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My Bertolli Olive Oil connection

November 24, 2009

Everything is close when I cook, especially my olive oil

A day without olive oil in my home is like a day without sunshine. Two bottles – one extra virgin and one light – sit on a broken old piece of marble, along with a collection of specialty vinegars within an arms reach of my stove. They bookend an antique crystal cruet given to me by my mother’s college friend Ann.

After years of wishing I had a gourmet kitchen the size of my first apartment, I’ve come to realize that it’s not the size of my kitchen that matters. Rather it is the life that blossoms in my kitchen that hopefully will live on long after I’m gone.

I like my kitchen to look like it could pose for a model home on short notice. Everything must be cleaned and organized. There has to be a place for everything and I prefer when everything is in its place. I will not, however, completely clear off the countertops or take kid art off the side of the refrigerator.  A family lives here.

Within two footsteps of my stove, I can reach a handful of small Cuisinart appliances that I can’t live without, my chef’s knife and sharpener, the sink, refrigerator, a small pantry and an entire 42-inch cabinet of herbs and spices (The backyard container garden was fruitful this year.) On the top edge of my stove are two hand carved salt and pepper shakers and a funny toothpick holder that looks like a woman with her mouth wide open. My brother John bought sets for all five sisters about 17 years ago when he was stationed in Germany with the Army. Affectionately, he always claimed that the toothpick lady was his twin sister Alessandra. (She’s still mad.) 

Standing in front of my stove, I can see all of the things I use to cook meals that my family will remember. It’s my favorite spot in our home. I just love when the coffee is freshly brewed and my cookbooks lay on the counter waiting for their next assignment. The kitchen is where a family comes together. Where stories are told, moments shared, and meals blessed.

Olive oil has been gracing our family dinner table for generations. It’s a part of our family history, because it’s always there when the family comes together to share a meal. It’s how we live.

My entire life I’ve known that I was related to the Bertolli Olive Oil family through marriage. For the life of me, I could not retain the story no matter how many times I asked my mother. Thankfully, at 88 my mother Nina Camuti Danielsen, has amazing recall.

My great grandmother Louisa Biggi Landi was the oldest of eight children from Cararra, Italy. She and her husband Fidaro Landi, a well-known Italian sculptor, arrived in the United States when he was commissioned to create a bust of President McKinley. (Just to complete the family lineage, their daughter – my maternal grandmother – Alexandra Landi married Louis J. Camuti in 1920)

Louisa’s younger brother Antonio married Helena Bertolli, the granddaughter of founder Francesco Bertolli.  Mr. Bertolli opened a small storefront business at his first olive farm in Lucca, Italy in 1865. He sold regional foods such as olive oil, cheese, and wine there.  As new immigrants settled across the United States they wrote to Mr. Bertolli for crates of his olive oil.  By the 1890’s the business grew to farms in several locations in Tuscany and distribution centers in New York, Chicago and Philadelphia.

When Antonio and Helena Biggi were married they presented their wedding guests with a silver compact filled with Jordon almonds.  My mother still has one.  They went on to have four children – three boys and a girl. The oldest Sandro was the cousin my mother always spoke of. He came to visit my grandparents here a few times and even studied in New York. Mom has wonderful memories of him.  She also still has the favor from the wedding of Sandro’s sister, a small silver candy tray.

I do and don’t buy Bertolli Olive Oil because there is a random distant family connection.  I would love to meet today’s distant relatives or visit the original Villa Bertolli that still stands at piazza S. Donato.  For a moment in time, I would love to touch that history and be in the same place that my great grandparents and their friends once stood.  I would love to sit and listen in Nonna’s kitchen, take lots of notes and, then, push my happy belly home from all the sampling. I would love the opportunity to shoot photographs at the Villa as the late summer sun rises over the olive branches, just before the harvest. I’d focus on the soft light and dew clinging to the outer edges of the olive leaves.  For a moment, I’d quietly imagine Mr. Bertolli advising me on the proper etiquette for using olive oil. That is a day dream that I’d take back to the kitchen.

For decades that wove through generations, the family olive oil was both a gift and an obligation to support an extended family business. Remember, back 100 years ago distribution wasn’t what it is today.  Back then, when new shipments arrived in the United States it really was a holiday.

No olive oil would remain in our homes, however, serving generation after generation, if it wasn’t a good quality product. There were times when I strayed to a different product, but I always came home.  I came home to cook for my family. That connection is what I will pass on.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. Frederick E Wright permalink
    May 20, 2010 9:10 pm

    Does your mother remember a lonely GI when she was a gray lady? She brought me home one weekend (Easter?) and we went to church on Sunday. I also went bowling with her and her brother. She sent me a wedding invitation when I was a student at Valparaiso University. If I’m correct would you ask her to email me.
    Fred Wright

    • May 26, 2010 4:23 pm

      Mr. Wright,

      Wow! I just spoke to Mom. Of course she very clearly remembers you. She said you grow up in North Tonawanda, NY. You Dad was a pastor in the area. She remembers going roller skating to an indoor rink in Brooklyn and sharing a bananna split. She said she can still hear the music, because she was being held up. (It was a coordination issue.)

      Mom described you as one of those peach-cheeked blonde gentleman – the kind every mother should have. She wanted me to tell you that she has a photo of you and Bill Mason. We can exchange more e-mails privately. mvo2003@comcast.net. Unfortunately Mom doesn’t have e-mail.

    • October 18, 2010 12:55 am

      Mr. Wright. My mother has written you a letter. I will scan it and e-mail it to you shortly. She would love to hear from you. Mary

  2. Karen Bertolli permalink
    January 3, 2016 2:10 am

    Are you still checking this site?

    • January 5, 2016 12:28 pm

      Karen,

      Happy New Year! Yes, I am still checking this site. Are you related to the Bertolli family? It’s funny how I grew up with my grandmother, the niece of a Bertolli, telling us to always buy the products. “It’s family,” she’d say to me. Plus she would always remind me, “Buy good quality products and you won’t regret it.” IT’s funny how, now four to five generations removed from the family connection and we are still standing in the store, reaching for bottles of our various flavors of olive oil, and quietly whispering, “It’s family.”

      Of course, just taking my grandmother’s advice on buying good quality products, I would be buying these products even if there wasn’t a family connection. I stand at my stove and imagine what it was like for my grandmother and great grandmother, who both lived into their late 90s, to cook. I can still see their tiny elderly hands stirring a pot and hear their loving banter. I can almost hear them whispering advise to me on how to take care of my family. That is a family tradition well served.

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