This article draws on the concept of authenticity as it is often deployed in regards to food, and specifically in regards to foods with Geographical Indication certifications (GIs). Authenticity, as a concept, does boundary work by coding some objects or subjects as authentic, defining them against inauthentic others. Power dynamics inhere in any use of the processes of authentication, which render the authentic as noteworthy (Bendix 1997). Following calls to practice the “arts of noticing” (Tsing 2015) and to question our own ethnographic categories (De Martino 1975), this article takes the case of the olive oil sector in Sicily, Italy, and Sicilian Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) extra virgin olive oil, to think through authenticity and processes of authentication through the lens of two related concepts: quality (qualità) and genuineness (genuinità). I conceptualize qualità as a top-down articulation of authenticity: Sicilian olive and olive oil producers’ articulation of authenticity and excellence in response to a global hierarchy of value (Herzfeld 2004) in which they are situated and to which they respond. Genuinità, on the other hand, I argue is a bottom-up articulation of authenticity and goodness, one concerned less with international recognition and chemical purity and more with social relationships of trust and practices of commensality. I argue that qualità is a powerful measure of authenticity and a livelihood strategy for Sicilian oliviculturalists, but that genuinità is perhaps an even more powerful measure of authenticity in its capacity to create or reinscribe social bonds.
My friend Davide’s father is pouring homemade red wine into the small juice glasses on the table, talking or at times haranguing the diners to drink more. We are seated outside on the terrace on a warm summer night at the family home for the August holidays; pieces of bread rest on the tablecloth near our plates. “Dai, è discreto,” he says—“Come on, it’s not bad.” His son, my friend, is a trained and certified sommelier. Father and son frequently butt heads about a variety of topics—often politics, but also what to eat for dinner, and any other number of things. Sensing some hesitation from the next guest, into whose glass the father is poised to pour the wine, he ups the ante: “È buono!” “It’s good!” he exclaims. There is some discussion about the classification of the wine as buono, good, and in response the father suggests genuino. The wine is genuine, natural, unadulterated, true, simple—these are all English translations for genuino. This was a classification father and son could agree upon.
As the co-editors of this special section describe, authenticity as a concept, as a category (“the authentic”), and as a practice (of authentication) does work. This work is often taken for granted. Authenticity—in the case of the word “authentic” being stamped onto everything from travel experiences and fashion handbags to brioche, coffee, tequila, and countless other consumer products—can become annoying. It can be annoying because of its staying power—because the work that it does is pervasive, and powerful, even in its seeming banality. This is true whether in popular culture marketing campaigns or as an analytic in anthropology and in food studies.
Here I argue that authenticity as a concept is linked closely to modernist discourses of tradition, following Michael Herzfeld’s framing concept of a global hierarchy of value (2004)—“Notions such as efficiency, fair play, civility, civil society, human rights, transparency, cooperation, and tolerance serve as global yardsticks for particular patterns of interaction” (2). These “global yardsticks,” homogenizing diverse ways of being and knowing, also include “tradition and heritage”; Herzfeld argues that in the global hierarchy of value, “the particular is itself universalized” (2004: 2). Sicilian olive oil production is one site where the global hierarchy of value is played out. My research focused on Sicilian olive growers’ and olive oil producers’ experiences with a Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) for Sicilian extra-virgin olive oil awarded in 2016. Geographical Indications (GIs) are examples of instruments of heritagization: defining what practices and sites, material and intangible, may be categorized and therefore protected via various heritage instruments, whether UNESCO recognition or legal-economic instruments like GIs.
The PGI works to fit Sicilian olive oil into this global hierarchy of value. Sicilian producers understand that their products are valued as an extension of themselves—a Sicilian peasant producer—in an articulation of authenticity that includes but goes beyond the material, physical characteristics of the land, the way terroir is often defined (“taste of place”; see Trubek 2008). This articulation of authenticity, and of terroir, centers also the role of the artisanal producer as holder of expert knowledge and as steward of biodiversity and therefore of biocultural heritage. But ideas about who counts as an authentic Sicilian peasant rely heavily upon stereotypes, and if Sicilians cleave too closely to the stereotype, they risk being derided as too Southern, too Sicilian (see Heatherington 2010 on the case of Sardinia).
Authenticity in regards to foods is often articulated against, in concert with, and explicitly for a global market and international standards (like those for food safety); and yet, as the co-editors argue, artisanal producers are embedded in the global capitalist system at the same time that they produce their own locally distinctive participation in it, and resistance to it. Herzfeld’s global hierarchy of value also centers on local lifeworlds as sites for witnessing just how ubiquitous these hegemonic expectations are—and how they are negotiated, adopted, and rejected (2004: 3–5). Following these leads, I argue that in the world of Sicilian olive oil, authenticity is best understood via two related, emic concepts: qualità (quality) and genuinità (genuineness).
I argue that qualità is a category of authenticity primarily concerned with responding to and situating Sicilian olive oil within the global hierarchy of value, and in particular its capitalist economic markets: as a product of chemical and organoleptic excellence. Qualità is evaluated via expert knowledge, and is asserted through participation in national and international olive oil competitions, especially in cases where Sicilian oils win prizes and recognition. Qualità is also established sensorially via ritualized practices of tasting olive oil.1 I therefore conceptualize qualità as a top-down articulation of authenticity: Sicilian olive and olive oil producers’ articulation of authenticity and excellence in response to a global hierarchy of value.
