Italian Artisan: Francesca Di Nisio of CantinArte

Francesca 2 Meet Francesca Di Nisio, a woman after my own heart.

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.

oil museum

The CantinArte olive oil museum, in Bucchianico, dates back to the 1700s.

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.

francescanonna

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.

olive tree

One of CantinArte’s olive trees. (photo courtesy of CantinArte)

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. Oro Puro oil 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.

CantinArte grape harvest

The grape harvest at CantinArte (photo courtesy of CantinArte)

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 info@continarte.com, 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.

* * * * *

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.

Makes about 4 servings

Orange and Avocado Salad with Olive Oil

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.

Ingredients

  • 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)

Instructions

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.

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23 Responses to Italian Artisan: Francesca Di Nisio of CantinArte

  1. Helen Free February 24, 2014 at 8:58 am #

    Ahhh, I love her story and was fortunate to meet her 5 years ago. She is one of the gems in Arruzzo who loves what she does and enjoys sharing her work.

    Great seeing this and looking forward to hearing about the tour!

    • Domenica Marchetti February 25, 2014 at 5:22 pm #

      Helen, thank you. I believe in some roundabout way it was you who connected me with Francesca. You are a human catalyst my friend.

  2. Adri February 24, 2014 at 12:32 pm #

    Well, I could go on forever, but I will just say that this is Adri’s Dream Vacation. Olive oil and saffron, oh my. There is something about the dark earth of the Navelli Plain coupled with just the right number of very cold nights; the two come together to create perfect growing conditions for the world’s finest saffron Exquisitely expensive, but worth every penny, it is one Italy’s culinary treasures.

    • Domenica Marchetti February 25, 2014 at 5:23 pm #

      Adri, think about joining us on one of the tours. Details coming soon…

  3. staceysnacks February 24, 2014 at 12:49 pm #

    I’m going to order some right now! Your salad looks beautiful!

    • Domenica Marchetti February 25, 2014 at 5:25 pm #

      Thanks Stacey. I may join you and order some myself. I’m running low on the supply I brought back last summer…

  4. Michelle - Majella Home Cooking February 24, 2014 at 4:38 pm #

    Great interview, Domenica. Francesca is wonderful. I, too, feel lucky to have met her last spring. She is passionate and talented – truly a visionary and custodian of her – and my! – beloved Abruzzo.

    • Domenica Marchetti February 25, 2014 at 5:28 pm #

      Michelle, what a fun time we had that day. Pure Abruzzo magic. I keep thinking of our kids all together. So cute!

  5. Phyllis @ Oracibo February 24, 2014 at 7:42 pm #

    Agreed, great interview. Definitely someone I would love to meet! Makes me wish I had an Italian grandmother and all that background! Great looking salad too…will definitely be making! Other than ordering the oil online…do you know of anywhere in Rome where we might buy some? Oh and I want some of that saffron, I mean, you only use a tiny bit at a time!

    • Domenica Marchetti February 25, 2014 at 5:30 pm #

      Phyllis, I don’t know if there’s a place in Rome that sells Francesca’s oil. You might want to contact her at CantinArte (links are above in the post). And you’re right; there’s nothing better than the saffron from Navelli. Can’t wait to stock up this summer. Cheers and thanks for reading.

  6. ciaochowlinda February 24, 2014 at 8:16 pm #

    So nice to see Francesca profiled in such a terrific interview. I too, have been lucky enough to meet her a couple of times in Abruzzo and sample her delicious olive oil. I still haven’t tried the wines or the saffron, but you’ve given me the bug to get some on my next trip. Your salad looks gorgeous.

  7. paninigirl February 27, 2014 at 11:36 am #

    In a perfect world I would be joining you on your trip! Maybe some day…

  8. Francesca February 27, 2014 at 10:52 pm #

    just feel like I need to pop and say to Francesca… beautiful post! loved it until the last word 🙂

    • Domenica Marchetti February 28, 2014 at 12:13 am #

      Benvenuta Francesca. Thank you. I’m so glad to know Francesca…both of you!

  9. duespaghetti March 2, 2014 at 2:59 pm #

    Lovely post. The culinary tour sounds exquisite!

  10. sippitysup March 3, 2014 at 8:48 pm #

    Hmmm. I look forward to the details of the tour. GREG

    • Phyllis @ Oracibo March 3, 2014 at 10:06 pm #

      Are you aware of anywhere in Rome that might sell her oil…we would love to be able to try some?

      • Domenica Marchetti March 4, 2014 at 8:57 am #

        Phyllis: Francesca says she does have a distributor in Rome. She was going to check today to see if he still had bottles. Otherwise, she says you can order directly from her (info@cantinarte.com) and she can have the bottles sent right to your house. I’ll email you as soon as I know more. Cheers, D

      • Domenica Marchetti March 7, 2014 at 1:43 pm #

        Phyllis ~ and anyone else based in Rome who is interested in purchasing Francesca’s oil and wine ~ you can find them at a place called Dolcepasta, Via Lucio Papirio 105, ROMA 00174.

    • Domenica Marchetti March 4, 2014 at 8:56 am #

      Stay tuned Greg; I’ll be posting soon.

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