Tuesday, September 18, 2018

il Casale, Olio Taibi & Olive Oil

"The olive tree is first of all the trees."
--Columella, Roman agronomist

There have been olive trees on Sicily for over two thousand years, at least as far back as the ancient Greeks, and currently Sicily produces about 10% of Italy's olive oil production. Worldwide, there are about 700 different olive cultivars and some of the most common olives varieties on Sicily include Biancolilla, Castiglione, Carolea and Nocellara. Sicily also has 6 Protected Designation of Origin (DOP) olive oil regions, more than any other Italian region.

Like wine grapes, olive cultivars have different flavor profiles and may be presented in an olive oil as a single variety or a blend. Because of these different flavor profiles, pairing olive oil with various foods can be similar in some respects to pairing wine and food. However, how many consumers actually consider the flavor profile of their olive oil when using it in their recipes? Probably few people do so and they could benefit from some pairing suggestions. Last week, I attended a dinner, as a media guest, where such pairing suggestions were front and center.

il Casale, in Lexington, hosted a five course dinner, showcasing the two olive oils of Olio Taibi owned by Giuseppe Taibi, who has lived in Lexington since 2009. As the olive oils are from the Taibi estate in Sicily, the wine pairings were also from Sicily. The demand for this dinner was so high that the restaurant shut down regular service for the evening, hosting only this special dinner. This was a repeat situation of the last wine dinner I attended at il Casale, though at the Belmont location. It is clear that il Casale has a very solid and loyal customer base. I've attended numerous wine dinners and they rarely take over the entire restaurants, and sometimes only occupy a table or two. il Casale seems to possess the formula for success for these special events.

Like the Belmont wine dinner, there were probably over 100 people at the Lexington olive oil dinner. As I mentioned previously, when you have so many people enjoying the same dishes, at the same time, there is always a worry that it will overwhelm the kitchen, and that your dishes will be less than hot when they reach your table. However, once again, that was not the case at all, as each dish we enjoyed in Lexington was at an optimal temperature. Their professional kitchen is obviously well experienced in dealing with such crowds and know exactly how to handle the situation. Overall, il Casale once again provided a superb dining experience, with excellent food, wines, and service. If you've never dined at il Casale before, I highly recommend you do so.

Chef Daniele Baliani took the lead on presenting the cuisine for this wine dinner. Daniele has worked with Chef Dante de Magistris and the entire team on and off for 24 years at both il Casale Belmont and Lexington. If you spend a little time speaking with Chef Baliani about the food, you'll quickly notice his passion. And during the course of the evening, he stopped by many tables to speak with the various guests about the cuisine, as well as Italy in general.

The special guest of the evening was Giuseppe Taibi, a 4th-generation olive oil producer, and also a  tech entrepreneur with a PhD in artificial intelligence from Boston University. Giuseppe grew up in Agrigento, on the southeast coast of Sicily, near the famed Valley of the Temples, an archaeological site containing the ruins of seven ancient temples. Back in 1867, his ancestor, Cav. Gerlando Taibi purchased an estate and grew olives, starting a family business that continues to the present, though that almost didn't happen.

In 2006, Giuseppe's father felt that their olive oil business was no longer sustainable so he believed it needed to be sold. Giuseppe didn't want that to happen and began examining the business to see what could be done to save it. He quickly realized that the family business had been closer to a hobby, never generating significant income, though the olive oil was well loved. To save the business, Giuseppe knew it would require a significant restructuring, and he chose to undertake that great endeavor.

Giuseppe opted to institute organic and sustainable agriculture, and to harvest for quality over quantity. Part of this quest for quality included harvesting earlier than other farmers. All these changes weren't easy, and were costly, but Giuseppe was driven to transform the estate. The estate currently consists of about 30 acres of olive trees, primarily the Nocellera and Biancolilla cultivars, though they have a small amount of a third olive cultivar. Giuseppe also chose to treat his olives like wine varieties, and this paradigm shift is both logical and should make it more accessible to consumers.

Olio Taibi produces two organic, monocultivar, EVOO from the Biancolilla and Nocellara olives (each $49.95/500ml). At each table, there were two small bottles of this olive oils with tiny plastic tasting cups. Prior to the dinner, after our Processo aperitif, Giuseppe led us through a tasting so that we could taste, experience and understand the differences between the two. I think Giuseppe did an excellent job of differentiating the two olive oils, and making it easier for people to know which they should use for different dishes.

The Biancolilla olive cultivar, one of the oldest olives in Western Sicily, is said by Giuseppe to produce an olive oil with "green fruitiness, delicate bitterness, medium pungency, & well balanced." It can be lightly spicy (especially pepper notes), slightly fruity, and may have notes of tomato, artichoke, almond and fresh grass. It is a more delicate and subtle olive oil. Giuseppe states that this an olive oil that pairs well with dishes and ingredients that are typically paired with white wines, such as seafood, vegetables, and fresh cheeses. That advice makes it much easier to pair this olive oil at home.

The Nocellara olive cultivar, grown primarily in Sicily, is from the Valle del Belice area of south-western Sicily and can be used for both olive oil and table olives. It derives its name from the Italian word for "hazelnut" as the olive's shape resembles a hazelnut. Giuseppe says that it produces an olive oil with "green fruitiness, medium bitterness, intense pungency, and well balanced." It has a more intense fruitiness with a peppery finish. It will pair well with dishes and ingredients that are typically paired with red wines, such as red meats, legume soups, and red sauces. This was my personal favorite of the two olive oils as I enjoyed its intensity, both its fruitiness and spiciness.

