Rarest Olive Oil

 Brisighella lies about 40 miles southeast of Bologna, in the Lamone River valley. The landscape seems familiar —hillsides quilted in olive orchards and vines and helixes of cypress trees on the mountainsides, just like Tuscany. That’s because Brisighella is actually near the backdoor to Tuscany: Florence is just 48 miles up the valley and over the mountains. There’s a three-car train, the Faentina that makes the run several times a day, starting and ending in Faenza. It’s said to be one of the most scenic train rides in Italy.

 From a distance, Brisighella looks mighty. Two crags rise directly behind the town. On one, the 14th-century Castle Manfrediana flexes its bulging brick ramparts, while across the gorge, the slender 13th-century Torre dell’Orologio strikes the quarter hour all day long. The old town is closely woven around the base of the clock-tower crag. In fact, one row of houses is built right into the base and within it is a covered street, the Via degli Asini. That’s right, Street of the Asses, and so named because donkeys once plied it going to and from the chalk quarry up above. From here, the tangle of narrow streets tumbles lightly downhill past Piazza Carducci, the main square, and comes to rest at the rail station.

 Over the centuries, Brisighella has been notable for producing three things: cardinals (eight so far), berets (no longer), and olive oil.  The olive oil of Brisighella was the first in Italy to be awarded the D.O.P. or Denominazione di Origine Protetta. It is to olive oil what AOC or DOCG is to wine, a guarantee that the oil has been produced according to strict quality standards, and that the olives come from a delimited geographic area.

 The oil is a bit of a secret, “known more among chefs than the public. That’s probably because it is one of the rarest Italian olive oils: The DOP is an isthmus that stretches six kilometers (3.6 miles) north and six kilometers south of the town. Three varietals are cultivated here: Nostrana, Ghiacciola, and Orfana. Nostrana makes up the bulk of the production, 50,000 half-liter bottles annually, 30 percent of which is D.O.P. (It’s not that the rest is lacking, but rather a function of European Union regulatory minutiae too complicated to go into.) Nostrana D.O.P. is strong, yet restrained, and in taste an unusual duet of artichoke and metallic overtones.

 With the Ghiacciola and Orfana, we’re down to drops in the bucket. There are only 3,500 half-liter bottles of Ghiacciola, which is sold under the name “Nobil Drupa,” produced each year, and 600 half-liter bottles of Orfana, which is sold as “Orfanello.” These are unique oils, the lack of a D.O.P. designation notwithstanding. Both quilt the tongue and palate, with Orfanello being the lighter of the two. Whereas the Ghiacciolo offers layers of grassiness and hints of citrus, then turns brashly peppery in the back of the throat.

 The town received the D.O.P in 1996 and then it was paid a strange compliment: The entire harvest, 27,000 liters, was stolen. The thieves drove up to the cooperative in tanker trucks on a Sunday night, pumped out the contents, and were who knows where by the time the theft was discovered on Monday morning.

 Brisighella seems perfectly placed, close to Florence and Bologna. So where is everyone? It turns out that the Florentines don’t cross the Apennines, and I guess you can’t blame them, given the beauty of Tuscany. And wealthy Bolognesi prefer the hills south of the city for their weekends. Milan? Too long a drive, even by Ferrari or Lamborghini. Which leaves Brisighella for the rest of us. Stumble upon it while you can.


The unique taste is the result of an unusual concurrence of temperature, wind, and soil. Brisighella is at the margin of olive cultivation, “a cold spot”. Temperatures are cooler than in Tuscany during the growing season, which makes the olives mature slowly, but more importantly keeps out a pest, the mosca d’olivia. This fly, common in Italy, drills through the skin of the olive and in feeding on the ripening fruit, makes it turn sour.

But the trees could not survive the winter in Brisighella if it were not for a quirk of geography. The stretch of Apennines to the west are lower than the rest of the chain, which allows a warm breeze from Tuscany to come through during the winter. That helps keep the trees alive, as does the lack of fog, which olive trees do not tolerate well, and the peculiar soil. There’s a strata of chalk underground that acts like a battery holding heat in summer and releasing it in winter.

These factors contribute greatly to the unique taste of the oil. The cold forces the olive to produce more oliec (a fat) and less acidity, which accounts for the thick texture and long finish. Brisighella oil has an acidity of 0.15-0.30 percent, which is practically nothing. (The law allows 0.80 percent.) Moreover, the olives develop a high concentration of polyphenols, which preserve the oil. Ghiaccola has 700mg/ltr versus an average of 200-300mg/ltr for Italian oil. The bottom line: You get more taste from less oil.

 You can taste and buy Nostrana D.O.P., Nobil Drupa, and Orfanello, as well as a number of other bottling’s, at the Cooperative, not far outside of town on via Strada (direction Fognano).


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