Food, Food Artisans

Olive Oil Maker Marina Colonna Visits Zingerman’s (pt.1)

Later this month, olive oil maker Marina Colonna, who makes our private label Peranzana Olive Oil, will travel from Molise, Italy to Ann Arbor for the very first time. On June 24, we’re throwing a welcome party! During the event, Marina will tell us all about her olive farm in Italy, and the cultivation of her varieties of olive trees. She’ll describe the olive oil process from harvest to the oil mill, and the best uses for these oils. The Zingerman’s Deli kitchen will prepare an exciting menu of dishes using Marina’s oils too. We’re very excited to spend an evening talking and tasting olive oil with one of the industry’s leading experts. Please join us for an evening you won’t forget!
To attend, please call 734-663-3400, or reserve online. Space is going fast!

This is Part One of an essay Ari wrote back in 2004 describing his first visit to Marina’s estate. Part Two will appear tomorrow. 

Oil, Oil, Toil And Trouble

The region of Molise is sort of the gateway to southern Italy. Draw a line due east from Rome; stop about two-thirds of the way across the Italian peninsula, turnMARINA right (south) and you’ll be there. Pass through the “gate” and you enter a world far removed from the fast-paced fashionable affairs of Milan, Turin, Florence and the north. Instead, you find farms and farmers, a significantly slower pace of life, an allegiance to the past, and a subtle but steady resistance to the future.

An old agricultural area, the Molise has been making olive oil in large quantities for millennia. It’s filled with big hills and smallish mountains; when I visited in May, there was still plenty of snow up on the brown mountaintops, which looked like a sugar-dusted chocolate Bundt cake. Primarily a rural area, the major crops of the Molise include wheat and olives. Olive trees grow up and down the hillsides, ash-colored trunks twisting gray off the ground; pale green leaves shining softly silver in the afternoon sun.

I had the chance to visit the Molise and to see the farm where Marina Colonna presses her exceptional, gutsy-green olive oil. I tell this story in part because I love her oil, especially her Granverde, an old Molisana specialty where olives and lemons are pressed together to make a unique “lemon oil.” But I also tell it because I was struck again and again by the nature of Marina’s struggle to get her oil out to the world. So often I’ve traveled and told of the struggles of small traditional producers to fight the near-overwhelming pressure to modernize, to abandon the old techniques and the integrity of their food in favor of newer, faster, more economical methods. But Marina’s story is different.

It’s the reversal of the usual roles that caught my attention last spring. In the case of Marina in the Molise, it is Marina the modern woman who is working tirelessly to return to the quality and integrity of olive oil’s past. The locals, instead of preserving tradition, are quick to sell it out, with little regard for the flavor and quality of the oil. It’s like history has come full circle.

Marina is probably in her forties, full of energy, her eyes alive. She’s quick to anger, and just as quick to smile. She’s slim, with the sense of style in clothes, and in life, that is notably Italian. Short black hair; long, thin, rough-textured, working hands. Raised in Rome, part of a prominent and well-connected family, she set out to make her own mark by leaving the safety of family routine for a successful career in the Italian equivalent of public television. Her skin is a dark brown, a shade the Italians call olivastro —soft, chestnut brown in the winter, turning almost to deep brownish-black in the summer sun. I remember the term because somehow from my Russian Jewish roots I too turned out with olivastro skin. Maybe that explains my strong attraction to olive oil and olives.

Marina is a new “branch” on of one of Italy’s oldest family trees. The Colonna heritage is very old and very Roman; they can trace it back to the Popes of early Rome. The name means “column,” and the family crest, which you see on each bottle of oil, is a Roman column.

At the farm, Marina has framed parchment public notices from the 17th century laying out the work rules and prices for Rome’s butchers (macellerie) and grocers (alimentarie). Much to my surprise, they included a regulation declaring that Roman citizens were prohibited from buying heads or hoofs of animals from Jews or Jewish butchers, accompanied by a list of assorted punishments for those caught buying from them: caning, whipping, etc. The notices were signed by a host of officials, including Marina’s ancestor, Giralmo Colonna.

What really drove the historical point home to me was an incredible archive that’s stored in Marina’s office at the farm. Over a hundred bone-colored binders of family history stuffed with dry and slightly dusty parchment paper documents, stacked onto white wooden shelves. They document the details of family feuds, lives and deaths dating back to the 10th century. “What’s in these things?” I asked Marina. “Everything,” she answered nonchalantly. “Who married who, who fights with the church over who owned land, who owed money to someone else…” It strikes me that she knows more about her ancestors of a thousand years ago than I know about my great-grandparents.

On the other hand, the Colonna’s history with olives and oil production is relatively recent. The farm came to the family around the time of the war, when Marina was still a small child. She hardly ever visited as a kid. Back then, most of the roads were unpaved and it took twelve hours to get from Rome to the Molise. Times change. Marina and I made the drive on the up-to-date autostrada just three hours. Her father planted the olive trees on the farm about thirty years ago. Up until Marina got involved in the mid-1980’s, the oil was always just sold off to some larger bottlers, who used it to add flavor to some otherwise bland, commercial blend. At one point, her father was ready to just forget the whole thing and sell the farm; he’d decided it wasn’t worth the aggravation. That was when Marina got going. She decided that she was going to turn the farm’s oil into something special, and she’s spent the last decade working long and hard to make it happen. You can taste the fruits of her labor when you taste her oil.

I want to stress that despite her prestigious family history, Marina does work, and work hard. In Italy title and history have long since been disconnected from wealth. Olive oil is not a hobby here. Nor is it a way to get rich quick. Selling a few thousand bottles of olive oil a year is not an easy way to make a living. It requires a commitment to craft, an eye toward the future, the energy to turn out great oil year after year. Marina has that commitment.

Part Two of Ari’s essay will appear tomorrow!