Updated: 2 days ago
Olive oil is sacred to Italians. It's not just an ingredient that is called upon in virtually all our recipes, it's a staple to have a great extra virgin olive oil on our tables whenever we eat!
In fact. we use it every day, to cook and to season all our dishes with.
This ‘liquid gold’ is the Tuscan cuisine's "superstar" and the emblem of our food culture.
WHAT'S THE HISTORY OF OLIVE OIL?
Olive oil has a millennia-long history that is inextricably linked to the culture of the Mediterranean Sea area.
It spread started from the coasts of Palestine and Syria, to Greece, then to Magna Grecia (southern Italy) and Spain.
The first appearance of olive oil in Italy dates back 3500 years ago.
However, the product began to be much more widely traded around the 7th century B.C. thanks to the work of Carthaginian and Phoenician merchants, as well as Greek settlers.
Today, some 750 million olive trees are cultivated worldwide of which 95% of the area under olive cultivation is in the Mediterranean basin.
Spain is its most important exporter, with about a quarter of world trade. The largest oil producers in the world are the Spanish and Italians, while the Greeks are the strongest consumers, with 20 liters per inhabitant/year, followed by the Spanish and Italians with about 10 liters each.
In most Mediterranean countries, olive growing remains in the hands of small producers & many families still love to keep producing their own oil every year.
Olive groves extend from sea level up to an altitude of around 600 meters, limits beyond which the tree does not grow well. Olive trees thrive on hills or organized terraces on steep slopes supported by stone walls, as in Liguria or Greece, to maximize the plants' exposure to the sun and wind in order to avoid water stagnation in the soil, which can encourage infestations.
The varieties of olives cultivated are very different according to the different regions & climates of Europe (over 700 types or cultivars as we call them) and this is why the flavor can vary so much. Traditionally, the different cultivars that are present in the territories are mixed in order to obtain more regular yields and to increase the 'complexity' of the flavor profile of the oil.
HOW IS IT MADE?
The olive harvest takes place once a year, between October and December, more often by hand using brush-looking tools & nets placed underneath the trees.
The harvest is hard work & the quantity obtained is quite low, ranging from 20 to 60 kg per plant with a yield of around 10%-15%. This means that often one tree will give no more than a bottle of oil.
The production of extra virgin olive oil takes place in the mill (which should be within 24 hours from harvesting) where olives go through several stages.
1. The washing
2. The crushing
3. The pressing
From washing to pressing, the process must also respect specific thermic conditions and reduce air contact as much as possible as these factors will greatly determine its final quality.
For olive oil to be recognized as such, it must meet specific parameters and this applies, above all, to extra virgin olive oil.
WHAT ARE THE DIFFERENCES?
The quality of extra virgin olive oil is understood and categorized by sensations and numbers.
Sensations, as the best extra virgin olive oil, just like wine, is tasted & assessed through the nose & taste buds: notes of fruitiness, bitterness, and spiciness are, in fact, considered positive attributes of this product. Whereas rancidity and other off-putting aromas are a clear indicator of a bad quality.
But also through numbers that are derived from specific analyses based on standardized indices the main one of which is oleic acid (acidity degree).
Based on the acidity expressed in oleic acid, they are subdivided into:
EXTRA VIRGIN OLIVE OIL: absolutely perfect flavor and free acidity, expressed in oleic acid, of no more than 0.8%
EXTRA VIRGIN DOP & IGP OLIVE OIL
Extra virgin olive oil can have several quality marks: DOP, IGP, or Organic, which are synonymous with a superior quality oil. In fact, an oil with the DOP mark has an acidity tolerance of max 0,5% percent (but most often is much much lower)
This is certainly the best on the market & the most expensive, but DOP regions are few (42 in all of Italy - see a list here) and considered superior for olives than zones that have no geographical certifications.
VIRGIN OLIVE OIL: perfect taste and free acidity not exceeding 2%.
OLIVE OIL: Refined olive oil blended with virgin olive oils with an acidity not exceeding 2 %.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR? SOME HEADS-UP
Reading the label carefully is the first thing to do for choosing EVOO wisely. Here are some tricks to avoid wasting your money.
In general, it’s better to choose an EVOO that has a clear ‘ID’: produced and bottled by the same producer, year of production (the fresher the better) IGP and DOP LABELS (they certify where olives are grown, where the oil is produced & bottled).
Top-quality EVOO isn’t cheap & therefore they are generally used for dressing (but not exclusively)
WHY IS EVO OLIVE OIL SO GOOD FOR YOU?
The magic word is polyphenols.
In extra virgin olive oil, the amount of polyphenols is one of the fundamental parameters for determining the quality of the oil itself.
Chemically, these substances prevent oxidation reactions, thus, natural antioxidants that contribute to the stability of the oil over time.
Polyphenols also play an active role in our diet. In fact, numerous studies demonstrate the function of phenols as antioxidants (protecting cells from damage caused by free radicals), anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory substances. In addition, polyphenols are able to modify the organoleptic characteristics of oils, determining their fruity aroma and a more spicy or bitter taste: “the fresher the better, the spicier the better”!
DOP olive oils have set minimums for polyphenols content which can typically be around 150 ppm - again an EVOO with a DOP certification is the safest choice.
WATCH OUT FOR FRAUDS!
Since olive oil is the most valuable of all edible oils, it is also the most susceptible to adulteration.
The law does not oblige producers to indicate the acidity level on the label (so it could vary greatly from 0,01% to 0,8%). Neither is the specific origin of the olives stated on any generic EVOO unless it is DOP or IGP certified. It is only obligatory to indicate the expiry date (18 months from bottling) and the category of oil in which it (presumably) fits…and this is the gateway to the so-called "fake extra virgins".
The most common frauds are:
- Oils with analytical contents that do not meet the requirements of EU regulations (e.g. acidity above the limits for that particular category).
- “Supposedly” extra virgin oil that in reality contains other refined oils, either olive or seed.
- Variously colored seed oils that may be passed off as olive oils (especially almond and peanut oils with the addition of chlorophyll).
Unfortunately, labeling rules are misleading: the result is that consumers don’t fully understand what they are actually buying & more importantly, what is worth buying.
But now you're well equipped to choose the best EVOO!
And here's more:
Come to Florence and join us on a wine tour that has a large focus on olive oil as well: Chianti Tradition
You can pursue more knowledge about olive From the comfort of your home: Check out our all-time favorite book written by Tom Mueller Extra Virginity which you can, for example, find on Amazon.
Want to stock up on some great EVOO?
We ship directly from Italy! Our olive oil is an organic DOP Chianti Classico (see more about this DOP) and we only ship out the fresh stuff (also because we always sell out before the new oil is pressed in October-November).
Article written by Ilaria Miele and Rebecca Gouttenoire