giovedì 18 luglio 2013

An Interview with Pasquale Caruso

Zungoli, Avellino
Pasquale Caruso is the director of San Comaio, a company which produces some of the finest olive oil in all of Italy.  San Comaio makes both organic oil and conventional oil; both types have been awarded numerous prizes and awards.  I adore San Comaio's rich and flavorful oil, and I cannot say how pleased I am that Mr. Caruso has agreed to grant us this interview. (English translation by Leonardo Ciampa.)

LC: Your oils have very interesting names! What are the meanings of Roboris, Aminda, Zahir?

PC: Roboris is from the Latin word meaning "force" or "vehemence" and indicates an oil with a strong, decisive taste.

Aminda is the Esperanto word for "amiable" and indicates a more delicate oil.

Zahir is, on the other hand, an Arabic term, which could be translated as "fixed nail" or "recurring thought." In our case, it indicates an oil having a distinctive flavor that is not easily forgotten.

LC: And Proverbio (even though I know what the word means)?

PC: Proverbio does not have a special meaning.  It's a bit of a play on words between "proverb," a popular saying, and "bio," which is short for "biologico" (the Italian word for "organic").

LC: I see you have a fifth variety, with the interesting name "Gran C(a)ru(so)"! Tell us the story behind this Grand Cru and its name.

PC: The description on the packaging of the oil itself does a good job of explaining the origins and characteristics of isproduct.
This limited selection (1000 half-litre bottles) hails from an olive grove which is located 700 meters above sea level, in Macchia Columbro. When purchased in the '90s by the Caruso family, it was in a total state of disrepair. The old olive trees, dominated by wild vegetation, have been rescued and put back into production through a great sacrifice of labor. It's important to mention that this was done not with the use of chemical herbicides, pesticides or synthetic fertilizers -- only with very hard manual labor.

The tireless and meticulous selection of olives, and the work method which is focused on respecting and preserving the valuable characteristics of the raw material -- the olives -- make the Grand Cru Caruso "Macchia Columbro" a unique and exceptional oil: powerful in its structure, rich in  polyphenols, intense and elegant in its bouquet, extraordinary in its equilibrium.
LC: The company began in 1975, is that correct? Before that, was there a previous, older mill, or was the entire business was born in '75?

PC: The company was founded in 1975, when my father Raffaele bought an old mill that was located in the historic center of Zungoli.  At age 7, in the caves dug into the tuff stone, playing on top of the bags of olives, marked the start of my "career" as Oil Master.  A degree in Food Science and Technology, obtained many years later, provided me with the scientific and technical knowledge.  This, combined with long experience in the field, led to my current position at San Comaio. Clearly, all this would not have been possible without the insight of my father Raffaele and without the active cooperation of my brother Roberto and my sisters Raffaella and Francesca.

LC: Are you Zungolese, or do you come from another town?

PC: I am from Zungoli, which is also my family's place of origin.

LC: Your website says that the San Comaio's oil is "organic." This is important!  But isn't it true that in Campania in the olden days, all oils, and in fact all foods, were organic?  They didn't have chlorine, bromides, and peroxides to bleach their flour.  They didn't have pesticides to poison their fruit.  What is the difference between organic oil and conventional oil, in taste and in healthfulness?

PC: San Comaio produces both organic and conventional oil.  The organic oil comes from our certified olive groves.  The conventional oil comes from olives we acquire from small local producers, who, even though they don't use various pesticides and insecticides, do not certify their production, because it is uneconomical, given the small quantities of olives, which are destined primarily for self-consumption before being put on the market.

With oil, unlike other products such as fruits and vegetables, you cannot really say that the organic tastes better than the conventional.  Oil is the product of transforming the olives. Therefore, there are other factors come into play, such as the varietal, the date of harvest, the altitude and exposure of the groves, the composition of the terrain, and, especially, how the olives are processed, factors which have a much greater impact on the taste of the oil.  Instead, what distinguishes an organic oil from a conventional one is the certification that chemical fertilizers, insecticides, and pesticides were not used -- all of this being not only a guarantee to the consumer, but also a safeguard for the soil and the whole ecosystem.

One of the many awards won by San Comaio.
Here, the Italian actress Marisa Laurito
awards the prize to Pasquale Caruso at
the national competition, "Sirena d'Oro"
(Sorrento, 2010).
Photo courtesy of Pasquale Caruso.
LC: My paternal ancestors came from towns just west of you: Montefalcione, Montemiletto and Torre Le Nocelle. Is oil produced there, too? Are their climate and their soil different from what you have in Zungoli? (You're very close to Apulia.)

PC: I would say that there is a good production of oil there, as well; the climate and terrain are not that different from ours.  What perhaps distinguishes our town more is the prevalence of a large quantity of the varietal Ravece, the queen of Irpine varietals and one of the most prized varietals in Italy for the quality of its oil.  The rest is achieved by the attention and care which one devotes throughout the manufacturing process: picking the olives at just the right point of maturity, working them in the cold press mere hours after picking them, storing the oil at a controlled temperature away from light and oxygen, all done with the sole objective of producing a quality oil, not of yielding profits.

LC: Many people believe that San Comaio is the best olive oil in Avellino.  I for one share this opinion! What are the factors which make your oil superior?  

PC: If many people believe that San Comaio is the best oil in Irpinia and one of the best oils in all of Italy, it is precisely because of the painstaking process that I've just described.  Besides the fortune of having at our disposal such a prized varietal, there is the passion, dedication and competency that we lavish on our work, with personal attention given to the smallest particulars. For it is exactly those particulars that make the difference between a good oil and a great oil.

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