8 Dec 2002: Every year, the River Cafe’s Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray embark on a Tuscan odyssey to find the finest extra virgin olive oil. Amy Raphael tagged along.

Set against an azure sky, the olive trees stretch as far as the eye can see, down the hill, past the collapsing farmhouses and the skinny cypress trees. With their gnarled trunks, silvery green leaves and branches weighed down with small greeny black olives, they look as old as the world.

It’s a crisp day in early November on the Tuscan hills of Morello. In the valley below lies the ancient city of Florence, but no one working in the olive groves is looking at the stunning view; they are preoccupied with combing the trees. Balancing on ladders, the men lean into the trees with their metal rakes and drag the olives from the branches. The olives fall to the ground onto nets or old parachutes. Once the combing is done, the men get on their hands and knees, gather the olives and transfer them into crates.

This is clearly a man’s world, but two well-dressed women appear. Luigi Ricceri, whose family own the Morello groves, introduces them to Signor Lordi. He has travelled to the Morello farm from his home near Eboli in the deep south to pick olives each November for the past 40 years. Now well into his seventies, Signor Lordi will earn around 45 euros for each 100 kilos of olives he picks; because the Italian summer was so wet this year, there are plenty of olives and he stands to make a reasonable amount to take back to the family.

The women speak Italian, but Signor Lordi’s southern accent is very strong, almost impenetrable, and they have to communicate with lots of smiles and laughter. He wipes his hands on his apron, puts his arms round them for a photograph and talks emotionally about his four decades picking olives; as he talks, a tear trickles down his weathered face.

Signor Lordi and his co-workers will soon take a break for lunch; slow-roasted vegetables, simply prepared meats, chunks of pecorino and parmesan. Some red wine and a bowl of extra virgin oil in which to dip the bread. They will eat in a dark kitchen in the farmhouse, sitting by the embers of last night’s fire. Of course these southern workers, or contadini, have no idea that the simple food they will eat has inspired these two women for decades. Or even that the olives they are picking for the new season’s oil will soon be gracing their London restaurant.

Since Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers opened the River Cafe in 1987, they have visited Italy each November to taste the first oil of the new season. They recently decided to bring some of their staff along too, so the young chefs and managers can experience the sourcing for themselves. This is one of the most inspirational and exciting times of the year for the River Cafe and its staff; visiting suppliers, eating food, tasting wine and new olive oil. And imagining the oil complementing cavalo nero and game and winter soups. Rose and Ruth have always favoured Tuscan oils, which are green, fruity and peppery and judged by many to be the best in the world.

Ahead of their time with their straightforward attitude to Italian cooking, Rose and Ruth were equally pioneering with their adoption of extra virgin olive oil as a staple long before it was fashionable. They replaced butter with oil on the tables of the River Cafe a long time ago and now, of course, it’s common to every gastro pub.

They explain that the extra virgin olive oil used for cooking is very different to the estate-bottled oils used for pouring liberally over bruschetta or garnishing soups such as ribollita and pappa al pomodoro. Cooking oil is a blend of several extra virgin olive oils sourced from all over Italy and produced from olives that are pressed at the height of their ripeness.

Since Rose and Ruth started travelling to Italy for the olive-picking season in the late Eighties, the production has changed dramatically. ‘In 1987 there wasn’t a single mill that didn’t use an old-fashioned press,’ says Rose. ‘Then around 1992 I remember being really excited when we were introduced to a state-of-the-art mill in Chianti Ruffina. We went to this modern mill, watched them putting tons of leaves in the machine and out of the other end came this bright green oil. We bought it for the River Cafe but…’

They both burst out laughing. ‘Round about March it suddenly went a really strange colour. It was terrifying. They obviously hadn’t perfected the technique; they’d jumped the gun. Which is why we are now so interested in how the mills work and which equipment the producer chooses to use. The quality of the olive oil is crucial for us. ‘

The old-fashioned mills still exist; a little earlier Luigi Ricceri drove me to a friend’s mill nearby. At Fattoria Di Travalle locals constantly turn up with crates of olives from their own small groves. A stern hand-written sign on the door reads Non si da olio in cambio di olive: ‘Oil is not given in exchange for olives’. The oil is a valuable commodity; most workers get paid in oil and they prefer it that way.

Inside the mill, the olives are separated from the leaves before being washed. Then, with the stones intact, they are crushed to a paste by a millstone, during which time the cells of the fruit break down and begin to release oil. The paste is then spread evenly over round filter mats (the effect is of a pizza covered with tapenade); around 40 are laid on top of one another on a hydraulic press.

The murky liquid produced is part oil, part fruit water, and it has to be separated in a centrifuge. Fattoria Di Travalle stores the oil in huge old terracotta pots in a cool room (good oil should always be kept in a cool, dark place to preserve it for as long as possible). The young oil is intense and peppery, its colour a vivid green.

The smell of olives in the mill is concentrated and heady. Luigi Ricceri, whose Morello mill is very modern, is a little envious. ‘This old mill is very poetic,’ he says. He thinks that modern production is fine as long as it doesn’t go to an extreme; he still believes that olives should be picked by hand and not shaken off the trees by machines because they are a delicate fruit and prone to bruising.

He explains that only around 10 per cent of oil produced across the world is good enough to be ‘extra virgin’. Unprocessed, it must have an acidity level of one per cent at the most. Some extra virgin olive oils have acidity levels even lower than this. When the olives are bruised, the acidity levels change and the quality of the oil suffers.

