Every February National Oil Week takes place simultaneously in Siena, Puglia, Milan and Rome. As we all know Italians take their olive oil very seriously, most Italians consider it something that you only buy from someone you know, either a small producer from their own region or from a shop, either way Italians always purchase their oil locally. But how much do we know about our Olive Oil ? . . to most of us it is just something we buy off a supermarket shelf, most of us will know which country it comes from but few will have any idea of the region it was produced in, its method of harvest or production and what type of olives it was made from. Olive oil is like wine, we all know the differences between a German wine and a Spanish wine, but how many of us would know the difference between a Spanish Olive Oil and an Italian Olive Oil, or even worse between a Ligurian oil and a Tuscan oil. Well hopefully by the end of reading this we will have a better understanding of Olive Oil, where it comes from, how its made and how it came to be one of the most prized possessions in Mediterranean cuisine.
Olive oil has been made since around 5,000 BC, it was first made by the ancient Greeks who saw its health giving properties even back then, it was fed to champion athletes and warriors as a way of keeping them fit and healthy. It was the ancient Greek goddess Athena who is believed to have been responsible for the olive tree itself. Athena and Posseidon were battling to rule the kingdom of Attica, Zeus was called upon to officiate and declare a winner, Zeus set a challenge to create something that would be eternally beneficial to mankind. Athena was said to have commanded mother earth to produce a plant whose fruit could nourish and give life giving properties to mankind, and thus the olive tree was born. Zeus was so pleased he awarded the kingdom to Athena.
The olive tree has featured in myths, legends and religions from then on, the dove released by Noah was said to have brought back an olive branch in its beak as a sign the floods were depleting, in ancient Greece Odysseus and Penelope's matrimonial bed was said to have been made from a hollowed out olive tree trunk. The Spartans laid their dead upon beds of olive branches and leaves to carry them to the next life. The father of modern medicine, the ancient Greek Hippocrates, recommended the use of olive to cure various illnesses.
Many countries produce olive oil, however, there are three major producers who are responsible for 75% of the world's total oil production, Spain, Greece and Italy. In terms of individual production Spain is first, with Italy a close second and Greece third. The Romans were responsible for the wide spread plantings of olives as they planted olive groves throughout their empire. Other countries such as Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Argentina and Chile all produce Extra Virgin Olive Oil.
Italian Olive Oils
Olive oil is produced throughout Italy, generally olive oil is produced in 18 of Italy's 20 regions, the only two not to produce oil or to have extremely limited production being Lombardy and Piedmont as both these regions are considered too cold for successful olive cultivation. In Italy the olives are harvested during the weeks between the beginning of November and the middle of December, the exact time of the harvest being flexible so the olives are neither too unripe, or completely ripe. As with grape production in the wine industry, olives must be picked at exactly the right time to ensure a top quality oil. Picking is done either manually, by hand, or by the use of mechanical equipment. As with wine certain classifications of oil in certain regions must be picked by hand to be awarded a certain quality status. Each regions olive oil are produced in accordance to the regional traditions and preferences for certain attributes within the oil, Tuscan oils tend to have bitter flavours, Ligurian are very light and aromatic or the oils of Apulia tend to be rather sharp in flavour.
These suitable flavour differences come from the variety of olive used, the climate of the region of production and the grade of the oil.
There are many olive varieties cultivated throughout Italy, some you will have heard of, others have more significance in their area of cultivation than internationally. The twelve main varieties are -
- Dolce Agogia
- Santa Caterina
Varieties such as Taggiasca and Lavagnina are used in Liguria, Frantoio and Pendolino are used mainly in Tuscany, but varieties such as Leccino and Moraiolo are used throughout Italy in most regions.
The climate of a region has a large impact upon the varieties of olives grown, their cultivation and harvesting methods and the final quality of the finished oil.
