Food, Food Artisans

Olive Oil Maker Marina Colonna Visits Zingerman’s (pt.2)

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 Two of an essay Ari wrote back in 2004 describing his first visit to Marina’s estate. Read Part One

Oil, Oil, Toil And Trouble

The Colonna’s farm is called Bosco Pontoni (“the Woods of Pontoni”). “It used to be all forest,” Marina explained. Brown, green and gold checkerboards of wheat,
MARINAolives, and corn run across the fields. The Colonna’s country house sits squarely in the middle of the farm, cream-colored stucco, with dark, chocolate-bar doors. “Not too old,” Marina told me. “From the 1800s.” Bright red poppies float by the front door of the house. Red, pink, and purple roses shine in the garden. Inside, there’s a great fireplace, and a blue-and-white tiled ceramic wood oven for heat in winter. Below the house are these great “vaults” in which the oil is stored. When we needed a little oil for dinner one night, we simply took an empty bottle and headed on down to the ten or so silver steel tanks. Each tank is feet high and five feet across and holds oil from one of the farm’s four olive varieties. We’d fill our bottle and head back up for dinner. Now, that’s how I’d like to live. Tanks of olive oil in the basement, ready and waiting for me to tap in case I run low.

Marina puts enormous effort into the little things, the details that most people don’t deem worthy of attention. The lightly green-tinted bottles in which the oil arrives in Ann Arbor are a beautiful, slope-shouldered amphora, patterned after the similarly shaped, fired clay vessels in which Marina’s ancient ancestors bought their oil. The bottles come from an Etruscan Glassworks in Tuscany. She spent “ages” selecting them, she told me. And, rolling her eyes skyward, she added, “they cost a fortune.” They are beautiful and well worth the trouble, I think. Each bottle is topped with a rounded blond wooden stopper. After filling, each bottle is sealed with wax, and hand-pressed with a red lacquer Colonna family crest. Granverde, Marina’s oil of lemons and olives, is sealed in green; her new Arancio, an excellent oil of Sicilian oranges and olives, in orange.

To ensure the caliber of oil she’s looking for, each of the farm’s four olive varieties is picked and pressed separately depending on the time it ripens. The various oils are stored separately, and then carefully blended according to flavor, variety, and age before being bottled. Colonna oil is decanted—the sediment is allowed to settle out at the bottom of the storage tanks. Still, you may come across a bit of sediment at the bottom of each bottle because, unlike many oils, Marina’s is, “never, never filtered.” “You lose something of the flavor,” she says.

Making her dream of getting great oil from the farm in an area where mediocre oil has become “normal” has not been easy for Marina. And her struggle is made all the more difficult because she is not a man. “Because you are a woman they always think they know better,” she says with weary frustration. An Italian woman fighting to create change in the countryside is akin to one of us going up against the IRS. Sometimes justice wins out, but only after incredible persistence and patience. No matter what you want to do, the reply comes, “that’s not the way we do it.” No matter how fast you try to go, everything moves slowly. That’s the countryside. Fortunately for the olive oil world, Marina’s managed to make it work. If all the offspring of ancient Rome had as much vision, stubbornness, drive, and determination as Marina, the Empire would probably still be standing.

The struggle for quality is big, but it shows up most often in the little things: Marina—as she should—wants the olives pressed within a day of picking. They need to be pressed quickly in order to prevent the buildup of oxidation and acidity that begins the moment the fruit is removed from the tree. The farm manager insists he’s kept olives “much longer than that, for a month even, without any problems,” and “you can’t tell the difference.” Marina shakes her head. You can tell the difference. She persists. The olives are pressed within 24 to 30 hours.

Marina wants to sell the oil while it’s fresh, certainly within the year of its pressing. This is a standard requirement in the world of good oil. If it’s kept much beyond that it loses its luster, leaving a slightly flat, less-flavorful oil. Marina won’t sell old oil, but the farm manager thinks she’s crazy. He insists on selling what’s left to the locals even at two years; “they like it that way,” he says. It’s more likely they’re used to it, and have stopped paying attention.

What it comes down to is that instead of staying true to tradition, the locals have evolved (devolved?) to a culture of shortcuts that, in the case of the oil, means mediocrity instead of excellence. And so, Marina pushes against their resistance to change, striving to get a great olive oil out to the rest of the world. It’s an odd twist on the battle for tradition, because in this case, it’s the modern effort to improve quality and revive some of the traditional ways, while the locals look to keep cutting corners.

Eating Marina’s oil is a pleasure; all the more appreciated from knowing how hard she’s worked to get it out. Colonna oil has a robust, lively flavor that hints of green tomatoes, almonds, and an enjoyable, earthy pepperiness. It’s especially well suited to easy-to-enjoy, simple dishes that don’t take much time. Try toasting thick slices (as thick as your toaster can tolerate, or do it under the broiler) of Farm Bread ‘til they’re brown, rub with a clove of cut garlic, then douse in a stream of Marina’s green-gold oil. Top it with chunks of roasted peppers cut into strips, or peppery green arugula leaves with a pinch of sea salt. Spill it over just-out-of-the-oven chicken roasted with rosemary and fresh garlic, or toss it with just-cooked spaghetti and a grated Pecorino cheese. In the Molise, they like their food on the spicy side, so pass a bowl of ground red pepper. And drink a toast to Marina’s persistent pursuit of great olive oil.

Read Part One of Ari’s essay.