Genuinità, on the other hand, I argue is a bottom-up articulation of authenticity and goodness, one concerned less with chemical and organoleptic purity and more with social relationships of trust and practices of commensality. The global hierarchy of value that has favored the production of qualità in Sicilian olive oil has also eroded, primarily through the expansion and domination of supermarkets, local Sicilian foodways and their networks and methods of provisioning, distribution, and consumption. I argue that qualità is a powerful measure of authenticity but that genuinità is perhaps an even more powerful measure of authenticity in its capacity to create or reinscribe social bonds. I go so far as to suggest genuinità may be magical, in the sense described by Palermitan anthropologist Antonino Buttitta, in its ability to link things that once were, but are no longer, in contact—even across the categories of life and death.
This article comes out of fourteen months of ethnographic fieldwork in Sicily, completed in 2018. I continued to live in Sicily for about twenty-seven months total, until 2020, and then returned for another two months in summer 2022. My research focused on Sicilian olive growers’ and olive oil producers’ experiences with a Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) for Sicilian extra-virgin olive oil awarded in 2016. My multisited ethnographic approach took me all over the world of the Sicilian olive oil industry.2 I worked as a laborer in two olive harvest seasons, and followed olives across Sicily through harvest, milling, storage, and bottling, doing prolonged participant observation at two mills and spending time at many others. Since the harvest season runs from September through January, during the rest of the year I conducted semi-structured and walking ethnobotanical interviews, speaking and walking with olive growers and oil producers, as well as professors of agronomy, agricultural union representatives, food safety technicians, sales managers, government officials at the Regional Institute of Wine and Olive Oil, and a “capopanel,” or head taste-taster.3
This immersive ethnographic research was rich with occasions for practicing what Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing calls the “arts of noticing” (Krause and Li 2022; Tsing 2015). The arts of noticing entail taking note of surprises or purposefully thinking through what we may take for granted. I began scoping fieldwork in 2015 and 2016, framing my research interests to the people I met using the concept of authenticity. However, already in 2016, after a combined period of twelve weeks of scoping research, I abandoned using the word autentico, authentic, when describing my research interests because people seemed to interpret its meaning in wildly different ways, some understanding it as a techno-scientific food safety term denoting whether a food was, materially and molecularly, what it claimed to be, and others understanding it as a term linked to folkloristic traditions of bygone eras. This is why I focus here on emic categories that participants emphasized to me in my fieldwork in Sicily: quality, and its cousin, genuineness, both of which link up to discourses and practices of authenticity and authentication. Authentication is Regina Bendix’s (1997) term to describe the process of producing authenticities: “the authentic” is not singular; there are authenticities, plural, and their production relies on the production of authoritative knowledge, on boundary work. This boundary work includes some (foods, people, places) and excludes others, and the in-group is rendered noteworthy but is also meaningless without the excluded out-group to set it apart.
The arts of noticing, and stepping back to consider what is surprising and why, also bring up Ernesto de Martino’s (1973, 1975) injunctions to be aware of, and to beware, our own ethnocentrism—not to force our own ethnographic categories on our experiences and interlocutors but rather to allow our experiences and interlocutors to inform the categories (see Saunders 1993). Autentico was my own category, meaningful and replete with explanatory power for me, but not for the people with whom I lived and worked. Quality and genuineness, the categories I discuss here, are categories that I did not comprehend prior to my time living in Sicily, despite having lived in other parts of Italy for years prior to my fieldwork. They came out of ethnographic interactions: repeated conversations and oil tasted, picking and sorting olives in the field or at the mill, hanging out at mills, driving around the countryside with oil mill employees, and meals shared at farms or around family tables.
The other authors in this special section write about northern and central Italy; it is necessary to situate Sicily in terms of its political economic and geopolitical history vis a vis these other regions. Writing about the “Southern Question,” Jane Schneider describes “an everyday symbolic geography” (1998: 1) dividing North and South in Italy that presupposes the comprehensive (political, economic, sociocultural, and environmental) backwardness of the South as opposed to the progress of the North. This symbolic geography applies both to society-level phenomena such as economic underdevelopment in the South (e.g, Giglioli 2021), as well as to Southerners themselves. Southerners have been and continue to be described and pathologized as “backward” and everything that goes along with that: poor, lazy, corrupt, and criminal (Dickie 1999; Moe 2002; Schneider 1998). Chambers (2015) argues that the agrarian South was essentially colonized by political powers in the North—its wealth and resources drained and funneled toward further industrialization and the development of a centralized state with a locus of power in the North (see also Rosengarten 2013: 58).4 Sardinian Antonio Gramsci argued for the revolutionary potential for an alliance between the industrial proletariat in the North and agricultural laborers in the South against the historical bloc of Northern political and economic interests allied with Southern aristocracy that came out of the process of Italian unification (Gramsci 1971, 2000: 120). The reverberations of Italy’s unification and of the South’s subordination to northern political forces are still felt today.
Any discussion of Sicily’s contemporary political economic position in Italy, Europe, and globally must grapple with this history and its contemporary corollaries, which continue to position Sicily as marginal in a global hierarchy of value. Sicily is one of the poorest regions in Italy. Youth unemployment (ages eighteen to twenty-nine) in 2021 was 39.6 percent, the highest of any region in Italy; for comparison, in Tuscany it was 17.4 percent and in Bolzano 7.1 percent, the lowest of any region in Italy (ISTAT 2022). The gross domestic product per capita also provides one way of measuring standard of living—in Sicily in 2020, it was €16.18 K (US$15.68 K), 61 percent of the national average (€26.47 K [US$25.65 K]; ISTAT 2021). One result of these economic hardships is emigration and abandonment of agricultural livelihoods (Hilton 2022), even as refugees and other migrants continue to arrive in Sicily, should they make it across the Mediterranean—many times ending up working under horrific conditions as field hands (e.g., Urzi and Kilkey 2017). These kinds of statistics may be limited in their ability to provide an in-depth picture of Sicilian poverty vis a vis the rest of Italy, but they provide some context to participants’ socioeconomic position inside of Italy.
