“In fact, olive oil is more important, more fundamental, to life than wine,” Paolo Pasquali tells me as we sit in the grounds of his 124-hectare olive oil resort (8,000 of them devoted to olive trees)– the first of its kind in Italy. “We say in Italian, ‘Il vino si fa, l’Olio e’ – which means ‘wine is made, olive oil exists’. He’d like to see olive oil gain the same respect in epicurean circles as a fine bottle of wine.
Pasquali has been working on this food renaissance and olive oil for the past 25 years, with an international network of like-minded “foodies” such as Mugello Culla del Rinascimento and the Food Values International Conference. It’s a passion he fell into accidentally when he purchased – at the suggestion of a friend – the 13th century Renaissance villa that is the cornerstone of his Villa Campestri resort.
Falling Into Oil
“I had been in magazines and marketing and in 1976 created one of those free ads magazines in Italy – like E-Bay in print. It was very successful, over 30,000 copies each week, and I was lucky to be able to sell in 1987 at the top of the market before the Internet took over. I was 39, and wanted to do something else,” he recalls. So in 1989, he bought the villa and the surrounding ___acres from the ___family, who had owned the property for some 700 years. “The father was 102 years old when I purchased the place,” Pasquali recalls. “The were no sons to take over the property, only daughters, and most of the family had moved on to Turin and Milan and Rome and had no interest in running the property any longer. “
In its heyday in the 19th century, the estate produced not just olive oil but milk products, animals, other vegetables, and the family became very rich as a consequence. ”That changed after World War II,” says Pasquali. Farm workers moved to the cities – to Florence, for example, to work at Fiat.” Pasquali was left with 14 run-down buildings, olive groves that had been pillaged by disease, and a few acres of apple and cherry trees. It took two years to renovate the main house, but when it opened for business as a tourist attraction in 1991, it was already sold out. “I have a background in marketing,” he reminds me modestly, “so I was already selling rooms while we were renovating.” Americans, he says, are his largest clientele, followed by Canada, the UK, and northern Europe.
During those renovation years, Pasquali educated himself in the realm of olive oil at local universities and by consulting with local farmers (he claims there are 17,000 olive oil producers in the Tuscan region of Italy alone). He was hooked. So is one of his daughters, Gemma, who became an agronomist and assists in running the property and oversees the olive oil creation. Villa Campestri produces two tons of olive oil a year; the house specialty is named after the grandson: Olio di Cosimo.
Today the villa is a member of the 600-strong Historic Hotels of Europe group, which Pasquali helped found. The restaurant uses local produce and of course olive oil has pride of place at the table. “You warm the little glass bottle of olive oil in your hands first,” he demonstrates before pouring. “This releases the multitude of flavors in the oil. There is no ‘one size fits all’ olive oil,” he continues. “There are a multitude of flavor concentrations, and each has its own place.” For example, he suggests lighter Tuscan oil for salad dressings but for cooking pasta, heavier Spanish olive oil.