Three ingredients. That’s all it was. And yet it was one of the most satisfying dishes I’ve ever had. Ok, technically, if you count salt and pepper, it was five ingredients, (and just so you know, I have planned whole vacations around salt, so I usually do count it). I guess at times, I also consider smoke an ingredient, but let’s not get carried away.
As it is throughout most of the northern hemisphere, October is harvest time in Umbria, for both grapes and olives. On a recent trip to Umbria with my friends Bill and Suzy Menard (who have just recently become my employers--yet another story), I had the great fortune to visit two different olive producers. One, the amazingly inspiring Il Molino, whose owner Annalisa Torzilli was helming a gorgeous extensive organic olive and grain farm in Montefiascone (in neighboring Lazio) and the other, Frantoio Cipolonni, a multi-generational olive mill nestled in the hills near Foligno. Foligno is one of the top olive oil towns on Umbria and I count myself lucky that Bill and Suzy’s friends at Cipolonni were able to accommodate a visit from a small group in the middle of harvest. I count myself even luckier that they provided us with a simple yet soul-satisfying snack.
As our minivan pulled up to the small mill building, I saw a woman tending a wood fire under the trees in the parking lot. Everyone else in our group went to see the wagon full of multicolored olives but having spent years cooking on a wood grill at Buck’s, I made a bee-line for the fire. I chatted with her long enough to assure myself that it wasn’t simply a wood fire, but rather a grill. There was no doubt in my mind that whatever came off that grill was going to be delicious and I only hoped that I would be able to sample it. I saw towering stacks of sliced rustic loaves of bread so I was extremely hopeful.
Our tour of the mill showcased machinery designed to destem, wash and crush the olives before extracting delicious neon green goodness—the miracle known as new oil. Newly pressed oil is startlingly green and surprisingly bitter. Both Annalisa and Lucio Maltempi (Frantoio Cipolloni’s manager) explained that the bitterness lasts about 10 days and after approximately 30 days the oil has mellowed to a perfect balance. The color also tones down a little. After tasting the oil fresh from the spigot—delicious but yes, still markedly bitter--we found our way back to the grill area where, as I had hoped, there were plates and silverware arranged next to the large bottle of new oil we had just filled directly from the press.
Armed with a large metal fork, Lucio extracted charred chunks out from their hidden position beneath the embers. I took one look at them and thought, “Whatever that is, I’m eating it”. It was a mass of potatoes and onions cooked in the embers of the fire. Crazy! Although I had spent time chatting with the cook, I hadn’t even known the potatoes and onions were there! The potatoes were Colfiorito, a red skinned variety from Foligno and the onions both red and white were from nearby Cannara. Both vegetables were special local varieties and the slow food movement, an important force in Italy, recognizes both. Lucio cut them in half, serving one potato and one onion per plate. He sprinkled a generous amount of sea salt and several grinds of black pepper over the plate before pouring—not drizzling, pouring--a cascade of vibrant fresh olive oil over everything. Decorum prevents me from repeating what I said when I saw it but let’s just say the sight of that brought out the rather rustic/kitchen side of my vocabulary.
The dish could not have been simpler--charred potatoes and onions, salt and pepper, and that incredible oil. I would like to say the surroundings didn’t hurt, it was fall in Umbria after all, but the simplicity and perfection of that dish were flawless—easily one of the best dishes I have ever had and I feel like I would have loved it just as much no matter where I was. It will be nigh on impossible to recreate. After all, I don’t have Colfiorito potatoes or onions from Cannara, let alone new oil pressed only minutes before, but I will try. The lesson was clear and it is one I preach on a daily basis. Buy the best ingredients possible and get out of their way. Deliciousness will follow.