The Sicilian Olive Oil Sector
The Sicilian olive oil sector has a pyramidal structure, with power concentrated at the top along with bottling and exporting firms, millers in the middle, and many growers at the bottom—over 50,000 olive farms (37%) in Sicily are smaller than one hectare. For a small-medium Sicilian producer, someone who grows olives on one to thirty hectares and sells oil,5 production costs can be prohibitive: they include harvest, milling, storage, bottling, and labeling. Price, too, is central to the struggles of Sicilian oliviculturalists. The July 2022 global market price for extra virgin olive oil was €4.07 per kilo (US$4.20/kilo, Index Mundi 2022). In October 2018, Michele Riccobono, a manager at the Sicilian Regional Institute of Wine and Olive Oil and himself an olive grower, put it this way: “The price of oil is low because the costs of production are elevated in oil, we’re talking €3 (US$3.50) or €2.80 (US$3.25) per kilo as a cost of production. When you sell it at €3.50 (US$4), what have you done?” (Riccobono, interview, October 10, 2018).
In Sicily, olive oil is expensive to produce not only because of the costs of production but also because of the ecological characteristics of olive trees. As alternate-bearing trees, olives move between producing above average one year, and below average the next. Sicilian varieties of olive have coevolved over thousands of years, representing noteworthy agrobiodiversity (Ilarioni and Proietti 2014), but are not suited to “super-intensive” agricultural production. Climate change’s effects, including drought and catastrophic weather events like flooding, can lead to particularly dismal harvest seasons. Unusually heavy summer rains in 2018 caused olive flies and diseases like olive leprosy. Olives were of such poor quality that some growers left them on the tree rather than bothering to harvest them. In short, spending $3.50/kilo to make oil and then selling it at $4/kilo is not sustainable.
Sicilian small-medium producers are therefore positioned marginally in the global commodity market for olive oil because of the low commodity price for olive oil and their high costs of production; these producers are also positioned marginally within the local olive oil sector because their oil is considered too expensive by local consumers. I argue that these producers are also positioned marginally in the global hierarchy of value, as holders of highly localized and specialized knowledge and as Sicilians, à la Southern Question. As a result they articulate quality as a meaningful category—the quality of their product is the way value is claimed and presented to potential consumers.
I went into the field intending to focus on the PGI for Sicilian extra-virgin olive oil, and discovered almost immediately that olive oil producers trying to make a living, rather than producing oil as a hobby and for family consumption, already had multiple strategies for situating themselves on the global market. Sicilian olive growers and olive oil producers are positioned peripherally in both Italy and Europe—the far South of the South; although they are positioned more centrally in the global market because of their Italianness and their inclusion in the Made in Italy brand. GIs function in part by certifying the provenance of the food, in this case Italy and Sicily, and assuaging consumer anxiety about what exactly they are buying and eating and where it came from. Consumers who have direct relationships with producers, whether via alternative economies like GAS (gruppi di acquisto solidale, akin to Community-Supported Agriculture in the US, see Grasseni 2013), or via more standard commercial relationships, have no need for this kind of government-approved certification because they already know the producer. In discussing their strategies to build relationships with consumers outside of Sicily, producers emphasized to me over and over again the importance of quality. Noi ci puntiamo sulla qualità, “We rely on quality,” was a phrase and sentiment expressed frequently. In this section, I discuss quality as it was presented to me by Sicilian olive oil producers, focusing on two sites: (1) national and international olive oil competitions, and (2) olive oil mills, where producers taught me how to taste oil and determine quality.
Qualità as a category is hardly homogenous: when participants spoke of quality, they attached a variety of meanings to the term, often referring to chemical and organoleptic characteristics discernible by some in the oil itself. These characteristics reflect the quality of the olives from which the oil is pressed; the olive trees that bear the olives; the combination of soil and sun and rain and countless other factors and organisms that create the olive trees’ ecosystem; and the stewardship and competency of the oliviculturalist, whose care, talents, and knowledge are necessary so as not to upset the intrinsic quality, or excellence, of the olive oil. In this sense, quality calls to mind framings of terroir that indicate both the biophysical characteristics of a particular place and the saper fare of the artisanal producer (Gade 2004; Nowak 2015). As the product specifications of the PGI note, “The organoleptic characteristics of ‘Sicilia’ PGI extra virgin olive oil are determined by soil, climate and human factors which are closely linked to the territory” (European Commission 2016: 17).
Given the low commodity price of olive oil globally and the high production costs of Sicilian olive oil, quality was framed as the saving grace and the Hail Mary of many Sicilian oliviculturalists—their selling point, the thing they could rely on. Quality was central in framings of how Italy, and Sicily, must position themselves in order to be competitive on the global market. Salvatore Cutrera, at the helm of a successful medium-large olive mill and bottling operation in southeastern Sicily, explained:
Sicily, Italy, is not competitive anymore for producing oil of a low price. So Sicily’s challenge, and Italy’s challenge, is to make a certified Italian, Sicilian product but of high quality.
This quality could come from the olives themselves, the methods of harvest and of milling, and the care put into these productive processes. The categories of “quality” or “high quality,” qualità or alta qualità, are also commonly referred to in policy and industry. A MiPAAF (Ministero delle Politiche Agricole, Alimentari e Forestali; Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Forestry Policies) report (2016) emphasizes that in a global market quality is the strength of Italian extra-virgin olive oil, as does an industry report from 2019 (Ismea and Qualivita 2020). These reports frame quality as the primary way Italian oils can and should compete on the global market, since Italian extra-virgin olive oils struggle to compete with commodity oils on price point given the costs of production and the largely unconsolidated nature of Italian oil production.
