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Olive oil is one of Italy’s most popular exports and as the world’s second largest producer it’s a huge industry in the country. Each year, Italy produces an amazing 400,000 tones of olive oil, primarily in the Southern provinces of the country.
Italians are famous for taking their food very seriously and this includes all the component ingredients that go into making their iconic dishes. Choosing the correct olive oil for a recipe is very similar to selecting a wine that complements a dish, so it’s vital to get it just right!
Olive groves and vineyards are central to Italy’s agritourism, attracting millions of tourists and expats.
A Brief History Of Olive Oil Production.
Olive oil has been a mainstay of Mediterranean cuisine for thousands of years although the precise origins of the practise are a hotly contested subject among culinary historians.
The wild olive trees, which were later cultivated for olive oil production, are originally from Asia and their fruits, technically known as ‘drupes’, were collected by foraging tribes in the Neolithic period.
Olive oil has been used for a wide range of purposes that include religious rituals, fuel for oil lamps, soaps and even medicines. It’s not known exactly when olive trees were first cultivated and domesticated by farmers although the best theories suggest that the practice began in Ancient Mesopotamia and Persia.
From there, the adoption of olive trees as a crop spread through North Africa into Carthage, Libya and later Greece. As the Greek city states began to set up colonies in Spain, Africa and elsewhere in the emerging Roman Empire the domestic cultivation of olive trees took roots on the Italian peninsula.
The best historical evidence suggests that Lucius Tarquinius Priscus brought the practice of cultivating olive trees from Tunisia, in Northern Africa, to Italy in the 6th Century BC, although the practice was not widespread at that time.
From this early foothold the practice eventually spread rapidly through the Southern territories of the Roman Empire including, of course, Italy, the heart of the Empire. Today olive groves are a common site in many of the rural provinces of Italy.
Where Are Olives Grown In Italy?
The region of Apulia is Italy’s main producer of olive oil, making over 200,000 tons each year. Calabria ranks as the second main olive oil producer in Italy, making 53,000 tons annually while Sicily produces 34,000 tons each year. Apulia, the center of the Italian olive oil industry, has more than 900 sites where oil mills distill the product.
Italian cuisine makes a lot of use of olive oil and it’s a crucial ingredient in everything from seafood, pasta and salads. However, the history of olive oil production stretches far back into the mists of time!
What Are The Major Varieties Of Olive In Italy?
It’s estimated that in Italy there are up to 500 distinct varieties of olives! Often referred to as Italian ‘Green Gold’, each variety of olives have their own subtle flavors that are prized by producers and chefs alike.
These varieties have been carefully developed over the centuries to increase the productivity of the trees as well as to bring out the unique flavors of specific types of olives.
Despite the huge variety of olives in Italy there are a few that really stand out from the rest. These are used in the production of olive oil as well as eaten as a side dish, with wine or a cheese board.
The major varieties of Italian olives are:
This classic variety of olives originate in Sicily where they are widely grown. The Castelvetrano variety is famous for its bright green coloring as well as being one of the world’s best tasting types of olives!
The olives have a soft inner flesh which has a texture that is quite similar to an avocado. These are one of the country’s preferred varieties for eating as a snack with wine or an Italian cheese platter.
The Ortice variety of olives originate in Campania and are one of the country’s oldest varieties, with its cultivation dating right back to around 530 BC! These olives are deliciously spicy with a subtly complementary herbal undertone that is often used in tomato dishes with pasta.
The Gaeta variety of Italian olives are from the city of Gaeta on the Western coast of the country, South of Rome. The olives are small, sweet and come in several shades of purple.
Usually, the Gaeta olives are kept in brine and later marinated in olive oil. They pack a huge amount of flavor and have a strong meaty texture with a slight hint of bitterness. Gaeta olives are often paired with hard cheeses and eaten as an antipasto.
Hailing from Puglia, the Cerignola variety of olives is one of the largest in the world. They are frequently stuffed with other ingredients to eat as an antipasto as well as being used in the production of olive oil.
The Cerignola variety comes in both black and green as well as a rarer red colored variety that looks fantastic in cooking – although, the red coloring is artificially induced as opposed to being a natural hereditary feature.
Due to their large size they are a highly productive type of olive and are economical to use in the manufacture of oil.
Originating in Tuscany but now grown all over the world, the Leccino variety of olives are extremely unique in both their taste and appearance. Leccino olives have a slightly brown skin coloring and are used to make olive oil as well as being used as table olives.
Leccino olives have a refreshingly sweet and spicy flavor making them ideal for use in the production of olive oil.
Olive Oil Production – The Two Primary Methods.
There are two main approaches that are used to make olive oil in Italy. The first is known as ‘mechanical cold pressing’ and the second is called ‘chemical extraction’.
