comes from the olive. It’s almost like that experience really turned on my taste buds to amazing flavor of the olive (and especially the ones with the pit in them!).
Paolo also took us on a couple of extra excursions – one to an amazing local spa and another to a tango dancing club. Tango is quite a challenging dance to learn! Terra and I tried for awhile but I mostly just stepped on her feet, so after awhile we simply watched Paolo glide across the floor with his partner. It was a lot of fun!
We are flying tomorrow to Seville, Spain, for the last part of our European adventure, as we continue to try and chase every little last bit of European summer that we can! I’ve included some more pictures from this week below.