Implicitly contrasting quality against quantity, Riccardo Randello, a young farmer and agricultural union representative from eastern Sicily, further explained: “We must continue to make quality oils because, anyway, we’re teeny-tiny—we can’t compete with Spain.” Spain was often framed as a threat to Sicilian oliviculture, as a producer of quantity rather than quality oil. In the 2018/2019 harvest season, a bad season for olive growing in Sicily, Spain produced more than ten times what Italy produced (1,790 ktons in Spain, 174 ktons in Italy; European Commission 2020).6 The question of quantity is political-ecological: with larger territories and flatter ground, different types of agronomic practices are possible. In some parts of Spain, “super-intensive” production is practiced, making possible an economy of scale that keeps production and sale prices lower than in Sicily. The Sicilian landscape and Sicilian olive trees have, for the most part, not yet been rendered legible according to the capitalistic logic of efficient, super-intensive production (Scott 1998). The majority of olives in Sicily are harvested by hand, requiring primarily human rather than fully mechanized labor. In these cases, quality was a defensive posturing against commodity olive oil, which is less expensive to produce and is sold at a pittance and against which, all things being equal other than price, Sicilian olive oil producers cannot dream of competing.
In one oil mill in southeastern Sicily where I was welcomed to do participant observation, Ciccio (a common diminutive for Francesco), the son in the family enterprise, framed all of the oil mill’s work in terms of quality—to me, when he gave visitors tours of the mill, as well as when speaking to potential customers at a national food trade show in northern Italy. Ciccio explained that they harvest olives early in the season to ensure quality;7 that to properly respect high-quality olives and the flavors and aromas they contain, everything in the mill must be functioning properly; that the entire milling system is cleaned between each batch of olives being milled, again to guarantee the quality of the oil being pressed from the olives, and to avoid any contamination from one batch of olives to the next.8 This mill, like many, bears the family name. If the food you sell is a reflection of your person and your family, selling a high-quality product becomes a matter of respect, even honor.
Quality is an important characteristic for Sicilian oliviculturalists, and that quality can be measured, valued, sorted, and categorized (Tsing 2013) in many ways. Determination of quality often comes from the pronouncements of unknown experts—judges at international competitions. In discussing why oils from his region in southeastern Sicily so frequently win top marks at international and national olive oil competitions, Roberto Ventura, a medium producer, remarked:
So I think that it’s appreciated by everyone and in this way, in fact, in all of the competitions 80% of the prizes are all for the province of Ragusa in our territory of Chiaramonte [Gulfi]. So let’s say the prizes that arrive in our province, I think that they already give, they speak for themselves.
The external approval, and recognition in the form of prizes at competitions abroad, bolster claims to distinctive excellence. This same line of reasoning is present in the legal document setting out the parameters of which olive oil may be certified PGI Sicilia and which may not. The Product Specifications read:
the link between the territory, the olive tree and Sicilian culture has created a product whose reputation has been demonstrated by the numerous accolades given to extra virgin olive oil produced in Sicily by experts in the sector and by consumers. In recent decades, producers of “Sicilia” extra virgin olive oil have continued to receive numerous accolades in all of the major international olive oil competitions. (European Commission 2016: 17)
This document lists prizes awarded at seven international olive oil competitions, specifying level of prize (1st, 2nd, or 3rd), from 1997 to 2013. Many producers decorated their offices with prizes from these kinds of competitions (Figures 1 and 2), and I continue to see posts on social media about awards won and honors conferred on their oils at these competitions.
The expert external judgment conferred upon Sicilian olive oils at competitions abroad were one way Sicilian olive oil producers conceptualized and claimed quality; the other context in which I came to understand quality as an ethnographer was through tasting oil with producers, especially in oil mills. The thread of expertise and expert knowledge and recognition runs through both of these sites. International competitions are easily recognized as sites of expertise, being organized and run at professional trade shows like Cibus, held in Parma in northern Italy, or by national and international olive oil organizations. Tasting oil in mills, on the other hand, is a much more intimate setting. However, the understanding of quality derived in these intimate tasting settings requires expert knowledge in the form of familiarity with particular knowledge and practices. In these contexts, quality was ascertained and ascribed sensorially, via tasting oil, and discursively, via discussing oil.
When tasting oil, I was encouraged to ascertain the quality of the olives and olive oil myself, with my eyes, my hands, my nose, and my mouth, especially after a shared ground of understanding had been established—that I knew my varietals, that I had spent considerable time harvesting olives and in olive mills, and tasting olive oil. These were pleasurable and intense exchanges; I was being asked to pass judgment on someone’s lifework. I learned how to taste olive oil the proper way in the oil mill that my first host, Sebastiano Giaquinta, patronized. I often accompanied Sebastiano to the mill after the olives had been harvested for the day, usually arriving in late afternoon when the sun was still bright, and staying until the night was quite dark, 9 p.m. or later. Olive mills during a busy harvest season are bustling with olives, forklifts, trucks, and people, and they are loud and overwhelming—they operate practically without stopping. If they close at all, they shut down only for three or four hours a night, maybe from 2 to 5 a.m., and mill owners and operators work in shifts, sometimes sleeping in offices at the mills. It can take three hours for one batch of olives to be milled, which leaves plenty of time for hanging around, trying to cut the line or prevent others from doing so, and keeping close watch on your own olives, all while maybe attempting to talk over the noise.
