Pacific Sun Gourmet Olive Oil Blog
Marco Mugelli - In Memoriam
On August 24th, scientist, agronomist, researcher, passionate olive oil maker and teacher Marco Mugelli died in Tuscany, Italy.
Marco developed his love and interest for olive oil when at a young age he suffered from hepatitis. The mother of the family looking after his father’s farm was a sort of healer and told Marco that he had to get her good olive oil in order to make a cure for his illness. She advised him: not any olive oil from the supermarket, go and get good oil straight from a “frantoiano” (miller). So he did, and the remedy was prepared. Marco had a spoon of it every day first thing in the morning and his illness was cured.
Marco then studied agronomy, specializing in tropical plants and also earned a degree in enology, never losing his interest in olive oil.
He eventually started to work in the field and became the leader of the Florence olive oil tasting panel. This was the beginning of a serious change in the industry. As you know, olive oil must pass two examinations to be certified Extra Virgin, one a chemical analysis and the other, the definitive one, is a panel of tasters who, in a blind tasting will find the oil Extra Virgin or defective. In those first years in charge of the panel, more than half of the oils submitted for certification were rejected. Even when Marco was deeply rooted in the culture and land of Tuscany, he understood that the traditional ways of making olive oil were limited, a product of the technology of that time. New ways have to emerge to make possible new levels of quality. Along with teaching a whole generation of producers and tasters – today only 10% of the submitted Florentine oils are questioned, Marco started to research and experiment in order to set new standards for extracting olive oil. He used to say: “A traditional mechanical process characterized by extracting the maximum possible quantity of oil from the olives has to be revisited with the new available knowledge of the biology of the olive and the desire to achieve the highest quality”. He never thought his olive oil was good enough, even when his oils won all sort of awards and recognition. He kept looking for ways to improve it since he knew it was possible to do so.
Among his contributions are the use of the data of the sugar content in the olive to decide when to harvest and how to mill in order to minimize fermentative processes. He also designed a mill that crushes the olives more gently –again to minimize undesired secondary processes- and the vacuum system used while malaxing (malaxing is the phase of olive oil making in which the paste is turned on and on in a tank for the initial separation of the oil from the paste). He was lately indeed experimenting with a system that avoided this step completely, something that was altogether new and challenging. He thought that every olive oil of high quality should be filtered - a gentle filtration with cotton sheets, right after it is made, in order to defend its life from sediments, waste water and mucilage that eventually decompose the oil and its organoleptic characteristics.
“I never cared much for the gourmet side of the olive oil” he used to say in his bravado style. “Still, to my surprise, as we managed to make oil with more polyphenols more complex and interesting were their taste”. Even when Marco focused his work on this aspect, he was an unrivaled food and tasting expert, often invited to chef conventions, revered by people such as the famous Catalonian Ferran Adria and the German magazine Merum.
He was convinced that one day olive oil will be appreciated for its goodness and be valued accordingly. Once asked why a bottle of good wine could cost $60 or more and why good olive oil could not cost that much, he answered: "education". While collectively, we know it’s worthwhile to pay $60 for a fine wine, we don’t understand olive oil as much to be able to value it the same way.
“The phenols in olive oil are unique, different than other phenols found in green tea, wine or fruits. Besides their singular power, they’re naturally protected by a shield of fat that helps them undergo the digestive juices that tend to destroy them (as it happens with most phenols in the case of wine, fruit, etc) and thus reach the small intestine and then the blood stream, providing cells with an extra-defense against free radicals, working as an anti-aging agent, among other great benefits”.
I met Marco while working at Apollo Olive Oil, who bravely decided to buy one of the very first prototypes he designed in the year 2005.
Marco’s last visit to California was this year in May, as a judge at the LA County Fair, invited by his friend Darrell Corti. Happily, we had the good fortune of paying him a visit. Brendon and I went to meet him and even when he was exhausted from a day of judging (which means tasting 40 oils or more), he generously dedicated the whole evening to us, talking about how to improve our equipment and production. And what was typical of Marco in cases like ours, he did it for free. He was always glad to contribute for the sake of contributing, as he was displeased by the paradigm that seems to rule our world placing business over people, “more” over good.
I believe that every single important thing I know about olive oil I owe to him. Every single question posed to Marco meant learning something unexpected. He was not only an expert in his field, he was a man of great culture, formed in the tradition of the Renaissance humanism.
I hope all of us who were touched by him will find our way to keep sharing his teachings, love and care.
Thank you always,