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This punk rock musician is obsessed with olive oil — and he has the prestigious certification to back it up


If you’re going to have an obsession, it might as well be a healthy obsession.

Fil Bucchino is, by his own admission, obsessed with olive oil, almost evangelical about it — so much so that, several years ago, he all but abandoned a successful career in music to not only start producing his own olive oil but to become a professional Assaggiatore di Olio di Oliva, which translates in English to the decidedly less sexy title “olive oil taster” but still carries with it some prestige.

There’s only one certified olive oil taster in Canada and that would be Bucchino. Moreover, there are only two others in North America and a meagre 31 in total enrolled worldwide in the Imperia, Italy-based National Organization of Olive Oil Tasters (abbreviated in Italian to ONAOO) and registered with the Italian National Directory of Virgin and Extra Virgin Olive Oil Experts in his childhood home of Florence.

What those “experts” do is rather mysterious, but the certification has allowed Bucchino to preach the gospel of olive oil from Toronto to ports of call as far away as the United Arab Emirates. When we spoke for this piece, he had just returned from showing his 2019 documentary short titled — what else? — “Obsessed with Olive Oil” to a conference of industrial olive oil producers in Las Vegas.

Just this past weekend, things got even wilder for Bucchino in the rarefied space in which he now moves: he was named “Olive Oil Personality” of the year by the International Association of Oil Restaurants on the estate of Palazzo di Varignana outside of Bologna. The award goes to “a single person who has distinguished himself for his commitment to spreading and transmitting olive oil passion.”

So, yes, Bucchino rolls deep in a highly intriguing olive oil underground of which 99.9 per cent of us are completely unaware.

This is where Bucchino’s past as a punk rocker comes into play. He played bass for a decade in the Guelph-born outfit Flashlight Brown, which enjoyed a U.S. major-label deal with Hollywood Records and made it to international stages on the Warped Tour and at Lollapalooza around the turn of the millennium.

His whole mission is essentially to “stick it to the Man,” as it were, and steer consumers away from mass-market olive oils, and alert them to the health benefits and delectable sensory wonders of small-batch, DIY oils such as his own Abandoned Grove brand.

“There’s a little bit of that,” laughed Bucchino, while conducting an olive oil tasting for a small group of intrigued newbies at his east-end home. “But this past weekend was kind of neat. Showing the video to the industry, it wasn’t like ‘F— you, corporate major labels!’ It wasn’t like that. But it was interesting to just say, ‘I’m on a different path. We’re doing two different things. I don’t need to do what you’re doing.’

“It serves a different purpose. People ask me all the time ‘What olive oil should I get?’ And I’m, like, ‘It depends what you want.’ If you don’t enjoy cooking a lot or if you don’t really care about the flavour, or if you just don’t pay attention to it, it doesn’t matter. Don’t go and blow the bank and spend 40 bucks on a bottle of oil.

“Even a commercial one will still have a really high level of monounsaturated fatty acids. You want to have all the antioxidants that a premium oil would have, but it’s fine. It’s still better than the alternative and you won’t break the bank on it. I think there’s still a purpose to the industry, too. This job is just a different thing.”

That job, put simply, is to ensure that “everybody has a good bottle of olive oil on their tables.”

And Bucchino helps accomplish that, in his role as Assaggiatore di Olio di Oliva, by sitting on the international panels that determine at which point on the classification scale between, say, “virgin” and “extra virgin” a particular olive oil sits, by participating in competitive tastings with other olive oil “sommeliers,” and by consulting with producers to enhance their flavour profiles and to rectify any defects in their products that might result from, for instance, harvesting their olives too late in the season or waiting too long to deliver them to one of today’s high-tech extraction mills.

It’s an imprecise science, of course — Bucchino says “getting better as a taster is kind of no different than learning to play an instrument” — but to taste a lovingly prepared “craft” olive oil (or three or four) after sampling the industrial product typically found in one’s kitchen is indeed to experience the same moment of elation that he did years ago while living in Venezuela, participating in his first olive harvest and tasting the fresh product.

As he puts it, “everything I knew about olive oil was erased. All of a sudden it was like a new product altogether, a new thing.”

“Once you taste the difference, you’ll know why. You won’t need me to tell you that,” he said. “The way we think about olive oil is it’s freshly extracted, raw olive juice. So if you think about a juice, like a fresh fruit juice, you want the fruit to be the healthiest that it can be and you want to extract it in the cleanest way and you want to consume it as quickly as possible. A perfect analogy is an orange juice. You don’t want an orange juice from oranges that have fallen to the ground and sat on the ground for a week.

“With premium oil, the art form is in actually capturing the quality of the cultivar, the varietal, and exactly interpreting that season in that moment in time. And the beautiful thing about olive oil is that, unlike wine, it doesn’t age. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.

“I’m gonna go out on a limb here and make a comparison to music and I hope I don’t f— it up, but think about a record, right? You record the record and it’s the same thing every time, but if you see the artist play live, depending upon the night or the mood, the show will change. We work with three cultivars, the same ones every year, so in theory the oil should taste exactly the same every time. But s— happens. It’ll be a little bit different every single year. That’s the experience. That’s the part that actually brings you closer to the oil.”

Beyond subjecting himself to the intense four-year process of study, testing and tasting required to become a certified olive oil taster with the ONAOO — a process that requires him to return to Imperia once a year to “attend the annual meeting and get up to date with continued tastings” if he wants to remain registered in the exclusive Assaggiatore di Olio di Oliva club — Bucchino has further put his money where his mouth is in recent years by starting the Abandoned Grove project.

He was unaware of abandonment when he first went down the olive oil “rabbit hole,” but quickly learned through friendly connections overseas that as many as 60 per cent of olive groves in the Chianti region of Tuscany had been left derelict and overgrown, leaving the surrounding areas extra vulnerable to fire, flood and invasive insect species. Thus, operating on the mantra “No Grove Abandoned,” Abandoned Grove has partnered with communities in the region to rescue what now stands at nearly 3,000 olive trees that might have otherwise never have had their potential to produce something quite delicious exploited.

Abandoned Grove’s olive oil is scarce and hard to come by: in keeping with its punk-rock provenance, it’s only available (at $360 per hand-delivered six-bottle case) via a “friends and family” email list monitored by Bucchino himself, which now numbers 1,000 people annually. But the actual finished product is secondary to Bucchino’s overall mission of getting as many people as possible excited about really good olive oil.

He doesn’t care where you get it. He’d just like you to taste it.

And so he travels the world pushing quality olive oil of any stripe on people willing to listen and have a taste as part of a growing “scene” gathering momentum in much the same fashion as the artisanal cheese or craft beer movements. Once people realize there’s a better tasting alternative to the industrial model of any food or drink product, they tend not to look back.

“It’s cool because there are no borders. The tasters, the people I work with, it’s like you’re on tour and it’s a scene,” Bucchino said. “It’s a hang and everybody is fighting for the same issue, trying to raise awareness and change.

“It’s starting to change a little bit, but the world of olive oil today, it’s like if you walked into the LCBO and all there is is red wine and white wine. No varietal, no provenance, no vintage … I actually get depressed at times because I feel like I really want to change things when it comes to olive oil, but we’ve done a lot of work for it.

“And maybe one day when everybody understands olive oil, then I’m done and the job is finished. And then? I get into dates.”

Ben Rayner is a Toronto-based journalist and a frequent contributor to the Star’s Culture section. Follow him on Twitter: @ihatebenrayner

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