Last June, I received an email from Jill den Hertog, who was embarking on a remarkable olive oil journey – to travel the Mediterranean learning about great oils, which she then would import into North America, to share their rare magic with consumers. Since then, as she's toured some of the premier olive-growing regions of Italy, Spain, Greece and Turkey, Jill and I have carried on our correspondence, comparing notes and impressions about oils and the people who make them. She has agreed to tell a bit of her story here (you can find Jill and learn more about her work on her website YouTasteTheTruth.com).
I find Jill's combination of imagination, elbow grease, resourcefulness and sense of adventure truly inspiring, and see her as proof that a real revolution in olive oil quality in America is within our reach!
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I have heard that big events in our lives often precede major change—a wedding or a birth perhaps.
In my case, my husband had died recently, and I was driving south to see my children when I heard Tom interviewed on NPR radio. I was both amazed and exceedingly annoyed to find I’d been fooled by olive oil labeling for years. Knowing virtually nothing about the subject, except that it was supposed to be good for you, I had never understood how anyone could really “like’ the taste. No wonder, I realized, remembering all the bargain EVOOs I’d bought over the years.
all photos by Annette Dubois
Having spent almost the last 20 years sailing the Med., I realized I could change this and wondered if others might feel as I did. I had a lot of driving to do, so I chewed the idea over a lot before deciding to visit 3 of the producers Tom had written about to see firsthand what all the fuss was about.
If the taste of EVOO was in fact as Extra Virginity suggested, then I would import what I liked and have blind tastings in private homes much the way Tupperware parties operate. I thought a certain type of café /& or restaurant might be interested as well, and when my husband’s granddaughter said she’d like to join me, we began some serious planning.
All of the producers I approached were most encouraging and, as funds were destined for possible EVOO purchases, we planned to travel very light, stuffing our sleeping bags and clothes for 3 months into backpacks. We couch surfed, checked out hostels and emailed friends. We’d have loved to have been able to plan our trips as well, but as the early harvest depended entirely on the weather, not even the producer knew exactly when the olives would be ready for harvest. So we were nearby in case, and used the time before the harvest to meet the principals at both the Italian and Spanish groves. You will wonder perhaps why we didn’t just wait a bit until harvesting had started, but it was that very first early harvest that interested me the most. The one with the highest polyphenol count and the greatest ‘tickle’ to the throat! We were also able to ask a lot of questions without interrupting harvest time and of course, to see a lot of ruins, museums and such while waiting. When they let us know the time had arrived, we’d hurry back to watch the picking, take photos, ask more questions, learn and above all taste.
The olives were ready in Jaen first and it was pouring rain while we were there. Paco took us all around explaining what Castillo de Canena was doing to have groves as natural as they were in Roman times. How the sheep wandered about doing their bit and the leaves and pomace (residue left of olives when oil has been removed) contributed to the overall natural fertilizing. On the other hand when it came to processing, he and his family were committed to finding the most perfect way to preserve the best in every harvest. Experiments and tests are continuous and their dedication is heartwarming. We took away samples to test as soon as possible. Annette and I waited until we had the time and ingredients for a simple salad before we really experimented. We wanted to be sure to have the time and presence of mind to really focus on what we were about to taste for the first time. We’d come a long way for this. An unbelievably delicate Arbequina was our first introduction to the taste pleasures of EVOO.
Well, what we'd heard about real EVOO was all true, and both my granddaughter and I were blown away by the fresh delicious tastes. Here there was no problem drinking these fresh EVOOs straight, and loving it.
Olives ripened next in Puglia and we were there. Fascinated and anxious to taste a completely different olive variety. The 100% Coratina at De Carlo’s was a more robust oil, and it was easy to understand why those in the know have several in use at the same time. All the planning & wondering evaporated as I learned more about the nature of the business and tasted the delectable results of the years of dedication of this and other families.
In the meantime couch surfers in Spain, Italy and Greece became fast friends. We discovered some excellent hostels and stayed in hotels perhaps 3-4 times over those 3 months. Our travels took us back and forth between Spain and Turkey, Greece and Italy and we spent many many hours looking for reasonable flights from here to there. A couple of nights in airports must be admitted to, but then how else do you manage arriving late at night and leaving before dawn the next day? We used planes, buses, trains and ferries to get where we had to go. Perhaps the most moving sight during that time was the 3250 year old olive oil tree, alive and well on Crete, where I understand there are other such treasures.
Crete was something of a wild card as we did not meet the people we had been emailing prior to our final visit. They had explained that they would not be starting their harvest before the afternoon of Dec. 5th. It seemed impossible that they should be this far behind and our travel plans had us arriving on the 3rd, a Saturday & leaving the following Monday morning, the 5th! As soon as the ferry docked & our car arrived we drove directly to Kritsa. We found the plant and entered a quiet empty building. As we turned to leave, someone arrived and we asked where everyone was and were directed to the office in another building. Ahh we were the Canadians that had written, and the gentlemen who had been seated around a table had risen to introduce themselves. This was the board, and they were making the final arrangements for the start of the harvest Monday afternoon. They were so helpful. Homemade bread was broken into a bowl and last years EVOO was poured liberally over it. I settled down to another taste treat and polished off the lot. I seemed to be needing this new food, and in generous amounts. It was lucky I planned to import it myself!
As you see, this entire venture only succeeded because of the people we met everywhere who were endlessly helpful, thoughtful and kind. In Turkey, a new acquaintance, hearing what we were doing, decided to help us visit a harvesting day and processing plant there. In Italy the parents of a couch surfer decided to ‘host’ us while we were in Puglia. Google translate was kept busy as we used it to talk to one another. We still use it to correspond. Producers allowed us to wander about taking pictures, answered endless questions, and helped us to understand the many facets in the production of their pride and joy, the early harvest EVOO. The passion these ‘farmers’ have for their oils is contagious. Their enthusiasm and visions for their future is exciting. It longs to be shared, cries out to be heard, and while I have not as yet mounted any bandwagons, I have talked to a fair number of people who want to hear more, but above all want to taste more.
Upon returning to Montreal I began to order the EVOOs we had tasted, arrange for their shipping and worked on the bilingual labels for Quebec. Before long the Mississauga Express was docking in Montreal, two weeks out of Livorno, with the De Carlo’s prize winning Torre di Mossa, a 100% Coratina, that was awarded the Best Extra Virgin olive oil in the World for 2013. Nothing like starting at the top! The Kritsa early harvest is well on it’s way to Montreal and the Arbequina too is expected before long.
To keep retail costs as low as possible, I decided to act as my own importer and customs agent. No looking up on Google to learn what CIF, DDP or FOB mean, understand and fill out the Customs coding form or move aside. Every job has it’s own lingo, and I expect to learn a lot more about different facets of this business as I go along. Spreadsheets will join the paperwork department and be the least enjoyable part of the whole, but with the offset of superb early harvest EVOOs who can complain?
It was hard to come back down to earth but not too long before the whole trip seemed something of a dream. If I was to take this further I must find a way to tell people this story, encourage them to hunt for really good EVOOs. My specialty, if you like, would be the early harvest, my interest mainly in matching great tastes with top health benefits, and freshness seemed an essential part of the equation. I am a one man show until something better comes along. My web site is www.youtastethetruth.com and means what it says. Just now it is mainly a photographic journal of the aforementioned trip. Suggestions are always welcome.
Jill den Hertog