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 Titone or Confezionando.
It's a question that I'm often asked: "Which of Sicily's olive oils is the best?" The answer is not always as easy as it might seem.
In general, the quality of Sicily's olive oils is unexceptional , not only
because many exceed the acidity level recommended by gourmands but because
very few Sicilian firms (or cooperatives) have ever made a serious effort
to improve the quality of their product. Compared to many of the finer olive
oils being produced in Greece, Spain and mainland Italy, most of Sicily's
just aren't especially good. Anybody can harvest olives, hire a press and
bottle the result. "New" olive oils emerge each season. One could
say that, generally speaking, the Sicilian olive oil industry is where its
wine industry was twenty years ago --located in a mediocre island off the
Mediterranean culinary map.
With this in mind, while hoping to dispel a negative generality, we held
a tasting of ten "estate-bottled" Sicilian olive oils produced
in limited quantities by smaller firms using the olives harvested from a
single place (usually their own farms). As a point of reference, albeit
not a very distinguished one, we included the "better" brands
of two "cooperatives" which market the oils of numerous producers
as a single product. We could (and probably should) mention the brands selected
as our second and third choices. We decided to do that at next year's tasting
(yes, this will be an annual event). 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 seven tasters --all experienced in
preparing Mediterranean cuisine-- are associated with any olive oil vendor.
Our choice? Titone 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. It retains its grassy notes
and fruity, tart flavor long after bottling. It seems to "cure"
very little. It literally tastes like crushed fresh olives. As good as some
oils are, this level of quality is difficult to imagine until you've actually
During a visit to the farm, we met the firm's owner, Antonella Titone,
a biologist who advocates a "low-oxygen" pressing and bottling
process that ensures freshness. This oil has won plenty of awards, and they
seem to be well-deserved. Titone's rural facility combines traditional and
modern techniques. The idea of a fluent speaker of English explaining the merits of organic olive oil was an appealing one; too many of Sicily's olive growers lack the fundamental communication requirements of the international market they seek for their product.
This prompts an obvious question: Why can't more Sicilian olive oil estates
mimic this success by using similar methods? After all, the olive trees
on many farms around Sicily are the same five or six varieties, and the
sunshine and soil are the same. Only on the slopes of Mount Etna is the
micro-climate cooler and the soil more volcanic. The locals like to say
that most of the island's olive farms are family-owned. It's true, but most
of their oil is sold to cooperatives (such as Palermo's Apolivo) infamous
for crippling bureaucracy and an outmoded, socialist-style "collectivism."
The most diligent growers and producers sell under their own names, shunning
"re-branding" while embracing the best pressing and bottling methods,
but even many of the most diligent among them rarely make quality-control
a serious priority.
Do organic oils taste better? This tasting included both organic and
non-organic oils. The next one may be just organic ones (we're still debating
it). The real test is tasting the oil yourself, directly and dipped in fresh
white bread. At its best, oil making is a craft of the same order as wine
About the Author: Roberta Gangi has written
numerous articles and one book dealing with Italian cultural and culinary
history, and several food and wine articles for Best of Sicily Magazine.