The Great Oil Must Suffer


Rashi:1040 – 1105, Troyes

I was reading about taking the first fruits in gratitude and respect to the priestliness.

Of the seven species associated with the Land of Israel, see Deut. 8:8, “a land of wheat, barley, grape, fig, and pomegranate, a land of oil-olives and honey.” I noted in passing that it’s oil olives, not olives (also not olive oil), and Rashi explains that the honey is not bee honey, but date honey.

Here Rashi is specific about the kind of olive oil the Torah is referring to; was Rashi also an olive oiler an olea-ist as well as a vintner? I believe he was too far north to cultivate the good olive tree grove, but he may have had contacts on the Italian peninsula, where the elevated olive has been prized for many centuries.

I wondered why Rashi bothered so with the specifics of olive oil, so I asked him.

JSG: I notice in your commentary that you get quite specific about olive oil, its production, the kinds of olives, the sediment, etc.

Rashi: Yes, of course. You know I myself live French, but we all know that the Italians have the finest cuisine. They get the food concept. Way ahead of the French.

JSG: I think so too.

Rashi: I am a vintner, so I know the sacred grape, the making of the fine wine. Italy has wine that is consumed within several miles of its production, never exported, that you would die for.

JSG: I probably would die for it. I’m not a drinker.

Rashi: I am also an aficionado of the olive as you have picked up in my commentary. The olive grows only where winters are temperate, I’m a little far north for a good olive, but I often summer south, what you call Italy, where the oils in the southern provinces are heavy, in the northern areas, the oils are milder. Of course, olio extra vergine di oliva in Tuscany is, well, beaucoup beautiful.

JSG: Liquid gold.

Rashi: Exactement.

JSG: I also love the oil from Umbria, especially from around Spello.

Rashi: Not familiar with that. Don’t get to travel much in the eleventh century.

JSG: Fresh fava beans with a soft pecorino cheese, and bread to sop up the olio.

Rashi: Perfecto.

JSG: The domestication of the olive comes from our homeland, not Europe, but the Middle East, around 6000 BCE. The olive tree has the capacity to regenerate and yield fruit in the arid, stony soils around the Mediterranean.

Rashi: So, you’re a poet. I have heard that there is a tree in the Maremma near the Tyrrhenian coast that is supposed to be 3500 years old, counting back from your time. That would mean it not only preceded the Greeks, but the Etruscans. Of course it was the Romans who developed the commerce of the olives and created the classification system. Then, of course, the Benedictines took over its care after the fall of the Empire.

JSG: Extra vergine, is it purer than vergine? How can you be more virgin than virgin? Isn’t virgin kind of an absolute condition?

Rashi: It’s a much abused system of classification. Extra vergine simply means that the oil must be extracted from the first pressing of olives by mechanical means only, no chemicals, and must contain less than 1 percent of oleic acid. Vergine, same means of extraction, less than 2 percent acid. But first pressed oils are often blended with lesser types while staying within the 1 percent limit. As a aficionado of fine cuisine and general excellence in all things, this troubles me.

JSG: It’s the olive oil that’s one of the seven species, not the olive. Isn’t that great? As the midrash points out, the olive releases its best qualities when squeezed. Don’t you love that?

Rashi: I do. The Italians have a wonderful expression, I will translate for you: the great olive oil must suffer.

JSG: Oh, that’s so Jewish.

Rashi: You know the secret of the Jewish-Italian connection, don’t you?

JSG: Yes, I do.