How to write a book: Part five

Prior to going to Florence, I knew there were two stories I wanted to tell: the pressing of olive oil and the tasting of vintage wine. In November, when the olive harvest was in full flight, the opportunity arose for us to see how olive oil was made. It was our landlord, Roberto Bianchi, who made the arrangements for us to visit Villa S. Andrea in Montefiridolfi, 20 km. south of Florence. In addition to harvesting their own olives, Villa S. Andrea also acts as a co-operative. Signor Bianchi takes his olives there for pressing, so he was able to make the introductions for us.

As with a lot of food-related processes, picking, preparing, and pressing the olives is a labor-intensive effort involving many steps. In this case, it seemed to me that the key was to plunge readers in, then step back, and try to simplify matters while keeping things interesting.

That’s why I introduce this section at p. 94 with the instruction I received, “Stick your finger in.” This moment is well along in the production because the oil exists, but hopefully, it intrigues the reader and focuses on the taste – which is what olive oil is all about.

After that, I backtracked, and in the words of our host, we followed the path of the olives. And admired the property that was used by the Romans as a lookout across the valley. You can see the view in Sandy’s evocative two-page illustration on pp. 96-7.

Italy also introduced us to olio nuovo, the “new oil” that becomes available about this time of year and and has a short shelf life of about three months. Grass green in colour, olio nuovo is so fresh, so piquant that it spoils you forever for any other olive oil, no matter how many virgins were involved.

In Florence, a one liter bottle of olio nuovo cost ten euros, the equivalent of C$16 at the time. Once we were back in Canada, I sought it out, and found it, frozen. Frozen? Yes, they explained, freezing the contents in Italy permitted shipping and storage to occur without cutting into the shelf life. I could buy it, take it home, let it thaw, and have the benefit of the full three months.

That makes sense, I thought. How much, I asked? “$45 for 500 ml.” Almost six times what it cost in Italy! For all I know that little bottle is still sitting there, frozen. I sure didn’t buy it.

It doesn’t matter. Anytime I want, I can reread that section of the book, feel again that olive oil on my finger, and recall that first taste of the spicy ambrosia touching my tongue. If only books had scratch and sniff. Meanwhile, words will have to do.

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