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BRISIGHELLA - OLIVE OIL

Food & Wine | Escapes | Restaurants

Stumbling across that perfect little restaurant out in the country is the traveler’s version of winning the lottery, except that you have less, not more, money afterward. I would love to say that I found Locanda La Cavallina on my own, holding it up as a sign of higher culinary intuition. But the chances of having done that are so remote that they make buying a lottery ticket seem like a blue-chip investment.

La Cavallina hides on the far side of the railroad tracks in Brisighella, taking cover around a bend on a residential street and down a flight of stairs. It is not in the Michelin Red Guide or Osterie d’Italia from Slow Food. The only hint of its presence is a sign that is smaller than a license plate and doesn’t even have the word “ristorante” on it. Here you pay in euros, but also in homage - to owner Vincenzo Casadio in that you knew where to find him.

The only reason I’m here, practically pirouetting in my seat over the food, is that my host is Franco Spada, President of Brisighella’s Consorzio Olio D.O.P. (Olive Oil Consortium) and an insider. We’re sitting on the enormous terrace, which has a view clear across the valley, being treated to a succession of dishes built around ingredients grown right out back. There’s a salad made of a miniature artichoke called moretto, which has deep purplish-red spear-pointed leaves - it looks a bit alien, actually - and is, avers Casadio, “the finest artichoke in Italy.” (I’m convinced.) We also have a salad of prugnoli, a meadow mushroom with hints of hazelnut and thyme, and a dish spiked with scalogno di Romagna, a long, thin onion with a sweet, delicate taste - and an IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica) designation. Somewhere between the two pastas, one with a lighter-than-air tomato sauce and the other with a robust (but not heavy) meat sauce, the frogs that reside in the cement pond out back under the grape arbor begin to croak. “Amore,” says Casadio. 
 
Indeed, that’s exactly how I’m feeling about Brisighella right now, but I’m also wondering why this place isn’t in the same league for sophisticated travelers as, say, the Vaucluse or Chianti, given that it is the Vaucluse and Chianti before they became brand names. 
 
Brisighella lies about 40 miles southeast of Bologna, in the Lamone River valley. The landscape seems familiar to me - hillsides quilted in olive orchards and vines and helixes of cypress trees on the mountainsides. I’m embarrassed to say, “It looks like Tuscany” until my Italian photographer says, “It looks like Tuscany, eh?” That’s because Brisighella is actually near the backdoor to Tuscany: Florence is just 48 miles up the valley and over the mountains. There’s a three-car train, the Faentina, that makes the run several times a day, starting and ending in Faenza. It’s said to be one of the most scenic train rides in Italy. 
 
From a distance, Brisighella looks mighty. Two crags rise directly behind the town. On one, the 14th-century Castle Manfrediana flexes its bulging brick ramparts, while across the gorge, the slender 13th-century Torre dell’Orologio strikes the quarter hour all day long. The old town is closely woven around the base of the clock-tower crag. In fact, one row of houses is built right into the base and within it is a covered street, the Via degli Asini. That’s right, Street of the Asses, and so named because donkeys once plied it going to and from the chalk quarry up above. From here, the tangle of narrow streets tumbles lightly downhill past Piazza Carducci, the main square, and comes to rest at the rail station.
 
Over the centuries, Brisighella has been notable for producing three things: cardinals (eight so far), berets (no longer), and olive oil. It’s the last named that brought me here because the olive oil of Brisighella was the first in Italy to be awarded the D.O.P. or Denominazione di Origine Protetta. It is to olive oil what AOC or DOCG is to wine, a guarantee that the oil has been produced according to strict quality standards, and that the olives come from a delimited geographic area. 
 
Like La Cavallina, the oil is a bit of a secret, “known more among chefs than the public,” says Spada. That’s probably because it is one of the rarest Italian olive oils: The DOP is an isthmus that stretches six kilometers (3.6 miles) north and six kilometers south of the town. Three varietals are cultivated here: Nostrana, Ghiacciola, and Orfana. Nostrana makes up the bulk of the production, 50,000 half-liter bottles annually, 30 percent of which is D.O.P. (It’s not that the rest is lacking, but rather a function of European Union regulatory minutiae too complicated to go into.) Nostrana D.O.P. is strong, yet restrained, and in taste an unusual duet of artichoke and metallic overtones.
 
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With the Ghiacciola and Orfana, we’re down to drops in the bucket. There are only 3,500 half-liter bottles of Ghiacciola, which is sold under the name “Nobil Drupa,” produced each year, and 600 half-liter bottles of Orfana, which is sold as “Orfanello.” These are unique oils, the lack of a D.O.P. designation notwithstanding. Both quilt the tongue and palate, with Orfanello being the lighter of the two. It is neither fruity nor peppery, which is why it’s often given to babies as “a starter oil,” according to Spada.

