A drive down the winding highways of Puglia, in the boot heel of Italy, passes through endless groves of olive trees. We zipped up and down the coast from one beautiful town to another, from Bari’s urban center to the rocky shores of Polignano a Mare to the mysterious white stone houses of Alberobello.
At every stop, the carload of boisterous, enthusiastic Italian men insisted with vigorous and ostentatious hand gestures that guests taste all the treasured regional delicacies like pizza, focaccia, and panzerotti, a kind-of mini calzone. The key ingredient to nearly every meal was olive oil, sourced from the very trees whizzing by outside our windows.
“My family makes its own olive oil,” one of the men disclosed.
“Mine does, too,” said the other.
Puglia, also known as Apulia, stretches scenically along the Adriatic Sea from the country’s boot spur all the way to the tip of the heel. The region is among the largest producers of olive oil in Italy, and it became apparent that nearly every family had their own stash produced from their personal orchard.
We pulled into the Fratelli Turturro oil press, near the coastal town of Giovinazzo, to discover a steady hum of activity. A continuous stream of cars stopped in to drop off crates bursting with olives, fresh from the trees during the busy harvest season. Giuseppe Turturro, whose family has operated the plant for five generations, collected the crates on a forklift and added them to a large and growing stack at the front of the building. Two enormous German shepherds romped around the property, courteously greeting customers and friends.
The olives were green, black, and purple, in heaping stacks of glorious abundance. There are dozens of varieties of olives in Italy, but the most common in this area are coratina, nostrana, and ogliarola. The raw fruits, prior to processing, were strikingly bitter and difficult to eat.
Turturro drove another load of produce around to the back of the facility, where three massive hoppers held even more olives, a seemingly endless supply. The key to the very best oil, Turturro told us, was to press the olives as soon as they come off the trees so they don’t start to go bad. From October through January, the factory works overtime to handle a non-stop parade of newly harvested olives, processing them at the peak of their flavor before they have a chance to ferment.
From the hopper, the olives descend to a cavernous below-ground factory, where a machine separates out the leaves from the fruits. Next, a conveyor belt moves them to a shiny metal press that squeezes out the juice from the pulp. In the past, Turturro explained, the press was made from marble, but the family pivoted to modernity in a less picturesque, but more efficient operation. The olives go through a second round of squeezing, leaving behind the squashed, mealy remains of the fruit. Next, a machine spins the oil to remove any water, and that’s all it takes. A pipe from the spinner disgorges a constant stream of fresh olive oil into a giant vat to await packaging, and we soaked slices of crusty bread in oil pouring directly from the spout. The flavor was bold and spicy, provoking a strong sensation of heat in the back of the throat.
Researchers suspect that the unquenchable Italian thirst for olive oil plays a role in the country’s favorable health outcomes, as it is a generous source of vitamins E and K as well as omega-6 fatty acids. Some studies suggest that a chemical in the oil called oleocanthal plays a role in combating inflammation, heart disease, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease. The chemical is also thought to be the culprit for the spiciness that some oils offer, not least the variety we were currently sampling.
The customers coming and going in the parking lot either pay to press their olives and keep the oil for themselves, or sell the olives to the family who processes them and markets the oil under their own brand. The going price is about 90 euros for 100 kilograms of olives, and the oil sells from 12 to 15 euros per liter, depending on the market.
In the spirit of a true family operation, Turturro led us into the living quarters above the factory floor, where we found his mother chopping kohlrabi in the kitchen, preparing for supper. She greeted us warmly and handed out glasses of wine all around. In Puglia, just saying hello is grounds for a small celebration.
Back in the processing plant, Turturro scooped out the thick, frothy oil directly from the vat and bottled it on the spot for eager customers. For all the fear of counterfeit olive oils lurking on the market, there’s no need to worry when you can watch the entire process from start to finish. The equipment at the plant is shiny and modern, but the olive oil—all-natural, unfiltered, and exquisitely fresh—has been the same for generations.