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The Groves (& The Family) Behind our Italian Olive Oil CSA

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If, as a kid, you (or your middle school class) ever adopted a polar bear or a panda bear or a star or a river, you know the flurry of warm-fuzzies that follow: the ones you get from pitching in towards a collective cause, and the instinctive, immediate empathy involved in getting to call a sliver of it your own.

For a grown-up version of this, you can now adopt a hundreds-years-old Puglian olive tree.

Especially Puglia, a company that promotes the oils and craft of a handful of Italian olive growers and oil producers, caught our attention because of their tree adoption program. By adopting one of the olive trees on one of the four farms Especially Puglia works with—which you can do by way of our Shopyou'll get a wooden gift box containing a pretty ceramic cruet, a 3-liter can of extra-virgin, single-origin olive oil, a tiny funnel, and an adoption certificate.

Olive groves in Puglia.
Olive groves in Puglia. Photo by Balazs Glodi

Talking to Michele Iadarola, Especially Puglia's founder, I realized that I haven't given a lot of thought to my olive oil the way I have to the rest of what I eat—my coffee, my milk, my bread, my eggs. And this is what Michele expected: Americans tend to buy their olive oil from grocery stores, and their thoughts (like mine) turn largely to price first and everything else afterward.

Adopt an Olive Tree Gift Box + Subscription
Adopt an Olive Tree Gift Box + Subscription

Michele, who grew up on an olive farm in Puglia (one of the four farms from which Especially Puglia sources), wanted to connect American buyers with the same system that many Italians take part in: You buy into a farm's olive-growing and oil-production processes before the harvest, CSA-style, with an early investment in the land and the plants and the farmers, and an understanding that the payoff will come after the harvest. But most Americans can't go to a farmers market (and certainly not an Italian farmers market) for their weekly fix of olive oil, the way we do for other staples, and Michele wanted to fill that void.

Photo by Balazs Glodi

When you adopt an olive tree, "you get excited about the new crop [of olives] on a specific piece of land," Michele explained to me over the phone. "It's your olive tree that makes oil for you every year. If I were at the olive grove myself, I'd go to the farmer and say, 'I want this much olive oil,' and stock up for one year. Getting this box is sort of like passing that tradition to our general customers."

So you adopt an olive tree. Three liters of olive oil is a lot to ask from one particular tree, but your tree puts in its contribution; the 3 liters of olive oil you receive upon adoption is the collective effort of all of the trees on Masseria Carpine, Michele's family's grove. Extend the adoption by "subscribing" (this is the CSA-style bit), and get a year's worth of olive oil: Three more 3-liter cans will arrive over the course of the coming year, one from each of the different groves—Masseria Carpine, Masseria San Giusto, Castel Fiorentino, and Carolina Villani Estate—Especially Puglia works with.

Michele and his father in their grove in Puglia.
Michele and his father in their grove in Puglia. Photo by Balazs Glodi

The effect, flavorwise, of buying single-origin oil is obvious, the reasoning the same as why we buy wines from single-varietal grapes and vineyards we know we like: You can really taste not only the specific variety of olives (there are four between the four farms: Peranzana, Coratina, Santa Caterina, and Leccino), but also the land-based nuances between the farms, even though they are all in northern Puglia at the heel of Italy's boot. "Each olive oil and grove has its own tasting profile based on the soil, the time [the olives] are harvested, the variety of olive," Michele said.

There's also the added benefit of knowing who grew your olives—in Especially Puglia's case, mostly families, including Michele's. His parents and siblings continue to run Masseria Carpine, an olive grove that's been in his family for three generations; his great-grandfather planted the trees. And you can go to Puglia and meet them (Michele's family and trees, and the families and trees of the three other groves) through the farm-stay program Michele has developed, and lend a hand during the harvest season from September through November.

Sheep moseying through, munching on fallen olives.
Sheep moseying through, munching on fallen olives. Photo by Balazs Glodi

Michele wants his consumers to know how the whole process works: how the olive trees in many of these groves are 200 to 300 years old ("like monuments," he said), that the olives are cold-pressed in Puglia within 8 hours of the time they're harvested, and that it's truly "extra virgin" oil—that's the first oil that comes out of the press (not all olive oil marketed as extra virgin actually is).

The other thing he wants consumers to know: Olive oil tastes differently when it's fresh versus when it's been sitting out for a couple of months (or longer). It tastes stronger and greener, "more peppery, with a kick in your throat because it's so fresh," he told me.

So what to do with them? Here's how Michele recommends using each of the oils they send in the subscription service:

Photo by Mark Weinberg

Masseria Carpine

Michele's family's grove
This is Michele's favorite of the four oils (though he may be biased, as it's from his family's grove); it's made of Santa Caterina and Coratina olives that are harvested and processed together. "Very green color, big aroma, a bit peppery and a bit sweet, and balanced beautifully," says Michele, making it a very good all-purpose oil. Use in salads, soups, and pastas.

(You'll get this oil whether you adopt a tree and leave it at that or you subscribe for the year; oil from the other three groves is only included in the year subscription.)

Masseria San Giusto

The grove of the family that processes the olives
Made of Coratina olives, this oil is "very strong, a little bitter, very grassy," says Michele, and good on everything but fish, which needs something a little more delicate. It's good for roasting since its flavor holds up.

Castel Fiorentino

A grove belonging to a relative of the San Giusto owners
Since this oil is made from "very sweet olives"—Peranzana and Leccino—"very balanced, and a bit fruity," it is good for fish (and vegetables). Drizzle on bread or over fish or vegetables.

Carolina Villani Estate

The grove of one of Michele's maternal cousins
This oil is similar to the Fiorentino oil, but made exclusively with Peranzana olives ("one of the perfect olives," says Michele), and thus even fruitier and very rounded in flavor. Drizzle over soft cheeses or bean salads.

Already scheming about how to use them? (Or dreaming of a Puglian farm-stay already? Same.) Head over to our Shop.

Tags: Pantry, Olive Oil, The Shop, Long Reads, Food Biz, Makers, Farms, Ingredients, Italy Week