One thing the Tuscans take very seriously is their olive oil and around November every year the talk of Tuscany is olive oil - the time of the harvest, the amount of olives picked and, of course, the highly-prized cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil.
Harvesting takes place when the olives are at a nice balance of ripe and just-about ripe. Many olives, especially those used for extra-virgin olive oil, are still picked by hand. Baskets of freshly picked olives a bought into the cellars from the nearby olive groves to be pressed straightaway, and dropped into the heavy, often very ageing, pressing machines, which carefully press the olives int Tuscanys most sought after liquid, well non-alcholic liquid anyway. Experienced olive oil makers, stand in line watching every step of the pressing process until the first few golden drops fall not the bottle.
Olives are harvested around October/ November - around the same time Tuscanys other great liquid, Chianti, is going through its first fermentation in the cellars. Harvesting this late is a calculated risk, the flavour will be improved but the risk of higher acidity always threaten the late harvest Tuscan oils (to be classed as extra-virgin olive oil, the oil must have an acidity level of less than 8%.)
The word "virgin" refers to the oils untainted purity, a virgin olive oil must not be processed or blended, and a virgin olive oil must be made from the first pressing, a cold pressing, of the freshly picked olives.
Tuscan extra-virgin olive oil has been hailed for its health benefits - scientific research has linked olive oil to lowering cholesterol and being good for your heart. These benefits are particularly present in the first cold pressed olive oils, as heating the oil causes these health giving properties to reduce.
Tuscan olive oil however, a very sought after, production levels, compared with other olive oil producing areas of Italy, is very low - infant one of the lowest in Italy. The low-levels of production of high-quality olive oils and high consumer demand to own a good bottle of Tuscan olive oil has lead to some extraordinary pricing. There is a saying about Italian olive oils that gives some insight into the quality and production level of olive oil -
"to procure Ligurian olive oil, you must be friendly with a farmer; to procure Tuscan olive oil you must be friendly with a count"
Buying Tuscan Olive Oil
When buying Tuscan olive oil, or when buying any good Italian olive oil, many people search for the words "made in Italy". This term is rarely seen on bottles however, the words to look for are "produced in Italy". This means the oil has been processed and put into the bottle in Italy, however, the olives themselves are not necessarily grown in Italy, they could have been imported from Greece, Morroco, Turkey or, more likely nowadays, Spain. Genoa and Bari are centres of olive oil processing and tankers from Spain can often be seen in these ports full of imported olives.