On a warm March afternoon, farm workers buzzed around the courtyard of Masseria Maccarone, in Puglia, Italy. The working dogs bounded out to greet us, and charged round the gnarled olive trees, barking happily. My daughter and I were excited. We were about to go inside the sixteenth-century baroque manorial farmhouse, to try some of the best olive oil in the world, and to find out how this mega high-quality Italian olive oil is made.
What is a masseria?
Masseria Maccarone is part of the network of masseria that you find in this part of southern Italy. These historic estates usually offer accommodation, and are built on ancient traditions of farming and agriculture. Lots of them, like Masseria Maccarone, feature large, peaceful grounds, as well as interesting histories. Maccarone’s 61 hectares are enclosed by high, whitewashed walls, which were originally built to keep out invading Turks. The name of this masseria means abundance. We could see why, as we drove into the estate past olive tree after olive tree, all festooned with gleaming silvery green leaves.
As part of our trip to Puglia with Raro Villas and Bookings for You, we visited two working masserias. The first was Lamapecora, where we learned about cheesemaking, and tasted THE most delicious Italian buratta. Masseria Maccarone was the second on our tour. It’s an olive farm with a whopping 2,000 fruit-bearing olive trees. 900 of them are over 1,000 years old. The trees are all protected, so they can’t be moved, or cut down.
How Italian olive oil is made
Our guide for the afternoon was Alessandro Colucci. The Colucci family were responsible for the farm and its oil-making business. They also ran daily tours, like ours, to show visitors round the masseria and its oil-making processes.
Alessandro explained that, up until 1790, donkeys would have walked round and round for two hours, turning grindstones to press the olives.
Originally, the olive oil extracted at Masseria Maccarone passed through wood and iron. This didn’t lead to the best results. Oil absorbs everything it comes into contact with, so any oxidisation of the iron would have given the oil a metallic hint. From the late 1980s, the Masseria Maccarone olives have been cold-pressed in solid steel sealed containers. This locks in the flavour, to make sure it becomes pure and aromatic olive oil at its best.
What does the best olive oil in the world taste like?
One of the first things that Alessandro taught us, was that if olive oil tastes of olives, then it’s not good. An olivey taste means the oil has been in contact with olive sludge for too long. This sludge is the crushed flesh of olives left over after the oil has been extracted. Instead of being tinged with sludge, decent oil should taste fresh, with buttery, spicey and fruity overtones. Not melon, though. Or wine or vinegar. Neither should the oil taste of mould, unsurprisingly. But, Alessandro explained, plenty of poor-quality oil does have a musty aroma.
Alessandro beamed with pride when he talked about his olive oil. Andalucia in Spain is the world’s no. 1 olive oil producer for quantity. But the oil from Sicily, and Puglia, is superior in quality, said Alessandro. I’d certainly never sampled any oil as exquisite as I did on that day. Our tour ended in an olive oil tasting, and we tried some of Maccarone’s oil alongside a brand of ‘extra virgin’ oil sold widely in the UK. The difference was astonishing. Next to the smooth, buttery Maccarone oil, the inferior stuff tasted vinegary, and left a fatty coating on my tongue. To think, I’d been liberally dousing my salads with it, and imagining I was consuming some of the best…
The health benefits of extra-virgin olive oil
Alessandro explained that a lot of olive oils sold in the UK have been chemically altered, to get rid of bitterness. Nearly spitting out the words, he called these ‘lamp oils’, and pleaded with us not to buy them. The hale and hearty Italians go through around 100 litres of extra virgin olive oil per family, in just one year. And a shot of the stuff every morning fuels the body with plenty of health-boosting antioxidants. “You will never get sick!” He cried, brandishing a small paper cup of honey-coloured liquid, before downing it in one.
Alessandro Colucci seemed a wise man. That olive oil was delicious enough to have for breakfast, lunch and dinner. And we all emerged from the masseria vowing never to touch a drop of lamp oil again.
Masseria Maccarone is near Fasano, in the province of Brindisi, in Puglia, Italy. You can find out more about Masseria Maccarone on their website. It’s in Italian, but Google translate does a pretty good job if you don’t speak the language.
On this trip, we stayed courtesy of Bookings for You and Raro Villas at Corte Dei Messapi, near Ostuni. You can read more about the luxury villa here.
If you’re interested in other things to do in Puglia, you can read about the trulli of Alberobello here. These characterful little hobbit-houses really are unmissable.
If Masseria Maccarone has inspired you to discover other agriturismo places to visit in Puglia, do head over to this blog post to read about cheese-making at Masseria Lamapecora.
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