Whereas the Ghiacciolo offers layers of grassiness and hints of citrus, then turns brashly peppery in the back of the throat. No sooner had the town gotten the D.O.P in 1996 than it was paid a strange compliment: the entire harvest, 27,000 liters, was stolen. The thieves drove up to the cooperative in tanker trucks on a Sunday night, pumped out the contents, and were who knows where by the time the oil shortage was discovered on Monday morning. On the way back to town we stop at Pieve del Tho, a church that dates from the 10th century. It has a single nave supported by a motley collection of columns - differing heights, some with decorated capitals, some plain—and it smells pleasantly of stone and damp. Down the left aisle affixed to the wall is a crucifix of olive wood that dates from the 1200s—that’s the era of Giotto! When is the church open to visitors, I ask the attendant. “I live right over there,” he says, pointing out the side door. “Just ring.”

Where there’s great olive oil, there’s great food, and Brisighella is proof. Nearby are three restaurants in the Osterie d’Italia guide, and in Brisighella itself there’s a wonderful one called L’Infinito. Like everything about this place, L’Infinito is hidden, in this case up the via del Trebbio, which looks like nothing more than a paved pathway climbing up from the center of town, which, in fact, it is. But a few switchbacks up, you arrive at L’Infinito - or rather, the ground floor.

Up another flight is a dining room, all white and very chic, and up another flight is the kitchen, run by Maria Teresa Cortecchia, who is also the manager and maitre’d. In a semi-private dining room opposite, I find her sister, Loredana, rolling out pasta. Then we turn a corner, cross a metal bridge, and climb stairs hewn into the rock to the outdoor dining room. Above us, the clock tower has become an enormous sundial, the dusk slithering up the side. Down below, the terra cotta roofs of the town twist this way and that. Right here, the prosecco is going down easily.

It’s a moment of perfect equilibrium: the garden a fulcrum of day and night, and a bower of fine food and relaxed service, with Signora Cortecchia taking orders and chatting to guests. I am infatuated with it all—the swallows careening overhead, the bells striking, the aromas of cedar and what the French call garrigue—which is why the only dish I remember is a pillowy, lighter-than-air pasta, the artistry of Signora Loredana. Brisighella seems to me perfectly placed, close to Florence and Bologna. So where is everyone? It turns out that the Florentines don’t cross the Apennines, and I guess you can’t blame them, given the beauty of Tuscany. And wealthy Bolognesi prefer the hills south of the city for their weekends. Milan? Too long a drive, even by Ferrari or Lamborghini. Which leaves Brisighella for the rest of us. Stumble upon it while you can.

VISITING BRISIGHELLA

Olive Oil 
You can taste and buy Nostrana D.O.P., Nobil Drupa, and Orfanello, as well as a number of other bottlings, at the Cooperative, not far outside of town on via Strada (direction Fognano). Open daily including holidays, except Monday morning and Thursday afternoon. +39 0546 81103.
 
Where to Dine
 
L’Infinito: via del Trebbio, 12; +39 0546 80437 or mailto: info@ristorantelinfinito.com 
 
Locanda La Cavallina: via Masironi, 6; +39 0546 80520. Closed Tuesday. 
 
Trattoria di Strada Casale: via Statale, 22; +39 0546 88054. Closed Wednesday.
 
Osteria del Guercinoro: Piazza Marconi, 7; +39 0546 80464. Closed Tuesday.
 
Croce Daniele: via Monteromano, 43; +39 0546 87019. Closed Monday and Tuesday evening.
 
Where to Stay
 
Villa Liverzano: This compound of buildings, dating from the 16th and 17th centuries, is well up in the hills above Brisighella. It’s the most luxurious hotel in the area by far. Although the décor can sometimes try too hard to be contemporary, for the most part it works. The hotel produces its own wine. 170-300 euros. Via Valloni, 47; +39 0546 80461 or info@liverzano.it www.liverzano.it
 
BRISIGHELLA OLIVE OIL
The unique taste is the result of an unusual concurrence of temperature, wind, and soil. Brisighella is at the margin of olive cultivation, “a cold spot,” says Spada. Temperatures are cooler than in Tuscany during the growing season, which makes the olives mature slowly, but more importantly keeps out a pest, the mosca d’olivia. This fly, common in Italy, drills through the skin of the olive and in feeding on the ripening fruit, makes it turn sour. 
But the trees could not survive the winter in Brisighella if it were not for a quirk of geography. The stretch of Apennines to the west are lower than the rest of the chain, which allows a warm breeze from Tuscany to come through during the winter. That helps keep the trees alive, as does the lack of fog, which olive trees do not tolerate well, and the peculiar soil. There’s a strata of chalk underground that “acts like a battery,” says Spada, holding heat in summer and releasing it in winter. Spada says that Brisighella did not suffer from the extreme cold that Italy suffered last year, thanks to the breeze and the chalk.
These factors contribute greatly to the unique taste of the oil. The cold forces the olive to produce more oliec (a fat) and less acidity, which accounts for the thick texture and long finish. Brisighella oil has an acidity of 0.15-0.30 percent, which is practically nothing. (The law allows 0.80 percent.) Moreover, the olives develop a high concentration of polyphenols, which preserve the oil. Ghiaccola has 700mg/ltr versus an average of 200-300mg/ltr for Italian oil. The bottom line: You get more taste from less oil, says Spada, who actually advises using the oil sparingly.
“There’s not much human input here,” Spada says with a smile and a shrug, pointing at one of the producers from his cooperative. “It’s not that Giuliano is a better producer than the guy in Tuscany. It’s because he’s lucky to be here.”
 
Article by Gary Walther

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