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Meet the Woman Bringing Calabrian Olive Oil to the U.S.

Condé Nast Traveler logo Condé Nast Traveler 9/15/2020 Devorah Lev-Tov
a woman holding a bottle of wine © Madelene Farin

Before meeting her husband Giuseppe Morisani in Italy, Skyler Mapes used to buy whatever brand of olive oil was on sale at her local big box store. But when Morisani—whose family has pressed olive oil from their olive trees for three generations—expressed his horror at her choice of bland, flavorless oil during a visit to the Bay Area in 2015, she realized she needed to develop a palate.

“I didn’t know that olive oil was just as complex as wine,” says Mapes, whose parents often took her to northern California wineries growing up. “And that there were so many different varietals.”

Mapes has come a long way since discount olive oil. Together with Morisani, she founded olive oil company EXAU, named after the phrase “oleum ex albis ulivis,” used by ancient Romans to describe the best type of olive oil. To become a producer, Mapes took a crash course in wine production at a Bay Area winery (she figured the processes were similar) and in 2017, the couple went to Calabria for harvest season and produced oil from the Morisani family’s trees to sell in the U.S. Because while Calabria is responsible for producing the second highest amount of olive oil in Italy after Puglia, it’s still hard to find stateside.

a table topped with plates of food on a plate: EXAU produces highly coveted Calabrian olive oil, which remains hard to find in the U.S. © Condé Nast Traveler EXAU produces highly coveted Calabrian olive oil, which remains hard to find in the U.S.

Mapes, who studied architecture and worked in the design industry before starting EXAU, was used to being the only Black woman in professional settings. “I’ve never worked with another Black architect. Never, not once,” says Mapes. But producing olive oil is an even more homogenous environment.

“I have definitely felt discrimination not just for being a woman of color, but just being a woman,” says Mapes. “For example, if I call a grocery store right now and ask to talk to their buyer, usually they are nowhere to be found. But if my husband calls with that thick Italian accent, they are on the phone real quick.” She even started sending emails from her husband’s account in order to get people to respond to her.

In Italy, people are often shocked to see her at harvest, but Mapes says they eventually come around. “At the beginning of harvest, I always get some funny looks from the old men farmers,” says Mapes. “But when they find out I have my own olive oil company, they’re impressed. They call me an old-style woman. Because back in the day, when the men were fighting in the war, all of the women took care of harvest. There is an older generation of Italian women, especially Calabrian women, who are pretty tough. They are not afraid to get their hands dirty. So it’s definitely a compliment.”

The Morisani family’s olive trees, which were planted about 100 years ago by Giuseppe’s grandfather, are found down a dirt road with a front row view of the Mediterranean. “The trees get to see the sun rise over the sea, and then set into the hills behind them—[they] have a very magical life,” says Mapes. “When I pass, I really want to come back as one of those trees.”

The family grows several cultivars, including Leccino, Pendolino, and Carolea olives, which only grow natively within 40 miles of Calabria. The latter is also the main cultivar used in EXAU’s three extra virgin olive oil blends, Turi, Avus, and Lina—all available through their website and at select independent stores. The 2019 harvest produced about 5,000 bottles, and Mapes and Morisani, who now live in Austin, are returning to Italy in a couple weeks for this year’s harvest, with preorders launching this fall for oil that should arrive by January.

Olive oil harvest, which happens from the end of September to November in Calabria, is a long, tedious, and exacting process. “Everything about making olive oil and having to do with olives is a very, very sensitive process,” says Mapes. The trick, she says, is to harvest the olives when they first begin to ripen, to beat the flies and the rains that will soon arrive. And unlike many larger producers, Mapes and Morisani press their olives the same day they’re harvested. This way, the olives don’t sit for too long after picking, and they retain their freshness, giving the oil a more vibrant taste.

After six hours of picking the cultivars they want to blend together that day, they’ll bring that day’s haul to their chemist friend’s olive oil press. There, the olives get deleafed, washed, sliced, and crushed into a paste on stainless steel equipment. Then the paste is pumped into a centrifuge, which separates the vegetable water from the oil, which then gets double filtered. Finally, it gets bottled, labeled (Mapes designed all the labeling and logos), and imported to the U.S.

a man and a woman looking at the camera: Skyler Mapes with her husband and EXAU co-founder Giuseppe Morisani © Condé Nast Traveler Skyler Mapes with her husband and EXAU co-founder Giuseppe Morisani

As Mapes gets ready to return to her second home of Italy for harvest, she knows things will be different this year. Still, they will undoubtedly spend time around Calabria and Southern Italy and they always make a stop in Rome.

Mapes also has plans to butter up their neighbor, who makes the best tonno sott’olio (jarred tuna under oil), another Calabrian specialty, so she can learn her secrets. Tuna in oil and olives in oil are two products they’re considering adding to their lineup at EXAU. But for now, they’ll be spending the majority of their time producing that liquid gold.

To date, Mapes knows of only one other Black woman producing olive oil: pop singer and culinary school graduate Kelis, who has her own California farm and sells sauces, pasture-raised chicken, and olive oil under her Bounty & Full brand. There are other Black women who work at olive oil companies in various roles, but not as producers—something that Mapes hopes to change. And because she believes the only way to learn how to make olive oil is by actually doing it—no online course will be enough—she’s aiming to take on an apprentice who is a woman of color and pay to bring her to Italy. “Maybe we are able to create a scholarship fund for her to go to the olive oil school and get a certification. Maybe she can learn under us. Maybe she can come for that fall harvest and stay for a couple months,” she says.

Mapes has been appreciative of the people who opened the door for her, and knows that it's now time to share her knowledge with other women of color.

“Once I have my foot in the door somewhere, I’m going to yank that bad boy open,” says Mapes. “And keep it open for whoever wants to come next.”

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