Since moving to Florida nine years ago, we’ve met many people with the surname of DeSantis. I often say it’s the Italian equivalent of Smith. In fact, Facebook has no less than 10 just-for-fun and common interest groups for folks named DeSantis.
It was a common interest in DeSantis Olive Oil that led Tony and me, along with friends Gloria and Greg DeSantis, to Italy recently. For years, we all had searched to learn more about the olive oil in bright yellow cans that has been extremely hard-to-find in the United States. DeSantis Olive Oil is produced in the Puglia region in southeastern Italy, where Greg’s family originated. He was particularly interested because his family owned many olive orchards before immigrating to the U.S., and he wondered if the producers were distant relatives.
We didn’t find a clear connection to the DeSantis Olive Oil dynasty, but we did learn that Italians are downright passionate about their olive oils. Unfortunately, the folks we met in Puglia didn’t seem to be all that crazy about our namesake olive oil. “Phooey” was the only word we could understand when we asked about it. And there was no doubt how they really felt when one of our hosts at the Hotel dei Nobili stuck his finger down his throat after he made the “phooey” sound. Nothing was lost in that translation.
Every region we visited promoted its olive oil as Italy’s best. From Lucca in Tuscany to Bitetto in Puglia, the olive oil hyperbole grew as we traveled farther south. That put me on a quest to find out what makes a really good olive oil, one that causes Italians to smile when they describe the flavor.
First of all, it takes time to produce a good oil, the kind the ancient Romans and Greeks had. In Puglia, Italy’s largest olive oil-producing region, the highest quality oils are from family-owned farms and are available in relatively small quantities. Olives are picked by hand so that the skins and pulp are not damaged. They are transported in well-aerated containers and milled shortly after harvesting. Leaves and twigs are removed, the olives are washed and dried, and then they are stone-pressed. Often, they are not filtered because that removes many nutrients.
Therefore, a cloudy-looking extra virgin olive oil can be a good thing. According to Beyond Health News, the healthiest olive oils are cold-pressed, unfiltered, and packaged in dark containers that protect the contents from the damaging effects of light.
To meet today’s consumer demand for extra virgin olive oil, however, mass producers usually machine-harvest olives and even mix good olives with those that have been dropped on the ground, a real no-no to Italians. Olives are heaped in piles and often stored too long before being processed into oil. The conglomerates are also known for mixing several types of olives from different places, and that is as verboten to olive-oil purists as picking up withered olives from the ground.
Buying high-quality has other advantagesas well. Real extra virgin olive oil can last two or three years if it is stored in a cool, dark place. Mass-produced olive oil, on the other hand, has a shorter shelf life because of the processing. The rule of thumb, say most experts, is to use it within a year.
In Bitetto, town historian Giorgio Gatti gave each DeSantis couple a five-liter can of olive oil produced from his own small orchard. His goodwill gesture taught us that there is more to olive oil than just a name.