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The Taste of Extra (Extra) Virgin Olive Oil

Italy's Festa Dell'Olio Nova brings strangers together

SHE HAS HAIR THAT doesn’t spoil in the rain—it is henna suggestive, congenitally polished—and when she tells me late into our Trequanda afternoon that she once rinsed it all with olive oil, I ask her to tell me how the beauty treatment went.

“I think I used too much,” she smiles.

“Oily hair?” I ask.

“Extra extra,” she says.

All the hoops in our fellow traveler’s left earlobe are gold. The single hoop in her right lobe is also gold. The narrow hoop through her septum is silver, and she wears no makeup, no logo, no brand, though the camera she has borrowed for this Tuscan excursion is a Canon. She is searching for portraits. I am searching for an understanding of these olive oil hills. Of the fatty fruit that blooms green, ripens to purple, steeps to black. Of this UNESCO-protected domesticated asset that is born of history, elevation, fresh air, clay soil, tender picking, expedient and expert pressing, and, it seems to me, or I wonder later, the cawing and trilling of free-flying birds. 

Extra virgin olive oil is an oleic acid–saturated elixir that, according to local lore and growing science, explains the beauty and longevity of the locals—their healthier hearts, their lowered blood pressure, their fewer incidences of Type 2 diabetes, their less acidic stomachs, their bright minds, their supple, glowing, envy-it skin. It is an antioxidant, an anti-inflammatory, and an anti-arthritic. It is a dressing, a frying fat, the reason we eat bruschetta. It is, on this day in late October, the grand celebrant of the Festa Dell’Olio Novo, which is to say that extra virgin olive oil is community, too, worthy of music and costume.

Extra extra.

We had come to Trequanda by way of Siena, beneath the black plumes of a century-old steam engine and the thick mist of gray skies. Some 350 of us, mostly Italians, had taken our places on the old wooden seats of the vintage train cars and settled in for the ride. Dogs in carrying pouches. Little girls with pigtails. An older gentleman with a diamond in one ear whose bright green shirt announced his history as a skateboarding champion. An oompah band joined us for the occasion—drum, accordion, saxophone, trumpet—carrying their brassy tunes and scandalous eyebrows up and down the aisles, and though there wasn’t room to dance, there was dancing. Boot stomp. Hand clap. The mimed doffing of hats.

Beth Kephart
 

I shared a berth with my husband. She was there, across the aisle. She required, it seemed, rescue from the couple that sat opposite her, their bodies entwined, their hands bawdy, their desire intensifying with every kilometer of rail. 

“Sit with us,” I’d said, and immediately she did, revealing herself to be a young woman from Berlin miraculously fluent in English, the history of conflict, the prickle of the memorialized, the contusions of power, and the possibilities of travel, which is to say the suspension of worry that sometimes sets in when we set out in search of things we only recently wanted.

She called her hunt for portraits stalking.

I called my interest in extra virgin olive oil a tribute to a former student, who had, upon graduation from our shared urban campus, postponed her commitment to a high-tech New York City job so that she might live for a time in a camper among rows of Tuscan olive trees. In the picking, the pressing, the elevated air, the nearby hot springs, my former student had made her peace. She had become an acolyte for these deeply rooted, ancient trees. And authentic extra virgin oil. In her life bending toward light, she had persuaded me.

Trequanda is a pristine municipality of less than two thousand residents located some nineteen miles southeast of Siena in the Valdichiana hills. The Etruscans made their homes here. Marshy landscapes bisected by the Chiana River were transformed into wildly fertile valleys. Renaissance artists readorned Gothic-Romanesque churches. When our steam engine puffed its final plume of black and stopped, we’d found ourselves at the smallest train station in all of Italy (or so said a guide). Buses waiting, we’d piled in. We’d snaked to the top of the hill, disembarked, followed sounds of the festival past a minor, elegant fortress. The rain had stopped. The light was gold. Our new German friend had set off to walk the length of the village and then, in five minutes, returned. She had seen it all, she’d said. Cats. Flowers. The most capacious views of the rolling, generous earth that ringed the village.

So that now, more or less, we are together, or, when we lose each other, we find each other once again. By the antique olive presses on display in a paved courtyard. By the drizzle of extra virgin over newly charred bread. By vats of olive dolci. By a lady who expertly creases pure white paper and then begins to snip, with precisely tiny scissors, the contours of a dragon. By the ensemble of singers and dancers who, in peasant costumery and with tambourines, guitar, and broad enthusiasms, tell the melodic stories of love in pursuit; they yield, to our new friend, the portraits she’s come seeking. Within the Chiesa dei santi Pietro e Andrea, the refashioned church with a stone checkerboard face, a woman in a red gown and a man in a sweater play “Czardas” by Vittorio Monti as their encore, the two instruments filling the entire volume of the church and the applause afterward surely rolling down hills toward the lower parts of the valley—all those trees out there, all that glint of silver and green, all those birds searching for unpicked fruit, for their beauty, their youth, their healthier hearts. Gloss in their feathers.

Beth Kephart
 

The festival is small. It is authentic. It is pure and extra extra, and when at last we begin to sample the oils drizzled onto bread, we ask each other what we are tasting, knowing, as we do, to expect purposeful and healthful bitters, notes of artichoke and grass, notes of green and yellow, notes of sun and sky, notes of olives picked in the cool part of the day and packed in crates that breathe, then processed within just a few days so that the oil might maintain its integrity, pass its many tests, be uplifted as the best there is, as time nearly eternal.

Tomorrow, returned to Siena, we will find our friend from Berlin quite by accident in the Piazza del Campo. We will invite her into our rented apartment for wine and cheese and biscotti, trade personal stories and Italian histories, talk memory and memorials, ask ourselves, again, why we travel. We will remember the extra virgin olive oils of Trequanda, which taste like a thought reaching up through a cloud, which is not a taste at all, but the kind of thing we didn’t know we’d need, best served and shared among friends.


Read about Beth’s encounters with wasps here.

Beth Kephart is the author of more than three dozen books, an award-winning teacher, and a book artist. My Life in Paper: Adventures in Ephemera is out now from Temple University Press. More at bethkephartbooks.com.