Saturday, January 10, 2009

"Castelvetrano Olives" - Nocellara del Belice

A couple of years ago I was wandering through the Whole Foods store in San Rafael when I noted a tub full of vivid green olives with a sign reading "CastelVetrano - Italy - golden green, mild and nutty with a tiny pit."

I tried them and they soon became our family's favorite olive.

I found that Castelvetrano is a town on the western end of the island of Sicily in the province of Trapani. It is in a valley formed by the Belice River (the "Valle del Belice") which flows southwest across that part of the island for approximately 50 miles. The Valle del Belice was the epicenter of a devastating earthquake that hit Sicily in 1968.

Although the olives are grown in and around Castelvetrano, they are in fact an olive cultivar called "Noccellara del Belice."

On our recent trip to Sicily in September I had hoped to visit Castelvetrano and see the olive orchards. Unfortunately we were not able to do so as we traveled south of the city along the coast, stopping at the Greek archaeological site of Selinunte which is located very close to where the river Belice runs into the sea. We enjoyed a tour of the site after which we had a great lunch at a casual restaurant named Lido Zabbara da Jojo in nearby Marinella, located on one of the most beautiful beaches we saw on the island.

Our lunch included some of the rare "pane nero (black bread) di Castelvetrano," a very tasty local bread the Slow Foods organization is helping to preserve.

Castelvetrano and its olives was also mentioned briefly in an article about Sicily in the most recent issue (January 2009) of Conde Nast Traveler. The article focuses on an estate on the outskirts of Castelvetrano named Antica Tenuta dei Principi Pignatelli (the Ancient Estate of Prince Pignatelli) which is owned by Becchina & Company. The estate produces olive oil (using only the Nocellara del Belice olives) under the Olio Verde label. It also operates as an agroturismo for visitors.
According to one account I read about Becchina’s Olio Verde: “A few things set Becchina apart. First, they pick their olives earlier in the season, around late October, for a more intense, fruity taste. While this limits the quantity, it improves quality. Secondly, instead of using a machine to shake the olives down, which leads to bruising and effects taste, Becchina hires individuals to pick each olive by hand. Each olive is then gently placed in a sack that hangs around the picker’s neck. In order to keep the olives within reach, Becchina goes through the pain of keeping the trees short enough to be in arms reach. Finally, Becchina invented a machine that removes the leaves, snails and dirt that many olive oil companies simply grind up into oil. The company also refuses to spray chemicals on its trees.”

I also came across two very informative posts regarding the estate, the first
a report on a visit in 2004, and the second a post on the Lucy’s Kitchen Notebook blog reporting on a cooking tour led by Judy Witts Francini (of Divina Cucina in Florence and author of Over a Tuscan Stove blog, one of my favorites) which used the estate’s facilities.


Anonymous said...

Michael, loving your BLOG. Question for you: where did you find cavallo nero in the Bay Area? I want to do a Ribollita and I saw you had found it a couple of times. Thanks! David [gouda at pacbell dot net]

Heather said...

Thanks for the information. Very helpful.