Rose and Ruth explain how olive oil follows the same geographical pattern of change as wine. They sample oil from estates within fairly short distances of one another (apart from Morello, all the others are also vineyards and the oil is sourced in parallel with the wine). The Felsina estate in Castelnuovo Baradenga is on the southernmost borders of Chianti; Selvapiana is in the cooler Chianti Ruffina zone north-east of Florence; Capezzana is on a hillside outside Florence, as is Morello.

‘All the oils have distinctive characteristics, which isn’t just to do with the way they press them,’ says Rose. ‘It’s to do with the olive varieties they grow and the ripeness the producers allow. For example, the oil from the Selvapiana estate is pressed from the Frantoio variety. They pick the olives early, when they’re still green, and press them in a modern cold press. The oil is the greenest and the most intensely spicy.’

‘They know we want to go green, green, green,’ explains Ruth. ‘So they are pressing earlier, earlier, earlier.’ The colour, it seems, is almost as important as the taste. Rose nods. ‘You make a bowl of ribollita with white bread and white beans and pour this bright green oil onto it, oil that’s so green it looks as though food dye has been added, and it’s just so gorgeous to look at. That really is the new oil experience.’

Olive oil tasting is an art in itself. Anglo-Italian cook and food writer Ursula Ferrigno hosts tasting courses in London where she refers to extra virgin olive oil as ‘the food of life’. She recommends pouring oil into the palm of the hand, inhaling the aroma and then slurping it through the teeth; the palate is cleansed between tastings with either apple or fennel. She explains how to describe the oils: rich and complex but not overbearing; simple and bland; long-lasting aftertaste; peppery or fruity and buttery; a hint of apple, almond or rucola.

At Morello, Luigi Ricceri pours his 2002 oil into thin glasses with a slightly bulbous shape; he cups the glass in one hand to heat it up, covers the top with his other, swirls the oil around, inhales it deeply through a small gap, takes a liberal mouthful and slurps. Rose and Ruth do the same. ‘Amazing!’ they both exclaim at the same time. This is why some people are prepared to pay £18.50 for a bottle of River Cafe extra virgin olive oil; this really is special stuff.

Rose draws a picture of a tasting glass in her red notebook so that she can remember the shape. She tastes the oil again and talks as she writes: ‘More spirited and bright than other oils we’ve tasted. The greenest we’ve come across yet this year. The others we’ve tasted on this trip have been softer. Because Morello is quite high up, the oil is grassy, sharp and peppery. It would be fantastic with cavalo nero, white beans and raw artichokes.’

After the tasting, we go to a local restaurant to sample the new Morello oil with food. Rose and Ruth warn that the lunch may well prove to be a long one, but no one expects it to involve quite so many courses. To start a huge plate of pinzimonio – raw artichokes, carrots, radishes and celery dipped into bowls of the new oil. The combination is perfect: the vegetables so crunchy and fresh, the oil so peppery it slow burns in the throat. ‘It’s like cooking fish with lemon,’ says Ruth. ‘The best fish, the best lemon and the best herbs create a wonderfully simple dish.’

David Gleave from Liberty Wines, who helps the River Cafe to import their wine and olive oil and who accompanies them on most trips, sloshes the Chianti Classico Riserva round his glass and nods his head in approval. Ruth tells of a funny moment during a Q&A following a River Cafe cookery demonstration. ‘This woman asked Rose in all seriousness: “Other than Jamie Oliver, who influenced you?”.’ That Oliver learned his trade at the River Cafe was lost on her.

Luigi Ricceri talks about the risky business of making olive oil. In the big freeze of 1985, some 85 per cent of the olive trees in Tuscany were destroyed. As a consequence, there is much tension and fear in the winter months; the constant worry around November is that it will prove to be too windy, too wet, too cold.

As more food arrives – bruschetta with soft, luscious tomatoes or fat slices of salami; ribollita decorated with the vivid green oil; a single piece of home-made pasta laced with shaved white tartufo; chick pea soup; tripe; a huge slab of bloody bistecca alla Fiorentina – Rose and Ruth both write in their notebooks. After all, this is the cucina rustica for which their restaurant is so widely celebrated and next April a new River Cafe book will be published.

Pouring oil over her ribollita, Rose remembers living in Italy with her family in the early Eighties and not being able to believe the thickness, the greenness or the spiciness of the new oil. Ruth describes the first time she ever tasted new olive oil. She was on holiday one November with her husband, the architect Richard Rogers. ‘It was one of my first visits to Italy and we were sitting in a restaurant by the River Arno. I had bruschetta with new oil and I kept looking for the pepper or the chilli; I really couldn’t believe it was naturally that strong.’

Finally, the meal comes to an end with pecorino and pear, a variety of home-made cakes, vin santo and cantucci, marsala wine and coffee. We leave the restaurant and stand outside, looking over the olive groves of Morello and out onto the plains of Florence. Rose and Ruth take one last look at the view, at the silvery green trees, at Signor Lordi combing the olives with his metal rake. They love Italy but they are content to go home; in a few weeks the new oil will start to arrive at the River Cafe and with it begins their favourite time of year.

· To order a case of River Cafe 2002 Single Estate Extra Virgin Olive Oil for £93.70 call Liberty Wines on 020 7720 5350; helena@libertywines.co.uk.
To book an olive oil tasting course with Ursula Ferrigno call 020 7633 0881

· OFM stayed at the Hotel Regency in Piazza Masssimo d’Azeglio, Florence (800 426 5445) and the Westin Excelsior in Piazza Ognissanti, Florence (800 325-3589)