Fattoria Ramerino was one of the stars of this year’s Flos Olei guide, probably the most respected publication in the olive oil world, winning the coveted best extra virgin of the year. Based near Florence, and run by Filippo Alampi, its blends, both from organic farming – Guadagnòlo [named after the terracotta jars millers used to collect oil from tools] Primus and Dulcis – are intensely fresh and marvellously balanced interpretations of the classic Tuscan style. Filippo also makes two monocultivars from frantoio – Cultivar Frantoio – and moraiolo olives – Cultivar Moraiolo – that are equally compelling as well as a newer oil – Olivaggio – which carries the Tuscan IGP badge and is named after the practice of collecting different olive varieties and processing them indiscriminately in the mill. His oils are deeply rooted in the geography and traditions of the area around his farm but Filippo is also relentless when it comes to improving and refining the processing of his oils in the mill. We caught up with him to talk about his farm, oils and what’s influenced his approach over the years.
TM: Filippo, you bought the Fattoria Ramerino farm in 2000, tell us a bit about what you found.
FA: That’s right, my family bought the property and the land in 2000 from a Swiss woman in her eighties who had entrusted the day-to-day maintenance to a local who managed the farm on her behalf. She would drive around the farm in an old Fiat 500 so, to keep her happy, the olive trees around the road, those that were visible, were kept in excellent condition but the ones behind them in the field were not so good! The big frost in Tuscany of 1985 [when temperatures reportedly went lower than -20°C] destroyed many of the olive trees and, as a result, around 70% of all of the trees on the estate were cut down to about 50cm above ground. The farm itself is just south of Florence in an area called Bagno a Ripoli which, since the time of the Medici, has been known as one of the primary sources of agricultural produce of the city.
TM: Currently, how many trees do you have, what varieties are they, and how do you harvest your olives?
FA: Presently, we have around 5,500 trees in total; the majority of these are our own trees with a smaller number rented from surrounding farms. Most of the olives are moraiolo and frantoio with smaller plantings of leccino, pendolino and americano varieties. All of the trees that we farm are over 100 years-old, even those that were cut back in 1985 [see above]. Because our trees are mixed – for example, you can get moraiolo, frantoio and leccino all in the same field – harvesting is particularly difficult and time-consuming. To make things easier, and to be sure that during the olive oil harvest everybody collects the right cultivar, we have fixed iron labels with different colours to the trees to indicate which varieties are which. But this still means that we have to pick olives from a single field twice or even three times as we harvest at different times according to the variety. Very time-consuming and not very efficient! However, this is the only way to ensure that we get the optimum harvest time for each cultivar.
TM: What’s your approach to processing the fruit and what kind of oil are you trying to produce in the mill?
FA: First of all, during the harvest, I am always in the mill. There are so many variables involved and I conduct so many tests at the start of the harvest to find what I think is the best oil. For example, with every initial batch of olives, I change parameters such as the crushing speed, the malaxing time [how long the olive paste is churned] or the centrifugal speed, as well as trying to find the best temperature for the equipment during each phase. Sometimes, I go to bed happy because I think I have hit on the perfect formula for this year’s olives and then the next day the weather changes and I have to adapt everything to the new conditions! What I am trying to do though is always to bring out the classic elements of artichoke, green almond and green grass of Tuscan olives but also accentuate the aromas which can sometimes be weaker in our oils. Tuscan cultivars are typically intensely flavourful with lots of polyphenols when processed correctly but perhaps less powerful on the nose than varietals such as itrana, nocellara del belice, ortice, ravece, Tonda Etnea, Tonda Iblea to name just a few. When you cut a green olive in half at harvest time, and breathe in what it smells like, that is the aroma I am trying to capture.
TM: Have there been any particularly strong influences on your approach to olive oil over the years? Are there any other producers you particularly admire?
FA: Over the years, I have tasted a great many oils. When I first started out, I entered a local competition in Bagno a Ripoli called Gocciola d’oro. I kept coming in fifth or sixth and never in the top three. Around that time, one of the biggest influences was tasting the oil that I obtained by crushing my olives in a nearby, more modern mill in Fiesole [a village northeast of Florence]. The oil it produced was so fresh, green and had such vivid flavours. That was when I realised that you could have the best olives in the world but if you didn’t process them properly, it means nothing. After that experience, I decided to only use mills which had the same kind of olive oil milling machinery. From then on I began to receive some very positive results, not only did we start winning the Gocciola D’oro competition, but also gaining international recognition. In terms of other producers I know and admire, well, really, there are too many to mention, but they go from Lake Garda right down to Sicily. I’m in contact with many of them and enjoy exchanging experiences with them. I generally like producers who use the olives from their own regions. Why? Well, here in Tuscany for example, you might be a great processor and bottler and have some wonderful coratina olives from Puglia sent to you but, in the meantime, the number of indigenous trees under cultivation declines and that is a shame. Not just for the oil it could make but also for the landscape and the environment.
TM: Finally, you mentioned before that you also farm and sell organic grapes and have plans in the future to make your own wine. There are a number of estates that do both oils and wine in Tuscany.
FA: Well, first of all, even in Tuscany, estates that make great wine and great olive oil are the exception rather than the rule. Of course, names like Felsina, Capezzana and Dievole, Castello di Ama, Castello di Fonterutoli in Tuscany (just to name a few that I am more familiar with but obviously there are some others) and Planeta in Sicily do both but still, it is much more common for olive oil to be treated like a secondary product on wine estates. Maybe they have an agriturismo or they sell wine to restaurants and it can be useful to have an olive oil to offer in addition to the wine. That is as far as Italy is concerned. Overseas, I think the two markets are completely different (and of course the money involved in high quality oils and wine is totally different); I always look for importers I can work with who are specialists in olive oil. In fact, almost everyone I partner with is actually an olive oil taster.