Why Puglia Produces the Best Olive Oil Sometimes Puglia is called “the California of Italy”. I always thought this was because of its shape. It’s a long and narrow region – one of 20 regions of Italy, the way we have 50 states – with a very long coastline, mostly on Adriatic Sea, but also on Ionian Sea. It is a land between two seas. Puglia grows in abundance the three staples of Italian kitchen and table: Wheat, wine and olive oil. Given this plenty, it is ironic it has no ground water. All of its potable water is either rain water, collected in cisterns, or water that is brought into the region by aqueducts from the Apennine Mountains of Avellino in the neighboring region of Campania. Puglia, which is also called Apulia, is also called the California of Italy because of its sunny climate. The Museum of Olive Oil of Sant’Angelo’de ‘Grecis Fasano, perhaps the most important of the Olive oil museums, is surrounded by olive groves that produce some of the highest quality oil in Italy, such as the esteemed Ogliarola Leccino and Frantoio oils. The ‘Grecis Fasano farmhouse, originally created in the 11th century by monks, boasts a collection of ancient tools like grinding stones, wooden and metal presses, basins, mortars, ropes, harnesses for the mules, jars, bottles, and other tools that were collected by the Amati Colucci family, current owners of the farm. Until only a few years ago, production was also done in the surrounding caves, in order to maintain a cool temperature for the pressing of the olives. The sun, among other things, makes it to the largest producer of wine in Italy. It is also the largest producer of Olive oil. However, the wine and the oil, were not considered very worthy until recently. The wine, which is dark and robust, also because of the big-flavor of the local grape varieties – Negroamaro, Malvasia Nera, and Primitivo are the most important – used to be sent north, even to France, to fortify the weaker wines of those cooler climates. In fact, at the wine cooperative in Manduria, where they produce what is now the impressive and popular red wine, Primitivo di Manduria, they have a sort of museum of antique wine, farm and kitchen equipment, where one big copper vat, was in fact a vat used to reduce wine must (grape juice) so it could be shipped north in a smaller size and less expensively transported volume. Modern wine-growing and wine-making techniques are now applied to the region’s abundant crop, as became evident by visiting wineries a day, plus tasting other Puglian wines at the dinner table, not to mention viewing vineyards all over. Some very fine wine, at very good prices by the way, is now proudly being put into bottle and exported to market. Puglia also produces 40 percent of Italy’s extra virgin olive oil, and 13 percent of the entire world’s production of extra virgin oil. Puglia produces the best, but it also produces the worst. All this oil that has been produced for hundrends, nay thousands of years used to be pressed and used for purposes other than human consumption. You can see as you drive around the countryside how old the olive trees and imagine to what uses the oil was put. More on Puglia at a later date. We will cover more on the cultural attractions, like the astounding Mosaic floor of the cathedral in Otranto that tells Old Testament and astrological stories, the Gothic Frederick II castle and Romanesque cathedral in Trani, a city that used to have the largest Jewish community in the south of Italy and still has a synagogue in use, the trulli (conical buildings) of central Puglia, or the Baroque veering to Rococo masterpiece of Santa Croce in Lecce. Known for producing not only great quantity but also some of the highest quality olive oil anywhere, its oil-fueled gastronomy has earned a reputation in recent years as a top contender in the constant war that rages over which region has the best cuisine in the country. Puglia’s sunny climate and dramatic beaches have been luring more and more visitors, especially in other parts of Italy, seeking not just warmth but an epicurean experience as well. Visitors have a chance to travel what has been dubbed the Strade dell’olio, or the Olive oil roads, the paths connecting the often ancient farms that still produce oil today. Along the way, some out-of-use farms have been turned into museums where you can learn about the local history of oil and see traditional methods of production. Most museums include a very personal guided tour, where you can be sure to get a spirited introduction to the areas custom’s and oil. Puglia is, in general, a great vacation spot, with wonderful things to see, beautiful resorts and spas, not to mention particularly beautiful and friendly people, great food and great wine. Maybe you’ll want to join our Monthly Olive Oil Club and get your fresh selection of PugliaPlease EVOO. At the Museum of San Vito dei Normans, set in the magnificent rooms of the former Convent of the Dominicans, exhibits tell the story of olive oil and show the art of its age-old production, emphasizing agrarian culture as the precious legacy for the younger generation. Also worthy of a visit is the Squinzano Museum in Lecce, where an ancient and beautiful mill is kept entirely intact.
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