In the very northern part of Italy, Piemonte, Valle D'Aosta, Lombardia, Trentino Alto Adige, northern Veneto and Friuli Venezia Giulia, weather is influenced by the Alps. Further south, but still considered northern Italy, is the Po Valley, consisting of southern Lombardia, western Veneto and Emilia Romagna, this region is marked by the Po River and cradled between the Alps and the Apennines. The region experiences more varied weather resulting from a change of seasons. The Apennines give the interior of the Italian peninsula, eastern Toscana, Umbria, western Abruzzo, and Molise, a distinctly different climate than the coasts. Milan, located at the foot of the Alps, is frequently subjected to long periods of intense fog.
These climatic variations vary the degree of ripeness, the size, the flavour and the quality of the olives produced in these regions, this is a science and far to complicated for me, but I will try to summarise. Certain olives are picked before the frosts set to give a herby, fresh, clean flavour, other olives whose regions have a large temperature variation between day and night will have more peppery flavour and regions where the olives are picked when just ripe (usually due to weather conditions) will tend to have a sharp, almost acidic flavour.
Grades of Olive Oil
The International Olive Council based in Madrid, has set out a framework for the grading of olive oil. The IOC Commercial Grades and Retail Grades are of more concern to us consumers.
The grades of oil extracted from the olive fruit can be classified as:
- Virgin means the oil was produced by the use of physical means and no chemical treatment. The term virgin oil referring to production is different from Virgin Oil on a retail label.
- Refined means that the oil has been chemically treated to neutralise strong tastes (characterised as defects) and neutralise the acid content. Refined oil is commonly regarded as lower quality than virgin oil; oils with the retail labels extra-virgin olive oil and virgin olive oil cannot contain any refined oil.
In countries that follow the standards of the IOC the labels in stores show an oil's grade.
- Extra-virgin olive oil comes from virgin oil production only, contains no more than 0.8% acidity, and is judged to have a superior taste.
- Virgin olive oil comes from virgin oil production only, has an acidity less than 2%, and is judged to have a good taste.
- Pure olive oil. Oils labelled as Pure olive oil or Olive oil are usually a blend of refined and virgin production oil.
- Olive oil is a blend of virgin and refined production oil, of no more than 1.5% acidity. It commonly lacks a strong flavor.
- Refined olive oil is the olive oil obtained from virgin olive oils by refining methods that do not lead to alterations in the initial glyceridic structure. It has a free acidity, expressed as oleic acid, of not more than 0.3 grams per 100 grams (0.3%) and its other characteristics correspond to those fixed for this category in this standard. This is obtained by refining virgin olive oils with a high acidity level and/or organoleptic defects that are eliminated after refining. Note that no solvents have been used to extract the oil, but it has been refined with the use of charcoal and other chemical and physical filters.
In short with olive oil, as with so many other things in life, you get what you pay for, the higher the price is often an indication of higher quality, however quality Italian oils will have DOP status (Denominazione di Origine Protteta) which shows that the oil has been produced to a stringent criteria.
Using Olive Oil
In an ideal world when cooking Italian food you would naturally use the regional oil of the dish, however, in reality this would reduce in a considerable financial outlay and a kitchen full of bottles. When buying olive oils look at the labels, there is a wealth of information on the bottles and by purchasing a couple of different types of oil and learning how to use them and in what dishes will have a marked affect on the quality and authenticity of your Italian dishes. Here are a few pointers to guide your choice -
- Not all Italian olive oil is actually Italian. The bottle may say "produced in Italy", and in theory the oil has been, however, the olives used to produce the oil may have been grown in South Africa, Spain and so on. This is where the DOP label helps. Any oil with DOP status must have been grown, harvested and produced in Italy and in accordance to regional standards and traditions.
- Good quality oils will tend to state they have been produced from olives grown, hand-picked and bottled on the same estate. But this level of quality will come at a price.
- If you can taste the oil, this isn't possible in supermarkets, but good Deli's and Italian Food suppliers will let you taste the oils they sell.
- Finally, one of the more obvious points, but one that is so often over looked. Don't use quality oil for general cooking. Extra-virgin olive oils should be used for dressing salads, fish, meat and pasta dishes. Use plain olive oil , or even vegetable and sunflower oils for cooking, frying, marinading, etc.