Our Olive Oil Adventure

We discover a Madison connection to some of the best olive oil we've had

From Stefano Magazzinni and Janet Shapiro’s garden you can see the dome of the 14th-century Duomo in the heart of Florence. It is a breathtaking sight. The iconic terracotta roof tiles are made in Impruneta as they have been for nearly six hundred years, sitting in the terracotta yard for decades to get the weathered look that allows them to blend in with the others.

Stefano and Janet’s garden and their three thousand olive trees are in Impruneta as well, and the olive oil they produce is as beautiful, authentic and carefully and lovingly made as those terracotta tiles. With our friend Rossana Strunce we visited Stefano and Janet at the urging of Madison artist Sarah Brooks. It is a tribute to Stefano and Janet’s high regard for Sarah that they invited us to their home, made us a lunch that turned out to be the best meal we ate on our eight-day trip to Italy, and patiently described their passionate and painstaking method of making what may be the best olive oil we’ve ever tasted.

Our lunch started with a simple dish of fresh fava beans with pecorino cheese and salt, drizzled with said olive oil. It was exquisitely delicious. The olive oil was present in every course, the pasta, the bruschetta and the salad. Janet and Stefano’s friendship with Sarah is the result of a relationship that began with an invitation to help harvest olives and make the oil. It’s obvious they have a lot of respect for Sarah’s work ethic.

Olive picking, certainly the way Stefano and Janet do it, is hard work. Sarah makes it clear the respect is mutual. “The net looks like a parachute, and we spread it out from the tree trunk,” Sarah says. “One person climbs a ladder to reach the topmost branches, and the others stand on the ground with child-sized plastic rakes, ‘combing’ the olives into the net.”

Sarah says Stefano warns them to step carefully to avoid mashing even one olive under their boots. “Just a few decomposing olives would ruin the entire crate,” she has learned. “Such are the careful harvest practices, maintaining respect for the yield of the ancient trees.” We learned so much during our short visit. The hand-picking of the olives is necessary because Stefano and Janet harvest early in the season when the olives are still bright green and cling tightly to the tree, atypical of most Tuscan olive oil production. The olives are blended in a process that is as much art as science, and Stefano can be disdainful of the careless blends of many producers. And both he and Janet—and their daughter Livia for that matter—insist that their oil is best enjoyed as soon as possible when it is at its fruity, fragrant best.

The result is Sagittario olive oil, named for the sign of the Zodiac which, in the eye of 15th-century ceramicist Luca della Robbia, has a man sitting in a olive tree picking olives. We first tasted the olive oil when Sarah offered to sell us bottles of the stuff, literally the fruits of her labor. She, and Janet and Stefano are willing to do that for you as well.

There are two options for you, this December after the new crop is harvested, or take advantage of what Janet says is an “abundance of good oil” remaining, which will be available in July (orders must be received by June 30). This might be the last year Stefano and Janet nurture these magnificent, ancient trees. So, Sarah will take orders for this wonderful stuff, and they’ll see where it goes.

What we can tell you is it is as genuine an article as you’ll find from one of the most special places on earth.

Contact Sarah Brooks at infosagittario@gmail.com.

Nancy Christy is the former owner of the Wilson Street Grill. She now runs the consulting firm Meaningful People, Places and Food. Neil Heinen is, among other things, her hungry husband. Comments? Questions? Please write to genuinearticles@madisonmagazine.com.

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