I first learned to taste oil in this setting, after having picked olives that day with the Sicilian and Romanian all-male crew, and after having witnessed the olives pass through the various phases of milling to miraculously appear from the spout of a second centrifuge. The first sense memory that comes to mind with active olive mills is sound, as they are overwhelmingly loud. Smell, however, arrives a close second. I described the smell, which I had never experienced before, as “heady” and “incredible.” In my field notes I described the emerging olive oil itself (Figure 3) as “green green, bright green, and not at all transparent…like spinach juice,” and returned to the smell, which was “astounding. I don’t even know what to compare it to. It smells too good.”
I felt giddy seeing and smelling the oil come out of the separator, my ears ringing from the deafening noise, my stomach rumbling given the late hour, my hunger perhaps sharpening my sense of smell. Sebastiano got a small white plastic cup and stuck it under the spout, collecting a bit of oil for us to taste. He motioned me over near a window with a sill where a bag of tiny plastic cups was perched; removing two of these cups, he poured a bit of the bright-green oil into each tiny cup. He then picked a tiny cup up with one hand, capping it with his other hand, nearly enveloping the entire cup between his hands, and alternately moving his hands in a horizontal circle and holding them still. He explained to me that the warmth in our hands brings out the aromas of the oil, and that while this wasn’t strictly necessary when tasting fresh oil this way, that I should know the correct way to do it. Capping the oil also keeps you from smelling it. We moved from inside the milling room around the corner to be outside, where there was less olfactory interference and we could hear ourselves think. Sebastiano explained that I should bring my hands, holding the cup, up to my nose, and uncap the cup to smell the oil. I instinctively closed my eyes and he laughed, which made me feel embarrassed, but then he said it is good to close your eyes to better focus on the smell. He asked what I smelled and I lacked the vocabulary to describe what I was directly experiencing in words, but when he suggested things like grass, artichoke, or tomato leaf, I recognized some of them in what my nose was sending to my brain.
Only after smelling should you taste, Sebastiano said. He told me to allow a bit of olive oil onto my tongue and to let it coat my mouth, without swallowing—“not too much!”, he cautioned because new oil is piccante and can pica. That is, the new oil is spicy and can burn your throat. As a novice, I allowed in too much, and some went down my throat, causing a coughing fit—which I later witnessed happen to many other novices in similar circumstances. I learned to warn them before they sipped. Once you have a bit of oil in your mouth, you close your teeth but part your lips, keeping your tongue stuck to the roof of your mouth behind your teeth, and suck air through the sides of your mouth in a few short, aggressive breaths—this is known as strippare. This seemed comical, but he explained that this method oxygenates the oil, bringing it to all of the tastebuds on your tongue. This ritual of oil tasting marks one as an expert and is performed in contexts such as at the mill or at olive oil tastings but very rarely otherwise.
Whatever I experienced sensorially via tasting the oil, I then conveyed discursively, discussing with the producer our own estimations of goodness, tastiness, freshness, aromas, and flavors—like fresh-cut grass, artichoke, green tomato, olive, and ripe olive. During another evening at the mill, I recorded in my field notes, “We tasted his oil as it came out, and it was very fragrant but in the mouth it wasn’t as bitter or as spicy as he had hoped—it was leggero [light] instead of medio in bocca [medium in the mouth].” Determination of quality in these informal oil-tasting contexts relied not only on expert knowledge but also on the trustworthiness of the producer, who assured me of the care put into the oil, on my own evaluation, and on the relationship between the two of us. I was in a privileged position to be tasting their new oil at the mill with them; my status and familiarity with oil-tasting practices helped in part to bolster this position of privilege.
Expertise therefore became central in assigning not only particular qualities to the oil, such as an aroma of fresh-cut grass or a pleasantly bitter flavor, but in classifying the oil itself as of quality. This calls to mind the sensory expertise Paxson (2013: 106–7) writes of with artisanal cheesemakers in Wisconsin—a heightened sensory perception born of continued contact, even intimacy, with the process of food production. Quality also encompasses Meneley’s (2008) oleo-signs—the physical qualities of oil that are each a potential material basis for a sign (305) that contribute to olive oil’s status as an UR food and symbol of the ancient and primal Mediterranean. Meneley (2008) discusses expertise and expert knowledge in valuing olive oil, drawing a distinction between the phenomenological enjoyment of olive oil and expert pronouncements about the molecular and chemical characteristics of oil: “The real difference is the shift from qualities that are sensorially apprehensible and appreciated for that reason, to qualities that are valued by virtue of expert intervention” (318), such as the presence of oleocanthal and phenolic compounds in olive oil. Meneley comments on color, taste, and smell in “yuppie consumption” of olive oil as mimicking wine connoisseurship and as another type of expert knowledge.
In my case, the expertise involved in determining quality is centered on the producer and myself in situ, rather than a consumer located abroad, and is invoked in the sensory apprehension of the oil, but legible only to those who share in this language and these bodily practices. These physical qualities—aromas, flavors, opacity, color—are also the material bases for signs of producers’ expertise—of care shown to the trees, the olives, the oil. These qualities, primarily aromas and flavors, are then recognized and validated by other, even more “expert” experts, beyond the producer and the miller—that is, judges at international competitions.
Are these assessments of quality akin to Grasseni’s (2005: 84) discussion of discourses and standardization of taste, the latter born out of standardization of food due to audit culture and regulatory schemes that require sterilized industrial production techniques? Grasseni discusses alpine cheeses in the Italian North rather than Sicilian olive oil, but I would argue that “the standardisation of food production through protocols and quality labelling leads to a standardisation of taste” (2005: 84) in this case, as well: the vocabulary used to describe the sense experience of tasting olive oil was somewhat limited to industry standards—level of fruitiness, bitterness, and spiciness, for example—and echoed the organoleptic attributes of Sicilian olive oil as set out in the Product Specifications: artichoke, green tomato, fresh-cut grass (European Commission 2016: 15).
