I mean that literally because Francesca is a producer of olive oil, which as we now know, is one of the “good” fats. But Francesca’s oil isn’t just good; it’s some of the best I’ve had the pleasure of tasting, made form organically grown olives that are harvested by hand. In addition to oil, Francesca’s company, CantinArte, also produces wine and saffron from Abruzzo’s Navelli plain.
I’m thrilled to tell you that Francesca is also one of the artisans who will be part of two culinary tours, in June and September, that I will be leading with my friends Nancy and Michael Morizio of Abruzzo Presto. We are finalizing the details, which I’ll be posting here in the coming days. In the mean time, if you’re interested in learning more, let me know below in the comments section, or shoot me a message.
Francesca and I met last summer during a day-long food tour organized by my friend Emiliana of Abruzzo4Foodies. I was impressed by her knowledge and charmed by her warm personality. She gave us a tour of CantinArte’s olive oil museum, a beautifully preserved 18th century processing facility in the town of Bucchianico, and taught us how to properly taste and assess olive oil.
I figured Francesca came from a family that had been in the olive oil business for generations. In a Q & A, I asked her about it and was surprised by her answer:
DM: Let’s start with the story. How long has your family been in the olive oil business?
FD: CantinArte was born in 2008 in Chieti out of my strong desire to follow in the footsteps of my maternal grandmother, Maria. When she was young her family produced wine, oil and grains. But eventually they left the countryside and moved to the city and stopped farming.
Before that, though, I had the fortune of spending many afternoons, Sundays, holidays with her and I took in her great love for the country, and for a simple genuine life away from trends and false values. She taught me the importance of wholesome food, and that you can make excellent dishes if you use good ingredients and cook seasonally.
The path I took was not the one my parents took; they did not pursue a life in agriculture. In fact, my mother is an elementary school teacher and my father works in another sector. While both are in love with the country, they never made it their work.
I started with a course in winemaking at Teramo, where I learned pruning, harvesting and working in a cantina. I got a masters degree at the university in Florence in marketing of wine, and then I started a wonderful training course at an organic farm in the Chianti Classico area. I wanted to get foreign experience so I went to to France to learn about and participate in the grape harvest.
By the end of 2007 I felt it was to do something on my own, to get involved in this beautiful profession. I started producing organic wine and oil, and then saffron ~ my husband is from Navelli, in L’Aquila, where the best saffron is produced. Gradually, we began to be recognized with awards for our Oropuro extra-virgin olive oil.
DM: Describe the area ~ Bucchianico and also where you have your olive groves.
FD: Bucchianico is a beautiful and characteristic small town 30 minutes from the Majella mountains and 25 minutes from the sea. Our farm is in the midst of other farms, and I am surrounded by cheerful elderly farmers who make pizza and bread every Saturday and who, when I go visit them, smother me with kisses and fill me with happiness.
DM: Describe your olive oil and the harvesting process.
FD: Our Oropuro is a blend of three varieties: Leccino, dritta, and Frantoio. The latter two are varieties of the region, while the first you find all over Italy. Our oil has a fresh, vegetal quality that brings to mind artichokes, bitter almonds, freshly cut grass, and tomatoes. I like to harvest olives when they’re not super mature, while you can still taste this herbaceous quality, which lingers in the oil in the ensuing months. For that reason we harvest in mid-October. That’s my personal preference.
We pick the olives while they are still on the tree rather than waiting for them to drop. We use aerated crates instead of sacks to collect them, and we get the olives to the press within 24 hours. The olives are washed and leaves removed before being pressed, and we press them in six hours to prevent fermentation or other damage.
DM: You are a woman in a traditionally male career, true? What is that like?
FD: The world of agriculture is wonderful: it’s like taking care of a child. You watch the entire development process. I think it’s a very feminine profession. And besides, we women have more developed sense of smell and taste than men.
DM: What are the characteristics of a good olive oil? What do you look for when you taste oil?
FD: The oil should be bottled in dark bottles; light oxidizes it and makes it spoil more quickly. Never, I say never, trust in those transparent bottles where you see a brightly colored oil that doesn’t change with time ~ it’s a trick!!! No doubt it will have had chlorophyll or another chemical added to stabilize the color. Oil is judged with the nose and the mouth. You should always smell pleasing notes, nothing off. The taste should be a little bitter and spicy ~ these are two desired qualities of olive oil. To be labeled extra-virgin, chemical analysis must show the acidity to be less than 0.8 percent; otherwise it is simply olive oil.
DM: You also produce wine at CantinArte. Can you tell us a bit about that?
FD: Yes, in addition to oil and saffron, we produce organic wine with Montepulciano d’Abruzzo grapes. Our wine is called Rossopuro and it is made from grapes that come from 40-year-old vines that are tented, a traditional method typical of Abruzzo. We make a wine that is very low in sulfites, so no headaches or related problems.
DM: For those who want to know more or may be interested in purchasing oil, saffron or other products, what is the best way to contact you?
FD: You can contact us through our website, www.cantinarte.com, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, and through our Facebook page: www.facebook.com/cantinarte. We ship around the world. I also invite you to watch this video produced by BBC to teach children about the olive harvest. There you will see the genuine world of CantinArte.
DM: Grazie Francesca ~ thanks for sharing your story about CantinArte.
For more information on choosing olive oil, read my interview with Luanne Savino O’Loughlin of Olio2Go.
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The other night I used some of CantinArte’s olive oil, which I purchased last summer, to dress a winter salad of cara cara oranges, red onion and avocado. It was especially welcome during this rather bleak stretch of late winter.
This simple winter salad relies on good ingredients ~ juicy oranges, buttery ripe avocado, and, most importantly, a great, preferably fresh olive oil to bring everything together. For visual appeal, use a mix of oranges ~ navel, cara cara and blood orange. This salad takes well to variation ~ thinly sliced fennel, a handful of oil-cured olives and spicy arugula would all be welcome.
- 2 or 3 juicy oranges
- 1 ripe (but not soft) avocado
- 1/2 red onion, thinly sliced
- Coarse sea salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Best quality extra-virgin olive oil (preferably of recent harvest)
Cut the ends off an orange, taking care to remove the pithy skin as well. A serrated tomato knife works well for this task. Stand the orange up on end and slice around it vertically to remove the rest of the rind and outer skin, leaving a globe of flesh. Cut the orange crosswise into thin slices and arrange them on a large platter. Slice the remaining oranges in the same way.
Cut the avocado in half and remove the pit. Cut each half into thin wedges and arrange them on top of the orange slices. Scatter the onion slices over the avocado.
Sprinkle the salad with salt and pepper and drizzle a generous quantity of your best olive oil on top.