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“Perfect balance and equilibrium is what characterizes our oil. Along with artichoke, cardoons or almonds. Bitter, spicy and well-accentuated, but always harmonious. Like the character of Tuscans themselves.” This is a statement of pride on the part of Christian Sbardella, head of marketing for the Consortium of Tuscan Oil PGI (Protected Geographical Indication). By now, even the most casual of domestic cooks have understood that extra-virgin olive oil is not merely a condiment, but a real ingredient in and of itself – one that is able to transform the fate of a simple salad or a plain filet of fish.
If there is one product that should be protected in the world it’s this one – but extra-virgin olive oil is one of the most counterfeited products on the global market. But the PGI is a guarantee of quality, overseeing 40,000 tons of olive oil per year, and Tuscans making up 70% of their producers. Among these, on the hillsides surrounding Arezzo and just half a kilometer from the sea, is Giancarlo Giannini, who, at 63 years old, has a family business of oil production carrying the label Vipiano.
“In the ‘80s I had to decide whether I wanted to continue in the family tradition of also growing grapes, wheat and corn – as many Tuscan producers do – or else dedicate the business exclusively to oil. I took the more courageous route, and decided to focus just on oil. I’m proud of this choice. Also because, years later, a friend of mine was researching the oldest families of Vitiano, and discovered that there was an estate with an olive grove called Giannino in the 13th Century. So I clearly have oil in my blood.” “
Tuscany has much more olive variety than in other oil producing regions in Italy. In Liguria, for example, there’s the Taggiasca variety, whose taste is very recognizable. But there are hundreds of variants here – Leccino, Frantoio, Moraiolo, Pendolino and Maurino – which makes it hard to define a specific Tuscan taste. I know everything about my eight thousand trees and I take care of them like they were my grandchildren. Our factory is one of the oldest in the whole region,” says Giancarlo who is not only the owner of the company, but also a professional taster. To really get him talking, one must take him back in time. “It used to be that oil wasn’t something you’d sell in Tuscany. Every family made what it needed each year, using their own land. We also used oil for light. And the trees were just splendid. Since families only had about 8 hectares, they’d plant grain in between the olive trees and then cut it by hand. When tractors came, this tradition disappeared.” Has the way of producing oil changed as well? “We mustn’t idealize the past,” Giancarlo believes. “People think that what we eat used to be better, but that’s not true.
Good quality oil depends on how much time passes between when the olives are picked – better if done by hand – and when they are pressed. That’s the whole secret. If more than 24 hours go by and if the olives are kept in a damp place, then there’s going to be a moldy flavor. The quicker you press them, the better.” And if someone wants a great oil like his, where can they find it? “We give our oil to the Consortum, and then they put the mark on it. We also ship all over the world. But the best way to find our oil is to come visit us directly, at least for the first time. You can walk among the olive groves, ask us questions and taste the oil. A good olive oil and a firm handshake is a great pairing.”