Outside of Italy, we’re convinced the best olive oil comes in sleek little bottles that cost us a fortune. But in the Sardinian countryside, olive oil is a whole other kind of precious. Here people have groves that have been in the family for generations. They spend hours every day for weeks hand-picking the hard, bitter fruits of off trees, sometimes in the rain. Their kids and parents and family friends are with them and they come home stained from head to toe. Here olive oil is about dirtied hands and tired arms. Old tarps get spread out under the trees, olives are tossed into battered plastic bins, and that fresh, appealing green elixir is transported from the press to home in big plastic jugs that bump each other in the messy backs of pick-up trucks.
This year we were lucky to be outsiders. A liter of freshly-pressed olive oil arrived from a friend - it was from a mix of local varietals that he had planted to create a slightly more delicate blend of oil and he was curious to know what we thought. A week later, the bartender slipped us two liters with a sneaky smile - he knew we had tried some blended oil, but this was the local, native olive and he thought we needed to try it. The friend returned - he also had some oil from the strictly native olive, why didn't we try his as well? And then the green grocer stepped in with a liter of a different varietal from further north - he didn't like it much, but wanted to see what we said.
The olive oil from our part of the island, Sulcis, is strong and structured. The punishing, dry heat of the summer combined with the rocky soil common in this area take their toll on the fruit, producing an extremely clean, strong-tasting oil with very little residue. It has brisk green notes that recall fresh grass and artichokes, with a peppery finish that makes you cough.
For decades, hordes of food writers and dedicated eaters and newly obsessed foodie travelers descend upon the grandest estates in Tuscany for tastings and lessons. But they're only getting a part of the story. The oil and wine and cheeses they're tasting are of excellent quality, no doubt, and the packaging tends to be divine. But it is in the forgotten corners of this country, the places that no one has yet bothered to discover, that the real delights can be found in the storerooms of just about everyone. The caveat is that they are here, and this is where they'll stay, because no one is selling or marketing them. Here, wine comes in plastic water bottles, the cheese is still warm & wrapped in clean dishcloth, the bottle of mirto waiting in the freezer has a handwritten tag with the year it was made. Here the artichokes come in black crates with the bugs still on. And the plate of plain pasta your host just offered you is most likely dressed with hand-picked, organic, extra-virgin olive oil from a local grove of 100-year-old trees.
Many thanks to Federico and Franco Pintus and Frantoio Sais, from the town of Santadi, for letting us follow them around and photograph them while they work during the busy olive season.