Interview with Wine & Olive Oil Producer Gaia Massai
“There are some wines you can enjoy sipping in front of the fire after a nice meal,” Gaia Massai tells me, “like a nice Cabernet Sauvignon.”
“You can’t do that with a Chianti, that’s not its purpose. It was meant for the Tuscan farmer’s kitchen, to accompany our cucina povera – things like prosciutto, bread, cheese, and olives – it has the acidity and tannins that cleanse the mouth and make it perfect for these kinds of foods.”
I’m sitting in a West Toronto café speaking with Gaia Massai, a trained sommelier, who is trying to illustrate her approach to discussing wine and olive oil, which she says is more scientific (how it’s made; why it tastes a certain way) than poetic (sensory analogies like “fresh cut grass”).
This is hardly surprising if you know her background: Gaia has a Ph.D. in Environmental Science from the University of Florence. And she’s a certified Imprenditore Agricolo, the European Union title for a certified independent farm manager – training she underwent in order to manage Fattoria di San Quintino, her family’s 200-hectare Tuscan estate, after completing her university studies.
So she’s a qualified farm manager, scientist, wine maker, sommelier, and importer. And a passionate environmentalist and biodiversity advocate. But perhaps most of all, as you can see from the quote above, she’s a natural educator who brings together the historic, cultural and scientific aspects of Italian food to put it in its true perspective.
“It can help you understand what happens before a product arrives on your table,” she says, “if there’s a sensory defect, for example, like an olive oil that smells of dirt, what we call morchia, it probably means the cleanliness of the milling or storing process was not what it should have been.”
Shortly after emigrating here in 2008, Gaia started giving talks at the Italian Cultural Institute in Toronto on various aspects of Italian food – bread, cheese, aromatic herbs, regional cuisines, and of course, wine and olive oil.
To this day she’s a regular lecturer at the Institute and hosts tastings and events of her own throughout the year. It’s a way of sharing her knowledge, promoting small Italian producers, and staying connected with her roots.
Rural Tuscan Roots
Whether it’s fate or coincidence, Gaia’s name signifies “Mother Earth” in Greek mythology. She exploited the pun for her company name, Gaia’s Plate, which she uses as a platform for sharing information that’s both “natural” (e.g. organic Italian products) and very personal (recipes from her mother, grandmother and great grandmother).
Gaia grew up in the small city of Prato, on the outskirts of Florence, spending summers and weekends at the Fattoria, the family home where cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents would come together. “So I’ve always been very attached to nature and the countryside,” she says, “that’s probably the reason I chose to go into Environmental Studies.”
It’s also where she formed a deep appreciation for how traditional foods are produced. “We were connected to food at the source. We grew our own vegetables, so we saw where they came from and that not all apples or pears are perfect. And it was very much seasonal food that we ate,” she says.
In this sense, not a lot has changed in the San Miniato area where the farm is located.
“We call it chilometro zero [zero kilometres],” she says. “Even today we still have the vegetable garden, and even though we don’t have animals there are plenty farmers around us who do. My neighbours are a young couple who are shepherds, so they make cheeses, and they have a wood-burning oven where they make sour dough bread. And another neighbour has eggs, and so on. So you can walk to get most of the things you need.”
Interestingly enough, many of the area’s current inhabitants didn’t grow up there, but chose to move to the countryside for the way of life.
During her time as manager of San Quintino, Gaia founded Colli di San Miniato, an association that brought many of these farmers together – makers of wine, olive oil, honey, organic vegetables, livestock and poultry. Its mandate was “to promote food education through publications, lectures and hands-on workshops while supervising the quality of our products with joint effort and passion.” In many ways it was a precursor to the work she would do after coming to Canada.
Culture Shock in Toronto
Contrast the idyllic image of rural San Miniato with the stale interior of a typical Toronto supermarket, and it’s no surprise that Gaia experienced a degree of culture shock when she first came here.
At home she ate seasonal local produce; in Toronto it was difficult to do so, and not just because of the climate.
“You could get anything you wanted at any time,” she says, “so it was hard to really understand what was in season. It didn’t seem so healthy to me: not just the food per se, but the values that are behind the choices you make.”
Making matters worse was the lax regulation of product labels. Foods like legumes and olive oil – staples of the Italian diet – are often sold here without clear indications of where or when they were produced, or an expiry date.
She also found it a little paradoxical when it came to our Italian food culture. Toronto has a large Italian community, but the first generation is dying off and many traditions are disappearing with them. And while there’s plenty of interest in Italian cuisine outside the community, the understanding tends to be general and homogeneous, when in fact Italy is a nation of many distinct regional cuisines.
“Every region, and within the region every little town, has its own stories. They’re jealous of their recipes, they’ve probably battled with the next town for centuries, and you see the results very clearly in the cuisine,” she says.
“The food is really embedded in the territory, it’s such a link, and there are so many variations of dishes, usually based on practical things like the availability of ingredients.”
Gaia’s initial shock of being physically and culturally uprooted from her rural Italy soon gave way to a newfound passion for the educational aspect of her work.
“I wanted to bring together my background and knowledge, and at the same time keep a personal link to it, and share that with others, so maybe they could enjoy it and get a better understanding of what the real Italy is like.”
In many ways that’s the foundation of her current work through her website, newsletter and live events:
- Educating people about the nutritional, cultural and historical aspects of Italian cuisine to encourage informed choices
- Through these educational activities, creating a market for artisanal food producers
- Sharing family recipes so they live on (especially when people learn how simple, healthy and economical cucina povera really is)
- Selling her olive oil directly instead of through retailers – so she can keep prices down, make it more accessible, and guarantee freshness
As for her family’s wines, San Quintino has invested in replanting and expansion for the past decade. Gaia has just signed a deal with local agent 30.50 Imports, who will make the wines more readily available in Ontario from now on.
How to connect with Gaia
To learn about Gaia’s events, enjoy her recipes, or purchase olive oil from her family farm, visit her website (and sign up for her newsletter if you’d like to stay in touch): gaiasplate.com
To read about Fattoria di San Quintino’s history and products (olive oil, wines, grappa, vinsanto), visit the family website: fattoriasanquintino.it
If you’d like to order any of the Fattoria’s wines, you can now do so through this local wine agent: 3050imports.com