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Qoco, discovering the extra virgin olive oil of Puglia

Perhaps I have never told you how it all started, when lighted up that spark that led me to open the blog and change my life, turning it into what I wanted it to be. At the beginning of 2008 I was working in a new office, trying to figure out what I wanted to do in my life. My first project was an event that was held in Puglia, in Andria: QOCO, un filo d’olio nel piatto. At that time it was a cooking competition where young North European chefs were asked to cook, along with Apulian chefs, using the extra virgin olive oil from Puglia. The aim of the competition was to introduce the use of olive oil to chefs that would usually use other types of fats in their cooking.

So, to cut a long story short, I took care of the organization of the event for a few months and in the final days I worked side by side with Antonella Millarte, food and wine journalist, sommelier and interpreter: she took me under her wing and trusted me. I rolled up my sleeves in the kitchen translating ingredients and needs in the synchronous chaos in the kitchen, where eight different chefs were cooking eight different dishes speaking different languages between them. We visited Andria, Trani, dairies, wineries and oil mills. I plunged myself for three days in a yet unknown region that soon proved to be characterized by a festive and generous hospitality. I went home bewildered by such vitality and richness, but with a clear idea in mind, born in a bus that ran along the dark roads surrounded by olive trees under Castel del Monte. I wanted to work with English and food.

On the way back from the event I started cooking more often, looking for on line recipes, I found Cavoletto‘s blog and began to take photos of every single dish, uploading them on Facebook: at that time everyone looked at me with dazed eyes, they thought I had embarked in yet another passion, a flash in the pan. A few months later I opened this blog.

I had not thought about this spark that unleashed all the events until a few months ago, when Antonella Millarte invited me to take part to the Qoco press tour, in December 2012. I found myself on the other side and I realized how much that experience in Puglia had strongly influenced my life, there was something magical and I was thrilled to come back to Andria to find it out.

Qoco is an event organized by of the Department of Productive Activities and Territorial Marketing of the City of Andria, whose aim is to promote the best quality products of the region with many different activities, one of which is the Press Educational Tour I took part to: three intense days that have allowed us to understand and appreciate the productive, touristic and cultural reality of the area, eating our way through a range of excellent gastronomic products.

Puglia, olive oil and olive trees

The olive trees arrived to Puglia thanks to the Greek invasion: from that moment on, a deep love affair began among the inhabitants of Puglia and these so generous trees. Today in Puglia there are 50 million olive trees – please, stop a moment and think. 50 million, almost one tree for every inhabitant of Italy – the highest concentration of olive trees in the world.

In Puglia they produce about the 40 – 50% of the Italian extra virgin olive oil, the 12% of the total European production. Tuscany, just to give you another example which can easily clarify the magnitude of production in Puglia, reaches only the 3% of the national production.

In Puglia there are 4 DOPs* and 15 varieties of olive trees that belong exclusively to this region. The Coratina was the main protagonist of our tour in Andria, it is a native variety typical of the North area of Bari, a cultivar that has three times the amount of polyphenols that are found in extra virgin olive oil on average and a consequent longer shelf life.

The extra virgin olive oil you have pressing the Coratina has intense bitter-spicy notes and a hint of artichoke and cardoon. It is different from the Tuscan olive oil I am used to, though I always have a bottle of Coratina olive oil in my pantry for my cooking classes, because I like to play with different extra virgin olive oil: when you taste them raw, well, they open unexpected sensory worlds. I like the Coratina, especially on a fresh burrata, heaven.

* The DOP – Denominazione d’Origine Protetta – is the Italian certification of authenticity of origin, valid for olive oil and many other products, such as cheese, salami… It is like the wine DOC.

The olive oil farm we visited:

  • Azienda Agricola Onofrio Spagnoletti Zeuli
  • Oleificio cooperativo Covan “Corona delle Puglie”
  • Azienda Olivicola Agrolio
  • Oleificio cooperativo Riforma Fondiaria “I Tre Campanili”
  • Museo dell’Olio Tenuta Ascanio Spagnoletti Zeusi – I found here in their small library some of Jamie Oliver’s books and I was really curious to know why, in Puglia, they were lining Jamie next to their local cook books… and they told me that several times the students of Fifteen visited the farm to do a workshop on local produce and olive oil: just brilliant!

Castel del Monte under the snow

There have been unexpected surprises, the kind of surprises that leave you in awe, asking yourself how could they set all the events together to create such an amazing experience? The morning was freezing cold and the sky was white, but we would never have expected to see the colours of the trees under Castel del Monte slowly change.

The silver leaves slowly gave way to the white snow, and the castle of Frederick the II, an imposing mass of stone on top of the highest hill with its mysterious repetition of the number eight, stood out on the colour of the sky. It looked like a painting, too unreal to be true, yet it was right there in front of our eyes.

The cheese of the Caseificio Olanda

The water in the massive pot in which you work the mozzarella dough is steaming hot, it makes your arms purple, it is almost unbearable. Yet the Olanda brothers make mozzerelle, burrata and other cheeses with such a lightness and elegant creativity that you would dip your arms in that water, trying to capture that magic that turn the milk into excellent diary products.

Well, don’t do it. Better, taste their burrata, their ricotta, their cheese. They speak for themselves, they will show you the magic with notes of milk – delicate or deliciously pungent.

