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Night harvest at Domenica Fiore

It’s my favourite day of the year, right up there with Christmas. The first day (or in our case night) of harvest at our Domenica Fiore olive oil estate in Orvieto, Italy. I look forward to this time for a slew of reasons, including the excitement of seeing and tasting our first press, the picturesque beauty of our land and most of all, feasting on the local food we cook in our kitchen.

Domenica Fiore is named after my late mother and our estate sits on a hillside overlooking the spectacular medieval city of Orvieto, which rises high from the valley floor and is perched on a plateau atop huge cliffs. I often stand on our property and just take in the sheer beauty and serenity of it all. The sunsets are my favourite.

While in Italy, when I’m not watching sunsets I’m usually eating. In Vancouver where I live most of the time, I’m a fairly disciplined eater. I generally stick to the Mediterranean diet, which is said to be the healthiest, based on vegetables, legumes, fruits, fish and of course olive oil. I love pasta, but only have it once a week. And if I go out for dinner I only order one course.  But in Italy, all bets are off. We have pasta every day, sometimes twice a day and that won’t even be the main course! The reason we eat so much is simple: The ingredients just taste so much better in Italy than they do in Vancouver.  There are many reasons why this is true, and if you’ve been to Italy – you know. (and if you haven’t, you should go.) Also, we are spoiled by the cooking skills of our friend and chef, Tiara. Both Anna (who runs Domenica Fiore) and I consider ourselves to be pretty handy in the kitchen. But Tiara is on another level. She cooks many of her dishes over an open fire in our harvest kitchen, which creates a very specific flavour experience. Picture fresh toasted bruschetta or steaks cooked over an open flame and then drizzled with freshly pressed oil that was still fruit an hour earlier. There is nothing I enjoy more than the simple pleasure of sitting in a rustic kitchen, sipping red wine, with the aroma of food cooking and the sounds of a crackling fire. That memory alone makes me ache to go back.

And then there’s the white truffle. Luckily for us, truffle season is the same month as our harvest season. For fresh truffle in Italy, you have to know people. Cesare Bianchini is our master oil maker. His family has been in this town as far back as the 1300’s. So it’s safe to say he knows a thing or two about the Italian way of life and has many friends in the area. A few years ago, I asked if he had access to truffle, so he “made a few calls” and now it’s become an annual tradition. White truffle is as difficult to find as gold. The locals use specially trained dogs to sniff the stuff out. The location of these buried treasures are “Area 51” type secrets . The most Cesare can tell us is that they come from somewhere in a 50 kilometre radius of our farm. Thankfully ours didn’t cost us much (I think many people must owe Cesare favours), but if you were to buy them in Italy, they would cost up to €3500 per kilogram. God knows what they would cost in North America! The 250 gram piece we were given was probably worth €800. Over a 2 day period, we made sure we savoured every last shaving of it. We feasted on truffle fettuccine, truffle bruschetta and truffle on fried eggs. Breakfast of champions. Having said all that, we didn’t come all this way to just eat, we were working. (Well, sort of.) We came to witness the harvest and pressing of our prized olive oil, which we do once a year. It’s our time to connect with the land and the people working there and give thanks to the harvest.

There are many reasons why Domenica Fiore is among the most awarded olive oils in the world (winning 27 awards in 2019 alone).  We are extremely proud of all of our medals, won at the most prestigious competitions on the planet including New York and Israel, but one of the reasons we’re the best is that we harvest early. By doing so we sacrifice yield for better quality. Harvesting early means the fruit is less ripe and therefore produces less oil. But we do it because the oil is more flavourful. Most local producers harvest in late October and November. Our season begins in September. And that’s where the night harvest comes in.

In late September, it’s still very warm. Picking olives during the daytime would mean our olives would be pressed at a temperature of 25 or 26 degrees Celsius. Add the 5 or 6 degrees that is generated during the pressing process and the resulting oil would surpass the 27 degrees required for it to be deemed “cold press”. Harvesting at night means our olives remain at a cooler temperature of 15 to 17 degrees which gives us plenty of margin to remain below 27 degrees. An added benefit of harvesting at night is less oxidization caused by light, resulting in an oil with low acidity and exceptionally high in polyphenols.

Those are some of the technical reasons for harvesting at night. They are important, obviously, but I am here for the magic. This year we were fortunate to have clear skies on the first night of the season. Domenica Fiore is situated on the side of a hill away from the city with neighbouring farms far in the distance, so there is no light to obstruct the view of the stars. I must say, no matter how old I get, I am still in awe of a star filled sky. I stood and stared at the countless stars and galaxies, feeling both humbled and filled with wonder at the immense span of our universe. It was at this moment that our harvesting crew perhaps sensed we needed a finishing touch to this special night. Led by Daniele, they began singing in Italian and the magic was complete. (The song they were singing is titled, Brindisino which they graciously tried to teach me and which in turn I did an excellent job of butchering completely.)

The finale of this entire ritual is the moment the fresh oil pours from the end of a train of assorted machinery that does everything from cleaning the olives, grinding them, rolling to a paste, and separating the oil from water. Cesare is experimenting with a new machine this year that that removes the leaves and cleans the olives before they arrive for pressing, meaning they get cleaned twice. This extra process improves the quality even further by removing unnecessary bitterness and creating a better balance. The colour is spectacular. If you could melt emeralds, that would be our oil. We take turns putting a wine glass under the pour if only to admire the colour and smell the fragrance.

I tasted first few drops of oil from the press and can say it is full bodied and has a powerful fruitiness . Cesare will tell you it has an incredible fragrance with notes of artichoke, radish and hints of arugula and chicory. I am not that sophisticated. I think it’s just damn good.

We only make 1000 litres of the night harvest Novello di Notte and each of our beautifully packaged stainless steel bottles is numbered and signed by Cesare. I took #2 home with me along with a few extras. Since my return, I have taken every opportunity to try the oil with many dishes and quite often with just plain bread. There is an Italian quote on the back of each bottle that translates to, “Within the oil lies the memory of the land.”  It’s that memory that will stay with me until next September, when we do it all again.

Please stop by our pop up shop on the retail concourse level of Bentall Three (across from BMO) in downtown Vancouver. We’re open from 8am to 5pm, Monday to Friday until the end of the year.

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