The first flight to Palermo arrived from Milan. Then, in the days that followed, from Switzerland, Germany, and France. The young diaspora of the Sicilian Mastrosimone-Panzarella family had requested leave from jobs across Europe and come to reunite on their grandfather’s land to participate in a family ritual, the annual olive harvest.
With age, the family patriarch Salvatore has mostly left his olive picking days behind. But this younger generation – namely his grandson, Sergio – has stepped up to the helm. After years of an international career that enticed him away from the sloped hillside of his native land, Sergio felt the call to return to the family business, determined not only to keep their grove productive, but also to share the magic and powerful health benefits of fresh organic, cold-pressed oil with his adopted home in Switzerland.
Thus, Ólixir was born.
We heard about the brand Ólixir from an Italian friend who swore it was the best oil he’d ever tasted. And after our first order of “green gold,” we knew our kitchens in Switzerland would never be without it again. When Sergio asked if we’d like to come to Sicily (um, yes), to meet his family (um, yes), to help harvest the oil that we use every day, (um, yes), and tell his family’s story (um, yes), we packed our overalls and work boots and headed south to Trinacria.
With hundreds of trees clinging to the soil of the two sloping sides of a ravine, the grove is set back some 500 meters from the northern coast of Sicily and at the foot of the Mt. San Calogero, named for the patron saint and protector of the land and the village below. Despite the steep incline, the rocky soil holds thanks to the olive trees’ roots and grass maintained throughout the grove as erosion control. Though much more labor-intensive, the grass’ roots keep the soil in place while also protecting the minerals that nourish the centuries-old trees.
It’s early October and the olives that we will pick and press are far from ripe – they’re a beautiful light green, firm to the touch, and when eaten from the tree, excessively bitter on the tongue. This, Sergio explains, is the reason for an early harvest. The astringency is actually what gives the oil its health properties, and though it ultimately produces a lower yield, an early harvest ensures that over 90% of the olives will be a nutrient-dense green.
The Sicilian heat is partner in this process – stressed by the harsh temperatures and the arid climate, the trees must mount a defense, sending higher concentrations of polyphenol antioxidants to the fruit. Much like wine, olives have the potential to express distinct aromas of the land and conditions where they’re grown. By opting to handpick the olives, threading each branch through their fingers or small plastic rakes, rather than use machines like most oils on the market, the family is caring for each tree and each olive in order to preserve the nutrients and flavor.
The day is long, intense, yet joyful. From tree to tree they move, installing green netting to catch the fruit as it falls like staccato notes to the ground below. There’s laughter, gesticulating, and lots of scolding from the mothers in the group. Even if their children are now grown – doctors, real estate agents, entrepreneurs – the reign of the Italian mamma is supreme. Salvatore’s daughter and Sergio’s mother Caterina, explained as she sorted through a pile of olives on the ground to remove branches and leaves, that while work is important in Sicily it only comes in third behind two other values. “First, there’s eating,” she said with a mischievous twinkle in her eye. “Then, family. And only after – work.”
The Rush to the Mill
At 4:30 the energy suddenly shifts. The nets are scooped up, crates of olives filled, stacked and finally loaded onto the truck. It’s time to make the two-hour journey from the grove to the mill where the day’s labor will be transformed into the delectable green nectar we’d traveled to see. We settle in for the bumpy ride across the coastal highway and then inland on smaller, winding roads. By the time we pull into the mill, the sun has long set but the day is far from being over.
Standing outside the sleek exterior of the mill as we wait for fork lifts to come and retrieve our precious cargo, Sergio explains why he insists on making the long journey for this stage of the process. It’s difficult to find a miller who shares his uncompromising obsession with purity and precision. And after meeting Max the miller and visiting his facility with its state-of-the-art machinery, modern architecture, and gastronomic restaurant, it’s easy to see why. No corners will be cut here. And for Sergio, who is hell-bent on making the best choices for his oil even if it means more complex work for himself, the four-hour round trip is more a reflex than a decision.
Our olive crates are finally emptied into a large metal vat where they start their journey on a conveyer belt for de-branching, washing, and then crushing and malaxation. For the final “pressing,” the paste is spun through a centrifuge to gently separate the oil.
Throughout the process the temperature is carefully monitored to ensure that heat cannot alter the oil or compromise its heart-health benefits. To officially earn the status of “cold-pressed,” the olives must not heat beyond 27° C at any point. Sergio and Max commit to a maximum temperature of 21° C because when your first priority is capturing the purity and maximum heart-protecting health benefits of the oil, every challenge is a worthy cause.
Forty minutes later, Max calls the group to gather around. It’s the moment of truth – the extraction. It first starts as a slight trickle of luminescence, the most vibrant, reflective, nearly-neon green. Then, it breaks into a gushing verdant opulence. Our weary group, still dusty from the groves, raises our hands in triumph and cheers. Wine glasses are passed around and the fresh oil is served for tasting.
Sergio, his nose in the glass and his eyes closed, looks relaxed for the first time all day. His determination and unyielding perfectionism finally have given way to satisfaction at a job well done.,
It’s Olive Oil Season
The reality is that most olive oils we buy in the store year-round offer only a marginal nutritional benefit, as they’re much lower in polyphenol antioxidants. The beauty of Ólixir is not just its otherworldly color; it’s that whenever Sergio could make his life easier and thus compromise the potency of his product’s health benefits, he chooses to double-down in his pursuit.
Like any fruit juice, olive oil is only as healthy as the commitment of the person producing it; and like any agricultural product, it’s most beneficial right after it is harvested. Just like we have asparagus season, mushroom season, and chestnut season – we have olive oil season. And that season is now.
As we swirl, sniff, and the sip the day’s labor, we are struck by how much this freshly pressed olive oil still tastes like the raw olive we’d eaten in the grove earlier that day. The aggressive astringency is softened but the bitterness and burn in the back of our throats – a true sign of the oil’s high-antioxidant content – rounds out a deep, rich, earthy flavor that tells the story of its origins.
And that, in our opinion, is a story worth flying to Sicily to tell.
Want to discover Ólixir olive oil that we helped to pick for yourself? Don’t miss the opportunity to enjoy a bottle of the 2021 harvest – the freshest olive oil available in Switzerland.