Sicilian olive oil has certainly been reinvented, to again borrow Grasseni’s terminology, as “heritage, local resource, icon of typicality and authenticity,” and more (2005: 90). Certifying an oil as PGI “Sicilia” moves to reinvent a commonplace ingredient in Sicilian kitchens as a standard-bearer of Sicilian distinctiveness and excellence—and regardless of PGI certification, indexing it as high quality on the global market is a move to create value in a context of historical and continued economic marginalization. Like Jillian R. Cavanaugh’s Bergamasco salami (see her article in this section), the value of Sicilian olive oil is being “negotiated by various subjects, demonstrating the variability of how value itself is produced” (2007: 149). Quests for status and prestige against a backdrop of poverty ring true both in Bergamo and in Sicily, and in the case of Sicily, I argue that the political economic situation is indicative not only of poverty but also underdevelopment. The affirmation of international experts of the quality of oil are thus prestigious and mark the oil, its makers, and the place it comes from as having the potential to produce excellence. Qualità is important as a livelihood strategy, as a point of pride, and as an externally validated measure of one’s lifework as an olive oil producer.
It took me some time to tease apart the differences between quality and genuineness. As Giuseppe Cicero, a capopanel or head taste tester and agronomist, put it, “the concept of quality is different in regards to the concept of genuineness. Because a genuine product, it is not a given that it’s of quality.” His explanation focused on technological differences between oil produced the old-fashioned way (at risk of contamination) and newer milling technologies (providing an oil extraction process that is “hygienically perfect,” in his words). For Cicero, no link existed between quality and tradition—and older technologies did not even necessarily produce a genuine—understood as pure—oil. I argue that genuineness has much less to do with purity than with social relations and commensality.
I met no one in Sicily who did not (at least claim to) have some relative or friend with an olive grove who produced olive oil for their own or their family’s consumption. In the words of Liborio Calvaruso and his daughter Adriana, whose olive trees are located in western Sicily,
[Liborio:] By now here, for one reason or another, in every family, the small plot is now, the olive tree has become common, it has become almost as if you had it on the balcony, on the terrace of your house…[Adriana:] It is common to have a self-sustaining product for each family, so it is common to have, for example, twenty trees. As an example. For each family per capita.
Someone with twenty trees who is interested in harvesting their olives primarily for self- or family provisioning will likely wait until the olives are riper and they are assured of at least a decent yield, producing an oil with fewer or different and weaker aromas than an oil made with olives picked and crushed right at the moment of ripening. The flavor profile will be different, likely less assertive, or “strong.” Hence, oil for family and friends is not “quality” in the same way the carefully constructed commercial oil is quality. It is not quality, but it is genuine, just like your relative or friend who provisions you with the oil.
I know many young people who worked in the sector and bemoaned the fact that their relatives preferred to wait to harvest olives and were primarily interested in resa rather than in quality, and I witnessed the occasional exchange of exasperated words about this, again between fathers and sons, similar to the wine anecdote with which I began this article. This seemed to be in part a generational difference, as well as a difference in paradigm born of industry insider status and knowledge that produced a different agrarian worldview. Hobbyists, producing for self-provisioning, often have goals that differ from those of professional producers: to make enough oil for themselves and their families, and perhaps enough to sell the extra (back to the mill or to acquaintances), rather than to produce a quality oil to market and sell largely outside of Sicily.
It is noteworthy that in Sicily, until relatively recently, family provisioning was the primary way olive oil was produced and consumed. According to Salvatore Cutrera,
[the practice of making wine at home] disappeared, and that of oil disappeared, too. There didn’t exist a Sicilian, 20 years ago, let’s say, around 20–30 years ago that didn’t have a steel or maybe glass tank…there didn’t exist a family that didn’t have oil in the house. They bought it from a relative, from a cousin. Now you go to Ragusa and you have a hard time finding someone who has oil at home. And this is disappearing more all of the time.
There is a tension between local practices not only of production, but especially of distribution and consumption, and “modern” practices—like buying olive oil at the supermarket instead of getting it from mills, friends, or relatives—bringing to mind Herzfeld’s global hierarchy of value. In the words of Silvia Turco, who along with her sisters produces wheat and olives in central Sicily: “Around here it’s more important who sells the product to you rather than who…then what does the supermarket do? The supermarket, the phenomenon of supermarkets in Sicily has devastated the local economy.” Supermarkets, known in Italy as la grande distribuzione organizzata (GDO), have contributed to the erosion of local systems of production, distribution, and consumption, and along with them some of the social relationships, that once characterized Sicilian foodways.9
Part of the reason that supermarkets have devastated the local economy in Sicily and local Sicilian foodways is the low price point of supermarket items—a price point that local producers cannot match if they want to cover their costs of production, much less make a living. Lidia Tusa, an olive grower and oil producer whose olives are in central Sicily, discussed this issue, noting that producers with fewer trees and hectares should diversify given the difficulties of practicing oliviculture:
I mean, if you have 1000 hectares of olive grove, probably you’re okay. If you like it, and it goes well for you economically. But with 20 hectares of olive groves if you don’t make oil [from your olives due to a bad harvest], you have a problem. And then anyway if you make a quality oil like ours, and have some trouble selling, anyway if you have alternatives it’s better.
Tusa points out that someone with twenty hectares of olive trees rather than a thousand must make and sell oil of a certain price in order to make a living. She sold her oil at ten to twelve euro a liter but had trouble selling locally to other Sicilians because of its higher price as compared to supermarket olive oils. She continued:
But in my opinion the problem is not that our oil is expensive. The problem is that on the market there is an oil that costs too little. This is a drugged market—drugged on the contrary, that is, towards depreciation. So people think our oil is expensive.
