For years I've been bringing my father olive oil, but it has never been the right one, the one that tasted like the olive oil he remembered from living in Puglia, Italy, sixty years ago. He'd taste what I offered, pause a moment, think about it -- but invariably say, "it's really good, but not like Puglia." So what was that Puglian olive oil he remembered like? My father described a rustic, artisanal oil colored deep green, pungent, unfiltered and cloudy, an oil that burned the back of your throat. "They used to fry eggs in that oil back in Puglia," he said. "It was delicious."
My father arrived to southern Italy as a Holocaust-surviving refugee a few weeks after an American tank smashed through the gate of his concentration camp. He settled in a DP camp along the Adriatic Sea and ended up living in the country for a decade, going to high school and college there and eventually moving to Rome. My father has never been much of a food guy; art and opera were the passions Italy impressed on him. But the olive oil he tasted those years living in Puglia was different. It was an olive oil he could never forget.
When I traveled to Puglia last month for the first time, to attend a conference on olive oil organized by the Oldways Preservation Trust, no less, I was hoping I'd get my chance to finally find my father's oil. Puglia, the heel of the Italian boot, is olive oil country: The landscape is blanketed by olive trees, silvery leaves shimmering like the ocean as far as you can see. Puglia produces half of Italy's olive oil -- and 12% of the world's output. We tasted many amazing olive oils at the Oldways conference, sublime blends from Cortina and other local olives. But none seemed like the oil my father had described.
On one of the days at the Oldways conference we visited the olive press of Conte Spagnoletti-Zeuli, an Italian count. In a centuries-old building surrounded by rows and rows of olive trees, we tasted his oil, which was exceptional and complex -- but not like the one my father had talked about. Then I noticed a clear glass bottle with no label on a side table. The olive oil inside was thick and cloudy, bright green like transmission fluid. I popped the cap and took a whiff of its intensely grassy aroma. I dabbed a little on my finger and tasted the appealing bitterness. My father's oil! I asked the count for a bottle. No can do, he said, he didn't sell that oil. "It's too strong," he said, "no one would buy it." He had pressed a small batch from barely-ripe olives as a special order. But when I explained my quest, the count graciously relented and asked a worker fill a bottle for me.
Back home, the moment of truth: I gave my father the count's special oil. He tasted it, paused a moment, thought about it -- and said in a quiet voice, "yes, this is the one." Then he added, "I'm going to fry an egg in it."
Last week I stopped by my father's place in Jersey to taste a Puglian-style fried egg for myself. My father heated the oil into a beat-up frying pan -- a lot of oil, a couple of tablespoons. He sizzled two eggs sunny side up in it, almost deep frying them. Soon the whites browned and crisped up on the edges, and the yolk set but didn't harden. My father plated the fried eggs -- and poured the remaining oil on top of it. "Back in Puglia you dipped your bread in that oil," he explained. As I dipped my bread in the hot olive oil -- okay, a piece of bagel, we didn't have rustic Puglian bread -- I thought about my father's food memory, about how something so simple but so good could stick with you for six decades.