In This Idyllic Italian Region, Fresh-pressed Olive Oil Is More Precious Than Gold
In early November, the vineyard-covered hills of Umbria are splashed with vibrant, rusty red — the telltale hue of native Sagrantino grapevines. It’s a rustic, painterly landscape, dotted with the silvery-green foliage of olive trees. But inside a red-brick barn turned oil mill in the town of Bevagna, I was captivated by a beautiful but decidedly more man-made scene.
Wedged between white-tiled walls stood an industrial grinder — a hulking metal contraption of cubes, funnels, and spigots. I was at the end of a two-week culinary escapade arranged by Concierge in Umbria, and my guide, Cristina Tili, had brought me to Olio Ronci to see how olive oil is made. The Ronci family began producing oil in the 1950s; now third-generation sisters Simona and Roberta run the business.
The machinery around me produced such a racket that it was impossible to hold a conversation. Yet a handful of regulars — a middle-aged woman leaning against a wall, an older gentleman squatting on a box — had settled in comfortably, like they were at the pub. And in a way, they were.
During each fall harvest, friends and family get together to pluck the ripe fruit from their personal orchards and create their own stock of olive oil. (All the residents have trees on their properties, and no one would dream of using store-bought oil.) Speed is key, and advance mill reservations are required, as the olives must be pressed within 48 hours of picking. Once extracted, the oil briefly exists in a special phase when it’s at its most flavorful and most coveted — a two-to-three-month window when it is known as new olive oil.
During that time, the liquid is opaque with sediment and pungent with the flavor of the orchard from which it came. Varieties I sampled tasted of pepper, artichokes, fresh-cut grass, and, in one instance, enough allium to make me ask if I’d been given garlic bread. (I had not.) Served at every meal alongside Umbria’s proudly saltless bread, the oil stands so definitively on its own that, as Tili explained, locals consider the flavor too strong for cooking. But soon the sediment will sink and the oil will become transparent, losing both its piquant edge and its “new” moniker.
The day I was there, people showed up with crates of their red-black fruit and settled in for hours. No one dared to leave during the process, lest the miller confuse their oil with someone else’s. When a batch is completed, the owner will lug it home and store it in a cellar to be decanted throughout the year.
All of the liquid gold I saw pressed at the Ronci mill was spoken for, but I didn't leave Umbria empty-handed. A few days later, after cooking dinner with a lovely couple in their 500-year-old farmhouse, my host excused himself from the table and returned minutes later with a gift: a container of new olive oil, freshly milled from their own trees outside. Needless to say, I didn't let it get old.
Concierge in Umbria recently launched Cantina Direct, an online shop selling Italian foods, including Umbrian extra-virgin olive oil.