The question of what “expensive” means, and to whom, is central—Tusa’s sale price barely allows her to keep her business operational, and yet it is considered too expensive for the local market for a variety of reasons, including Sicilian consumers with limited spending ability and supermarkets selling commodity foods at artificially low prices.
Despite the erosion of local networks of distribution and consumption of Sicilian olive oil as a result of the incursion of supermarkets and other political economic forces, these local networks, bolstered by social relationships, still exist and are central to the concept of genuine oil, olio genuino. Here I discuss other intimate settings of olive oil tasting: in homes and around tables rather than at olive mills, and with hobby producers rather than with professional producers.
My growing ability to appreciate quality marked me as an expert in my own right. For example, Cicero invited me to come to the Regional oil-tasting certifications, and I usually identified the varietal correctly, which won me words of praise from him. My expertise, and my status as a foreigner, a researcher, and a dottoressa, the female form of doctor and a term of respect, were classed and thus positioned me higher in a hierarchy of value than someone without these characteristics. Despite this authoritative positioning, or perhaps in part because of it, I would not have dreamed of telling someone who was excited to have me taste their in-house oil that the oil was anything but good. The point with anything that is genuino is not the refined or expert determination of quality but rather the social relationship—the confidenza, familiarity, or fiducia, faith or trust—with the host, the server. The food represents them as people and their qualities as competent stewards of their olive trees, their land, their homes, and their families, as well as their hospitality—social values of great import. As such, olio genuino is a bottom-up expression of authenticity and goodness, a localized experience of generalized social reciprocity (Sahlins 1972) that challenges the homogenizing force of a global hierarchy of value.
Oftentimes in these settings, the tasting was part of a large meal, a ritual of commensality. Before or after the meal, I would be introduced to a relative who was passionate about oliviculture but who invariably practiced another profession to pay the bills. If we were near the olive trees that produced the olives for the oil, I would be directed to look at the trees—“these are our trees”—and told the story of how the land came into the family’s possession and why the particular positioning of the parcel of land was favorable or not (but usually favorable) to excellent oil—the best oil, in fact. I was told this was because the wind blows off the coast and keeps the trees healthy and free of flies and other pests; or because the parcel was on a mountain and so was hardy, and only rain-fed, making the olives it produced more flavorful and potentially more packed with nutrients. I listened attentively to these assertions regarding the uniqueness of the land and the trees. If we were not within eyesight of the trees, they were often described to me in great detail nonetheless.
The oils tasted in these settings were often poured out of one- or three-liter tins stored in garages or lower kitchen cabinets. Inevitably the oil was poured into very small containers of whatever sort were available—tiny plastic cups, like the ones present at the first oil mill I discuss here; espresso cups; maybe shot or juice glasses. This was the moment of truth: the smelling and tasting of the oil. I generally followed suit while tasting, not performing the tasting ritual I describe above of covering the cup, swirling the oil, uncovering and smelling, getting only a tiny bit in my mouth and then pulling air through it, strippando. Instead, I tasted the oil in whichever way my host tasted the oil. While I tasted, my hosts had expressions of raised eyebrows, their gazes steadied on me, or looking away, feigning indifference. I always said the oil was good, and it was good. I did not want to potentially offend my host by offering any critical opinions—unless they pressed and appeared unsatisfied without some critique.
Oil tastings in these settings were often set off from the main event of the meal, which had its own set of rules and its own rhythms and roles (see Counihan 2004). In one case, my then partner, situated as an expert in the olive oil industry, and I drove to his parents’ neighbor’s house after a Sunday lunch because the neighbor had been contacting his parents for weeks to inquire when he could come and taste the oil. The oil in that case was good, and the neighbor was delighted that I identified the varietal correctly and my then partner did not—a woman and a foreigner knows the oil better than a Sicilian!
In more than two years of living in Sicily, I have only one memory of being offered an oil that was decidedly not good. But most often these “genuine” oils were different—they tasted and smelled different—than the “quality” oils I had first learned to know in mills and with professional producers. And yet I want to be careful not to create a false dichotomy between high-class, expert-approved “quality” oil and brutish, rustic, uninformed but “genuine” oil. Qualità and genuino are meaningful in part because they play off of and into each other. Much like tradition and modernity or any other productive pairing, qualità and genuino are not mutually exclusive. Affirmations of quality, understood as basic goodness, are important to everyone, and many hosts enjoyed framing themselves as olive oil experts, especially in family settings. While a broad and democratic idea of quality presented a shared horizon of values—is it good?—the specific vocabulary of “quality” of those who worked in the sector was beyond the reach of the average household grower of olives, rendering it the terrain of experts.
More is at risk in challenging genuineness than in challenging quality because genuineness is more closely linked to the quality of the person and the relationship of the taster with that person than to the expertly assessed chemical or organoleptic qualities of the oil. The pleasure of partaking in the genuine is almost always not that of the distinction and refinement (Bourdieu 2004) of prize-winning quality but that of reaffirming or first inscribing social bonds through the act of commensality, of shared and received hospitality, putting the person being hosted in a position of indebtedness to the host, and putting the host in the position to care for and impress the hosted.
I may find authenticity annoying as a marketing strategy, but the work that authenticity does is important because it impacts livelihoods and lifeworlds. Here I have focused on the emic categories of qualità and genuino to think about how Sicilian olive oil producers position themselves in the global hierarchy of value, and how that hegemonic and homogenizing force is rearticulated and in part embraced, in part resisted. Sicilian producers claim quality to mark their products and by extension their lands, themselves, and their lifework, as distinctive and distinctly valuable. Sicilians who produce oil for self-provisioning rather than to make a living have less vested in a projection of excellence on an international stage, and my experience tasting their olive oil revolved more around the category of genuino, emplaced and embodied in acts of hospitality—being together and eating together.
