Ever heard of Luigi Veronelli? No? Neither had I until a year or so ago when Antonino Mennella, the owner of the Madonna dell’Olivo farm near Salerno, mentioned his name when we were visiting. Antonino brought him up so often, I think I pretended to know who he was, maybe a bit embarrassed that I didn’t.
It turns out we probably all should know a bit more about Luigi Veronelli and what he had to say on olive oil.
There are lots of different ways into understanding who Veronelli was. Here are a few. In the early 1970s, he was the first culinary expert to appear on Italian TV, his pioneering programme A tavola alle 7 the first and only show to deal with food at the time. Before that, at the end of the 1950s, as the editor of Veronelli Editore, his own publishing house, he was sentenced to three months in jail for publishing works by the Marquis De Sade. Fast-forward 30 years or so and he was at it again, his role in inciting winemakers in Piedmont to riot in protest at the local government’s rural policies leading to six months in prison. In between, he wrote for over 20 years for the Italian daily Il giorno, contributing articles about agriculture, food and wine. In short, one of those public intellectuals we are probably a bit uncomfortable with in the Anglo Saxon tradition, a kind of campaigning, super-cultured Keith Floyd perhaps.
The more you read about Veronelli, the more his revolutionary thinking about agriculture seems anchored in politics and philosophy. Early in his career, after graduating in philosophy, he edited magazines such as I problemi del socialismo and Il pensiero. His approach to farming, the land, agriculture and food was political in the sense that it was moved by a strong moral and ethical conviction, the idea that small producers should be the only game in town. Of course, that sounds rather banal today, doesn’t it? But fifty years or so ago, before Carlo Petrini and Slow Food, before the organic movement, before any of that, there was Luigi Veronelli. A lifelong anarchist, as he defined himself, others called him an ‘anarcho-oenologist’.
As that label suggests, the great beneficiary of Veronelli’s campaigning zeal was Italian wine, and therefore the wine drinker in general. There’s a story that when Veronelli visited wine estates, the winemakers would bow down to him as a mark of respect when he walked past. Why? Well, until the sixties or so in Italy when Veronelli appeared on the scene, if you grew grapes, you sold them to the big industrial bottlers or to the local wine cooperatives. Veronelli visited growers and farmers year after year, encouraging them to make their own wine, bottled and sold under their own labels. Not only this, he published a whole series of volumes that acted as guides to new winemakers and to rediscovered grape varieties, a living homage to the richness of what Italy’s farms were capable of producing when they set their minds to it, titles such as I vini d’Italia and Il vino giusto.
Apparently, Veronelli thought that the battle for good wine produced by growers and farms themselves, wines produced from native varieties, was largely won. I think he was probably right. If you’re as likely to find wines from small estates coming out of Italy these days as boring industrial fare, a large part of that is down to Veronelli.
In the years before his death in 2004, he turned his attention to olive oil. We recently came across probably the most significant piece he wrote about oil, called Manifesto in progress. Per una nuova cultura dell’olio d’oliva, written in 2001. It’s both a call to arms for a move towards quality in olive oil and a blueprint on production techniques for farmers. I think it’s a fascinating read and we were lucky enough to get permission to reproduce some of the text in English (as far as I’m aware it’s never been translated – see below for the original source).
It’s a longish read but terrifically engaging. How far has the olive oil business come since it was published? Well, I’m not sure but probably not nearly as far as Veronelli would have liked.
It starts as follows:
10 April 2001
Let everyone be aware. A once-in-a-generation social change is underway. And it has agriculture at its heart. The time of the olive oil sector has already come, and it is in many respects revolutionary, sustained by the people who have worked and still work to maintain its quality and honesty. With older methods, the best you could hope for was an honest oil. With techniques designed to produce quality (and not as before, to produce quantity), it will instead be possible to make oils of real excellence.
What follows are a series of recommendations, under different headings, that cover pretty much the whole range of olive oil production, commerce, marketing and so on. In total it probably runs to about eight pages. We’ve only translated a few parts here (see link below for the complete version).
The first part – in Veronelli’s oddly distinctive and academic, quite archaic style – talks about labelling:
The new paradigm
One step at a time: in the last year, something you might call, to borrow the language of the philosophy of science, an epistemological break, in other words the breakdown of the concepts that a theory and its analyses are based on, has taken place. Thanks to a rigorous, sustained debate and the contact between an avant garde of people ready for action, we have arrived at new definitions of the conception, production, quality and traceability of olive oil. A real new paradigm.
1. The following should be on the label:
a) the name and type of producer (industrial, bottler, mill, co-operative or farm);
b) the exact location of production (region, PDO if applicable, locality and the plots of land where olives are cultivated);
c) the name and type of mill – whether own or third-party – and its location:
d) the date of harvest and pressing, and not that of bottling as is the case today;
e) the variety or varieties of cultivar:
f) the number of olive trees by hectare and their age range:
g) the quantity of oil produced.
2. The label – a truthful one – should be accompanied by chemical analysis – carried out by an accredited laboratory – that is clear and with useful information (acidity, polyphenols, peroxides).
3. Regional olive census (of both cultivated and uncultivated trees)
4. Any financial contributions should be given to farmers on the basis of the number of olive trees they own and farm and not – as is the case today – on the quantity of oil produced (in truth, this method leads to swindles). Olive farmers and millers have been forced to live with fraud.
After talking at length of the immense patrimony of olive cultivars in Italy, there’s a bit on the importance of recognising varietals in oil production:
A new world
A cultivar-specific crushing of olives, following the criteria of the harvest and milling , opens a new world in terms of the awareness of quality and taste (the so-called organoleptic characteristics.)
Monocultivar oils and blends
The change in the market, which is becoming younger and more selective, demands cultivar-specific milling, so as to give the consumer real, proper parameters for the evaluation of each oil.
There follows a long piece on the similarities of olive oil to wine, some extracts below:
Oil as wine. The olive as vines.
…the same vines, grown in different areas, give different wines. This is true for oil as well. From the exterior, the plants can look very similar (even if this is almost always not the case) but different cultivars and the areas in which they are grown give oils with different characteristics and therefore ‘individual’ oils with common elements and, at the same time, differences determined by the microclimate and composition of the earth. Producing oils derived from a single cultivar not only honours the variety but also the area in which it is produced (here thoughts turn to a potentially magnificent Gargnà – from the eponymous cultivar of Lake Garda). Therefore, we need to produce oils that respect the cultivar and place of origin…
After more guidelines on establishing a network and culture of sommeliers of olive oil and the wish that small farms start milling and bottling oils from their own olives, there is an interesting reflection on depitted oils followed by Veronelli’s conclusion:
Let there be rigorous experimentation and study on the properties of olive oil from the milling of depitted olives. Examples of this method have given extraordinary results. If oils made this way really are proved to be superior, the change in production processes should be immediate.
My quest for great olive oils on the same level as the great wines of our country will give immense advantages to our economy, far superior to those from any other source, above all because they arise not in opposition to but rather for the benefit of mankind.
Extracted from June/July issue of Ex Vinis, no. 59, 2001, a periodical edited by Veronelli. Our thanks to Gian Arturo Rota who granted permission to quote these extracts. Much more on Veronelli at Rota’s website Casa Veronelli.
You can find the complete version (in Italian) at the website L’Olio secondo Veronelli