Our dinner began with Insalata di Finocchio all'Olio Taibi "Biancolilla", a salad of fennel, arugula, orange slices, and sliced Castelvetrano olives dressed with the Biancolilla olive oil. The delicate olive oil went well with the salad, just the right touch of dressing, enhancing the spicy arugula, acidic oranges, and briny olives. A fine way to open up your palate for the rest of the courses to come.

The salad was paired with the 2017 Stemmari Chardonnay, from Sicily, which possesses excellent acidity, some tropical fruit notes, a subtle floral aspect and mineral notes. Fresh, dry and delicious.

The second course was Bruschetta al Pesce Azzurro con Olio Taibi "Biancolilla, a smoked bluefish pate with grilled garlic bread bruschetta finished with the Biancolilla olive oil. There was the addition of a salad of diced zucchini, shaved radish, torn mint and parsley, dressed with the EVOO, lemon juice and finished with fresh cracked black pepper. The bluefish pate was brined in a solution with demerara sugar, and then citrus peels were added before it was all cold smoked. The pate was bursting with delicious flavors, earthy and briny, with a hint of smoke. It was also silky smooth, and excellent when slathered on the bread. A superb pate! The salad added some crunchiness to the dish, and that type of textural addition was included on the next two courses too.

Paired with the plate was the 2017 Planeta Rosé ($14), a blend of 50% Nero d'Avola & 50% Syrah. I've long been a fan of this winery and you can read a couple of my prior articles for more background on Planeta: Planeta Wines: Indigenous Treasures of Sicily and Planeta Wines: More Indigenous Treasures of Sicily. This Rosé was excellent, crisp, light and full of tasty red fruit flavors, from strawberry to raspberry, with subtle hints of peach. Easy to drink, very food friendly, and perfect year round. This would make for a great Thanksgiving wine and at an average cost of $12, this is also a great value wine.

Next, we enjoyed the Maccheroni al Pesto Siciliano, homemade tube pasta with sun-dried tomato pesto, almonds, and pecorino pepato, finished with the Nocellara olive oil. You might be confused that there are no pine nuts in this pesto, but the Italian term "pesto" simply refers to something crushed by a mortar. The familiar version of pesto, with pine nuts, is a Genoese speciality. This is il Casale's own version of pesto. Pecorino pepato is a Sicilian sheep's milk cheese studded with black pepper. This was an interesting and tasty dish, with al dente pasta, crunchy almonds, and strong peppery notes. The intense olive oil also added an additional layer of flavor. A well crafted dish and a worthy pesto variant.

Paired with this pasta dish was the 2016 Feudo Maccari Noto Nero d'Avola, which is aged only in stainless steel. Silky smooth, with bright cherry, raspberry and plum flavors, enhanced by some pepper and spice notes. Nice acidity, well-restrained tannins, and a family long finish. An easy drinking wine, it could be enjoyed on its own though it would pair well with plenty of dishes, from pasta to pizza, burgers to hotdogs. Simply delicious.

M favorite dish of the night was the Agnello al Forno alla Saracena, Cous-cous al Pistacchio con Olio Taibi "Nocellara", an oven roasted lamb saracene style, atop pistachio cous-cous, with crispy artichokes and Nocellara olive oil. I love lamb and this was so tender you didn't need a knife, only the side of your fork, to cut it. The lamb was earthy and flavorful, with an added crunch from the pistachios and the nuttiness of the cous-cous. Each bite was sheer gustatory pleasure and I would definitely order that if I saw it on the menu another time.

The 2014 Cos Cerasuolo di Vittoria Classico, a blend of 60% Nero d’Avola and 40% Frappato, was aged for at least 18 months, with the Nero in oak botti and the Frappato in glazed cement tanks. With an intense, dark red color, this was a superb wine, with intense flavors of black cherry, plum, spice, chocolate, and a touch of earthiness. Moderate tannins, good acidity, and a lingering, pleasing finish. Perfect with the lamb, this wine showcases the quality of wines that can be found in Sicily.

Dessert was Torta della Nonna all'Olio Taibi "Biancolilla", Grandma’s olive oil tea cake, with whipped ricotta and candied orange peel. A light dessert, with plenty of flavor and not overly sweet.

The final wine of the evening was the 2015 Donnafugata Ben Ryé Passito di Pantelleria, which is produced from the Zibibbo grape, also known as Muscat of Alexandria. Intensely aromatic, this dessert wine was mildly sweet with balanced acidity, presenting flavors of apricot and dried fruits, with some herbal notes.

Overall, this was another winner of a dinner from il Casale, once again indicative of the quality of these two restaurants. The dishes evidenced creativity, with a nice balance of flavor and textures, and the wine pairings were spot on, showcasing some of the best of Sicily. It was a pleasure to meet Giuseppe and taste his high-quality olive oils, and it was great how he presented them so consumers could more easily choose which specific olive oil would work best with their own recipes and dishes. Kudos to Chef Dante de Magistris, Chef Daniele Baliani and the entire team at il Casale.

"The olive tree is surely the richest gift of heaven."
--Thomas Jefferson

2 comments:

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