Qualità and genuino both fall under the umbrella of the analytic of authenticity writ large, but they ask us to think more carefully about which characteristics we ascribe to foods, and with what motivations, justifications, and effects upon whom. Qualità is largely an artifact of modernity, of a global hierarchy of value—legible and pleasurable only to those whose minds and palates have been trained and educated to understand and appreciate them, and thus exclusionary. Genuineness is in part defined against this exclusion, this chemical and organoleptic superiority, to be sharable, assumable, and appreciable by anyone invited to partake in the enjoyment of the food. The exclusion in this case falls less along lines of education and expertise, and more along the lines of social acquaintance and guest–host dynamics, themselves party to their own kinds of exclusionary tactics. An oil that is discreto, that is genuino, carries values other than technoscientific quality, and values that are perhaps more important than a chemically or organoleptically technically superior oil.
For example, I have some olio genuino in my oil cabinet at home in Tucson. It is in a small tin with the image of an olive tree on one side. My Italian friend and neighbor Lara gave it to me. Lara’s father died of COVID-19 in November 2020, and Lara was unable to go home for the funeral because of visa issues. The oil she gave me came from her parents’ property in Sardinia. It was the last oil that her father made, where he orchestrated the olive harvest, brought the olives to the mill, stored the oil in containers of various sizes. Her parents had sent her multiple small tins, she assured me, for the purpose of sharing them with her friends. “I know you’ll appreciate it,” she said. “Ne faró tesoro,” I responded—“I will make a treasure of it.”
This oil is beyond genuine—natural, unadulterated, pure, simple. It is a material and symbolic link to her late father, lost to her. She was clear with me that it wasn’t high-quality oil, telling me that her parents don’t know much about olive oil, they just harvest the olives when there are enough to harvest, and take them to the mill, this embedded and embodied knowledge and practice being almost taken for granted. So the oil, according to Lara, and probably also according to an expert taste test panel, and according to me in my capacity as an expert, is not di alta qualità, high quality. But it is genuino, and what’s more, it’s magical. As late Sicilian anthropologist Antonino Buttitta explains in regards to why children are served the food and treats prepared for the souls of the dead in the celebration of the Day of the Dead in Sicily: “A fundamental principal of magic is that the things that have been in contact remain in contact even when they are separated. Therefore, making children eat the food of the dead, you reconstitute the continuity between life and death” (Antonino Buttitta 2:30–2:55 in Costa 2015). By Lara continuing to eat the oil of her father, she reconstitutes the continuity between life and death; by her gifting his oil to me, I participate in and become a part of that same reconstitution.
This research was funded by the American Philosophical Association, the Fulbright International Institute of Education–Italy, and PEO International. The author thanks the research participants for sharing their time and knowledge with her and the coeditors and reviewers for their suggestions.
Qualità is also evaluated in the context of regionally run taste-test panels that determine if olive oil may be certified with the Protected Geographical Indication. I participated and observed at three such taste-test panels for olive oil and one for wine; these contexts are important to the creation of the expertly defined and policed category of qualità. However, here I focus on the way producers themselves discussed qualità, and how they taught me to discern qualità, rather than on the regional taste-test panels, which I discuss elsewhere and at which producers are rarely present (and never present for the testing of their own oil).
In my purposive snowball sample I worked with producers (n = 37) whether or not they chose to pursue the PGI.
I also did ride-alongs and other participant observation at the Regional Institute of Wine and Olive Oil, collecting samples of oils to be tested; these instances will be discussed elsewhere.
Other scholars, such as John Dickie (1999: 81), explicitly argue against any type of overt colonization of the South by the North. It is crucial to note that the South and Southerners still took part in Italy’s military colonial campaigns in the Horn of Africa, where there is no doubt about colonial violence and oppression.
One to ten hectares = small scale, ten to thirty hectares = medium scale, and greater than thirty hectares = large scale. These divisions reflect how producers described themselves to me.
Spain has a large and diverse olive oil sector, producing small- and large-scale olive oils. My purpose here is not to challenge the quality of Spain’s olive oil but rather to illustrate why Spain was used frequently as a foil by Sicilian olive oil producers.
Olives harvested earlier in their ripening process, known as invaiatura in Italian, have a lower percentage of oil but are higher in volatile compounds that provide aroma and certain flavors: bitterness, spiciness, bright fruitiness. Hence, olives for olio di qualità, quality oil, oil that is highly aromatic and has strong flavor profiles, are more and more often harvested earlier—“greener and greener,” as Ciccio explained. Historically, olives were harvested quite late. In Puglia it was common practice to wait for the ripened olives (what many would now consider much over-ripened) to fall of their own accord into nets strung between the trees (Ipsen 2019), a far cry from harvesting barely blushing drupes. If your primary interest is a good yield of oil for the quantity of olives milled, waiting for the olives to become more ripe makes good sense. If your primary interest is qualità, understood in this export-oriented and classed way, then harvesting your olives earlier makes sense.
This is of note because it takes considerably longer to clean all of the equipment between batches of olives, which already take (depending on the size of the batch) around three hours to be transformed from olives to oil, and producers are often anxious to get their olives milled as quickly as possible to thus avoid oxidation and the beginning of fermentation in the fruit.
On the effects of supermarkets on local Italian foodways, see issue 93 of Meridiana: Rivista di storia e scienze sociali, specifically Corrado, Lo Cascio, and Perrotta 2018.