The Palladian Traveler, an imbedded journalist on an Insight Vacations premium-escorted itinerary, goes in search of the “virgin” in extra-virgin olive oil as he files his eighth Country Roads dispatch from a family-owned mill in the heart of the Umbria in central Italy.
People pay good money to do what I’m doing right now: motoring around central Italy as a guest of Insight Vacations to sample a portion of one of its premier-escorted journeys into the sights, sounds and, most importantly, tastes of the Bel Paese.
La cucina Italiana, if not at the top, is pretty near numero uno status as the preferred style of cooking worldwide.
When you reduce it down to its core, the art of cooking Italian is simple, as many dishes only involve a handful of ingredients, like tomatoes, garlic, onion, sea salt, pasta, cheese, parsley, rosemary, white wine and olive oil. With these essentials always at the ready, you can work miracles in the galley and feel like you’re in Bella Italia without ever leaving the barcalounger, although Insight would prefer that you tagged along with them.
Comfortably nestled in my reclined, business-class legroom seat, along with the rest of my traveling group of international media, I’m just seconds away from one of the aforementioned ingredients.
Carlo, the skipper of our ship, maneuvers the motorcoach to an all-stop alongside the olive groves of the Frantoio Oleario Ragani (Ragani Olive Mill) that blanket the slopes of Mount Subasio between Assisi and Spello in the Umbria region of central Italy.
Our band of merry media is here to find out firsthand what the “virgin” is in the prima spremitura a freddo (cold pressed) extra virgin olive oil, and we’ll get the answer straight from the “olive man” himself, Emanuele Ragani, a third generation grove-and-press specialist who manages all stages of the family business, from the tree to the table.
We’ve come at an ideal time, as the annual olive harvest is well underway with plenty of picking days left on the calendar.
With an outstretched open hand, Emanuele displays the three varietals of olives that go into Ragani’s Denominazione di Origine Protetta (Protected Designation of Origin, or DOP) oil: Moraiolo, Leccino e Frantoiano.
The olives are all grown and handpicked right here on the farm and at nearby affiliated groves, then processed inside the mill adjacent to all those crooked trees.
The process seems pretty simple to this novice, but there’s a lot of love and expertise that goes into the Ragani brand. As Emanuele explains, it’s passion and the family rep that brings the end product to market.
There’s the care of the over 5,000 olive trees, the harvesting by hand of the fruit, the separation and selection of only the very best from the varietals, the cleaning of the stock, the crushing (only once for the cold method), the pressing, removal of the pulp and pits, filtration, storage, bottling, labeling and shipping.
I’ll remember all of this hard work the next time I reach for the dark green bottle and pour.
Although the demonstration was very informative, the highlight of our visit to Frantoio Oleario Ragani was the sampling of this mouthwatering liquid gold. Never did a slice of rustic bread, slightly browned in a wood burning hearth then drizzled with the greenest-of-green olive oil and topped with a dash of salt, taste sooo good.
It was bruschetta time at the mill, and we all went at it like it was a feeding frenzy around the Serengeti Plain.
On our way out the door, we were each gifted a real virgin from the olive groves — a half-liter of Ragani’s finest, cold-pressed, extra virgin olive oil. It’s just another one of those “signature” moments on this Insight journey.
Back on board the motorcoach, Belinda, our tour director-slash storyteller, announces our new GPS coordinates: We’re now off for a late, lazy and long lunch at Ristorante Il Molino in Spello. Can I get a BUON APETITO?
By now, you should know our collective reply, but it’s worth repeating: SI!
To learn more about traveling in style on one of Insight Vacations’ 12 Italian premium and luxury escorted itineraries — where you’ll meet great local personalities like The Etruscan Chef along the way — or one of its 100 other journeys around Europe, visit insightvacations.com, or call toll-free (888) 680-1241, or contact your travel agent.
See you soon around la tavola in Spello.