Their secret is a deep respect of the tradition, handed down from their grandfather to their father and now to them. We asked – quite naively – if that unbearable process could be somehow made with special machineries… They answered immediately that no, absolutely not, you have to work the mozzarella dough with your hands, touch it and feel it, in a 90°C water bath where the proteins are stretched and made smooth. The next time you’ll open a burrata with a fork, the next time you’ll taste a soft mozzarella still dripping milk, think about the work that went into it. And then drizzle with some Coratina extra virgin olive…

Caseificio Olanda –

Pietro Zito, the vegetable garden and my ideal chef

I have to admit it, the great chefs sometimes inspire me too much reverence, make me uncomfortable, perhaps because I am not able to understand them… then four years ago I met Pietro Zito, and I everything changed. He is my idea of a chef and restaurateur. If I have to name a dining experience that marked my life I would undoubtedly mention the dinner I had at his restaurant a few years ago.

That’s where I learned my philosophy always leave room for dessert, because after a such an incredible meal – words are not enough to describe it – made with more than local products, inspired by season, with distinct and precise flavours, comforting in its securities and never boring, at the end comes the dessert. Sugar-coated almonds and a small cassata made of whipped fresh ricotta which wins you with delicacy.

Pietro Zito is honest as his smile, he believes that you need to give the required amount of time to Nature and cooking. The fennel that he picks in the fields need four months to become crisp and juicy, not forty days as in the intensive cultivation. They must have a pure smell of fennel, even when they are just picked and eaten, as we had them.

Next to his restaurant you can visit the vegetable garden, the heart of his cuisine, where he re-implanted many ancient varieties of fruit, herbs and vegetables. There they respect the rhythms of nature, there they teach children and families to respect those rhythms: they can adopt a piece of garden and visit their allotment on Sunday, spend the time there, monitor the progress, take care of the vegetables form start to harvest.

Ristorante Antichi Sapori
Piazza S.Isidoro 10 – Montegrosso di Andria (BT)

Nosca, sweet black olives from Andria. If you love olives you won’t be able to stop yourself at the first dozen, they are only slightly bitter, soft. They are rinsed in warm water, then kept under salt, eventually cooked on fire. I was reading my note,  trying to find an adjective to describe them, I found it written in large letters with three exclamation points: spectacular. I suppose I liked them.

Confetti Mucci. If I’ll ever get married…

Confetti is an Italian world that has not a proper translation in English and it’s not what is commonly known as confetti, tiny pieces of colourful paper. It comes form the latin verb cum facere, and means any preparation which encloses something within a shell of sugar. In the ancient times they used to coat the almonds with raw sugar or honey, a way to preserve them for longer. The confetti Mucci now have a soul that can vary, the most classic is made with almonds of Avola, the most valuable in the world, so appreciated to be named in March by Gambero Rosso as the best confetti in Italy. Then there are those filled with cinnamon, rosolio, chocolate, hazelnuts…

The Museum of Confetto is the dream of every child, a kind of Chocolate Factory where you will discover the huge cauldrons that were turned and turned with great skill to ensure that every single almond could be evenly covered with sugar, to have at the end a glossy and smooth confetto. This is a process that was done by hand and is still carefully controlled, it is the hand of the master confectioner that makes the difference.

The family passion is tangible, as well as their honesty and their commitment. If you pass by Andria, book in advance a lunch at Pietro Zito and do not miss a visit to the Museum where you will feel like a child again, then get a good supply of tenerelli, their most famous confetti, and keep them well hidden if you want to have some left for you.

Confetteria Mario Mucci Fu Giovanni

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This Post Has 22 Comments
  1. Quality olive oil is such a great addition to any dish. It tastes ever so wonderful with ricotta or sprinkled over a salad. Thanks for this refreshing post.



  2. This is one of the most captivating posts I’ve read in a long long time, there is enough here for a beautiful book! I’ve recently discovered the pleasures of local Napa olive oil and I can’t believe how different it is from the oils I’m used to. Your photo of the huge pile of olives is incredible—I thought it was peppercorns at first! But the close up of the little molded cheeses is my favorite! I’m going to have to re-read this post a few times to take it all in—bravo!

    1. Sue, thank you very much. I actually cut down a lot, I got 18 pages of handwritten notes after 3 days in Puglia, I needed to shorten it a little bit to fit into a blog post!
      And yes, a good olive oil makes such a great difference!

  3. I hate you!!!! LOL.. Now I have yet another place in your wonderful, gorgeous country that I have to somehow find time for.. :)))) Brilliant beautiful post!

  4. Agreed, this is a captivating blog. Jules have you considered taking small groups of admirers on tours of this region ?

    1. Oh – actually someone else suggested me to do small food tours, but it is already full of brilliant food travel guides down there!

  5. Such gorgeous photos and a beautiful recounting of your start with the blog. I use Olive oil exclusively in my kitchen, so I will look for ones from Puglia now. Thanks so much for the delicious post!

  6. Such a beautiful, massive post, Giulia! I have just recently booked tickets to visit Italy this spring, and your photos have doubled my excitement (which was already pretty high)!

  7. What a wonderful journey is this post…
    Gorgeous pictures, I just wish I could put my hands under the tab of olive oil, or even better my hands holding a piece of bread. Generously dipping it in the large olive oil basins… oh, man can never have too much olive oil on ones bread 🙂

    1. You are perfectly right! we should definitely go to Puglia together, maybe in late autumn, to try the freshly pressed olive oil!

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