I learned a lot when I was in the Puglia region of Southern Italy as part of the Overseas Adventure Travel trip Sicily: Ancient Landscapes and Timeless Traditions. The pre-trip to the main Sicily trip is in the “heel” of Italy, and includes exploring the ancient city of Matera, and the more modern city of Lecce. However, along the way we visited not one but two olive oil production facilities, one more modern, and one much older and family owned.
Olive oil production goes back centuries in the Pugila region, which produces about 40% of Italy’s total output, and Calabria producing about 12%. It all started in the 18th century, when Charles Bourbon proposed a tax reduction for those who helped grow the olives. Today in Puglia, there are several olive oil routes to drive by where massive olive trees are grown. Fifty million olive trees are grown in Puglia, with over 240,000 olive farms in the region.
The modern olive oil production facility we saw on the drive from Matera to Lecce was interesting, which I compared it to the one I saw in Israel. Due to Covid, protocols, this facility was closed for viewing, but we could see the modern olive oil presses from behind a closed window and door. We did, however, talk to those who worked there, and tried five different kinds of olive oil. I very much enjoyed the fact that they added flavors to many of them. I already cook with garlic added to olive oil, but I learned they use different fruits and vegetables to give the oils a unique flavor. I may add lemon or orange zest one time in my cooking at home and see how it changes the meal when added to the oil.
The optional trip on our last day in Leece included visiting a man with a vineyard and an old, family-owned olive press. We saw his property, hundreds of years old, and the ancient press that had been in his family, the olives back then crushed by huge stones driven by mules. The lunch with his resplendent olive oil was terrific. But even then, the highlight was watching the ladies outside on his property, making pasta by hand. They were so busy talking and enjoying what they were doing, they reminded me of Italian Jewish mothers. They loved putting their pasta in view of my camera, letting me snap photos of their Italian joy. When we left to see the olive press, and then returned after lunch, nothing had changed. They were still talking, laughing, making pasta, and so very willing to be photographed before children came and joined. It was pure Italian joy, and I saw more of it in Sicily.
Traveling and coming home with cooking ideas can be a permanent reminder of a trip. I do not think anyone needs to be a great cook to find a free souvenir for your kitchen on a trip. I also very much enjoyed looking at the large crates of multicolored olives sitting around waiting to be processed. By using a zoom lens I photographed and I later had to use my imagination before I realized they are really olives. But it takes no imagination to enjoy them and the extra virgin olive oil they produce. Each meal where extra virgin olive oil from the region was served became a highlight unto itself. Certainly, the reason for even more Italian joy.