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Fresh off the press

Extra virgin olive oil brings unexpected Mediterranean flavors to Juneau

Posted: January 29, 2012 - 1:00am
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  Jennifer Nu
Jennifer Nu

Under the cream-colored arches of a high vaulted ceiling, two immense stone wheels slowly turned, crushing the day’s harvest of black and green olives. The creamy paste continued through a maze of gleaming stainless steel trays and centrifuges as engineers checked the dials to ensure a precise temperature range. Shimmering bright green liquid streamed slowly into steel drums, filling the air with the aromatic, fruit-filled tones of the Mediterranean elixir known to the world as extra virgin olive oil (EVOO).

Out of all grades of olive oil, EVOO is the highest quality with an acidity level of less than 0.8%. Cold-pressed EVOO also maintains a high level of vitamins, antioxidants, and substances because it is created through the first pressing of olives.

“The ancient technology of using stones to crush the oils is still the most effective way to extract the oils because it preserves delicate enzymes in the oil. Highly mechanized presses generate more friction and heat, which can degrade the oil’s special properties,” explained Lorenzo Caponetti, an Italian farmer and olive oil producer who will be presenting olive oil tastings in Juneau next month.

Caponetti runs a 125-acre organic farm located in the bucolic hills surrounding the medieval town of Tuscania of the Lazio province near Italy’s western shore. The annual harvest takes place in November with the help of farmhands and volunteers that come from as far away as Juneau to work the fields.

“Olive oil is actually a seasonal product,” stated Caponetti. “The quality decays with the passing of time. That is why we press the same day as the harvest.”

Olive cultivation has been an important part of Mediterranean culture and cuisine since its origins in the area of modern-day southern Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Israel. It later spread to other parts of the Mediterranean where Italy, Greece and Spain have become the world’s largest exporters. Though Olea europea can be found cultivated throughout the world today, the oils coming from small-scale producers in the Mediterranean continue to be regarded as the best in the world.

Two years ago, I met an olive tree for the first time while volunteering at Caponetti’s farm. When I arrived, the boughs of the trees sagged thick with Canino olives, ranging in colors from dull jade to ebony. During the harvest, two men hoisted mechanical rakes that vigorously shook the trees free of their treasured burden. Small hand-rakes and ladders sat nearby, the traditional method in case the modern equipment failed. On the ground, several people worked with yards of netting that surrounded the day’s targeted row of trees as sweet-smelling cascades of silver leaves, branches, and olives rained down from above. In a carefully choreographed dance, the net handlers maneuvered the loaded nets to surround the next set of trees until there was a free moment to sort the debris from the olives and pile them into crates.

“Olive groves are the main feature of the Mediterranean landscape,” said Caponetti. “The dry conditions necessary to cultivate this product brought farming into some of the most unproductive and rocky spots.”

Caponetti is a modern-day Renaissance man whose studies have included architecture, forestry, rural planning, agricultural history, and organic farming. He is a regular guest speaker at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., the International Culinary Art and Science Institute in Cleveland, and he has held seminars at the United Nations University in Hamilton, Ontario.

The extra virgin olive oil he produces is highly prized by chefs throughout Italy and the United States for its quality, flavor, and careful processing. His farm uses sustainable agricultural methods that include hydraulic irrigation inspired by the ancient Etruscan irrigation ruins still found on his farm today. In addition to olives, he and his family raise vegetables, horses, cows, and pigs.

Slow Food Southeast Alaska presents two opportunities to taste and learn more about EVOO. Thursday at 6:30 p.m., Slow Food will hold its spring quarterly potluck at Pavitt’s Health and Fitness with a presentation by Caponetti on the health benefits of EVOO and a tasting. This event is free and open to the public. Attendees are asked to bring a dish and reusable dishes and cutlery to share.

The second event will take place at The Hangar on the Wharf at 6 p.m. following the First Friday gallery walk. The event will feature a slideshow presentation on the cultural importance of olive oil to Mediterranean culture by Caponetti, a tasting and a no-host bar. The cost will be $5.

Major sponsors for this event include Rainbow Foods, Pavitt’s Health and Fitness, The Hangar on the Wharf, the Rainforest Cottage, Wild Oven Bakehouse, and the University of Alaska Cooperative Extension Service.

To learn more about EVOO from Casa Caponetti, visit www.caponetti.com

For more information about the Juneau events or to volunteer, contact Slow Food Southeast Alaska at slowfood.seak@gmail.com or visit the Facebook page for updates.

• Jennifer Nu is a freelance writer based in Juneau. Contact her at jennu.jnu@gmail.com

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