Mechanical cold pressing uses steel blades or, traditionally, large rocks to grind the olives down into a paste. This paste is then put into a centrifuge and spun at high speeds to separate the oil from the water inside the olives. Next the water is drained away to leave the extra-virgin olive oil which is bottled for culinary use.
Chemical extraction, the alternative technique of making olive oil, uses a chemical solvent to dissolve the olive oil from the crushed olives. This solvent is then vaporized to leave the oil and although it still has an excellent taste the color is distinctly lighter than extra-virgin oil and most of the nutritional value of the oil is ruined in the process.
What Are The Main Types Of Olive Oil In Italy?
There are four main types of olive oil that can be purchased in Italy. Each category has different levels of quality, tastes and nutritional value.
- Extra-Virgin Olive Oil: This is the highest quality of olive oil in terms of its nutritional value and flavor. It is extracted from the olives using the cold press technique and does not use any artificial chemicals in its manufacture. In order to be categorized as extra-virgin, that oil must be extracted by cold pressing within only 24 hours of having been harvested. It must be extracted at temperatures below 27 Degrees Celsius and immediately bottled for storage and shipping. The careful process ensures that the oil’s flavor is retained and stops the valuable nutritional benefits from being lost in more aggressive production techniques. Extra-virgin oil is high in healthy antioxidants including Vitamin E, oleic acids and carotenoids; all of which help to reduce your blood pressure and increase longevity.
- Virgin Olive Oil: Virgin olive oil is a good quality oil that is marginally inferior to extra-virgin olive oil. Virgin olive oil is not artificially refined during its manufacture which helps to retain its natural flavors although it is lower in nutritional content than extra-virgin olive oil.
- Refined Olive Oil: This is a cheaper and inferior quality of oil that is made using refined olive oil. This helps to remove the natural acidity of the oil but it also removes much of the oil’s nutritional content.
- Pure Olive Oil: Made using a blended mix of extra-virgin olive oil and refined olive oil it is quite acidic and low in nutritional value. This basic oil is relatively cheap and usually only used for the purposes of cooking.
What’s Special About Sicilian Olive Oil?
The olive oil that is produced in Sicily has a unique flavor and fragrance. It is, strictly speaking, classified as a type of Italian olive oil however because it’s grown in highly fertile volcanic soils it develops its own special characteristics.
Sicilian extra-virgin olive oils have a much fruitier taste than most other Italian olive oils. These flavors can be intense or more subtle with hints of green tomato, artichokes and mixed herbs.
How Long Does Olive Oil Last For?
Contrary to popular belief olive oil doesn’t actually age very well and can go rancid within a year or two! The more that your olive oil is exposed to the air or sunlight the more quickly it will lose its nutritional antioxidant properties and flavor.
Traditionally, Italians buy a year’s supply of olive oil in the autumn just after the olive harvest. Then, each year they replace their supply of olive oil in their homes or restaurants. Larger tins of olive oil are split up to be kept in smaller dark colored bottles to be used throughout the coming year.
Generally speaking, freshly pressed olive oil should not be used for cooking because the heat will break down its flavors and damage the antioxidants. Instead, it’s intended to be used on salads or drizzled over pasta while older olive oil, that’s up to two years old, is better to be used in cooking.
The Top 5 Italian Olive Oil Brands.
There’s a lot of competition when it comes to Italian olive oil but there are few regional brands that stand out from the crowd. These oils have highly refined flavors and manage to capture the essence of the olives they are carefully made from.
The best brands are classified as ‘DOP’ which means that there are strict regulations that require them to be made in specific geographical locations using approved traditional techniques. This ensures that the olive oil is made to the highest standards under carefully regulated conditions that are frequently inspected by industry watchdogs.
- Chianti Classico DOP: This Tuscan olive oil is produced in the hills between Siena and Florence. The extra-virgin olive oil contains no more than 0.5% acidity and has a recognizable bright yellow color. Approximately 80% of the olives used in its production come from the Correggiola, Leccino, Frantoio and Moraiolo varieties and have a lovely rich flavor. Chianti Classico is perfect for drizzling over salads and other regional Tuscan dishes.
- Sabina DOP: Sabina extra-virgin olive oil is one of Italy’s most famous brands and is manufactured in the beautiful Sabina hills between Rome and Rieti in Lazio. The Sabina olive oil is made from either single varieties of olives or carefully selected combinations that include cultivars such as Leccino, Raja, Pendolino, Moraiolo and Carboncella olives.
- Vulture DOP: Made exclusively from Ogliarola del Vulture olives, this unique offering is grown on the hillsides of Monte Vulture; a dormant, inactive volcano on the borders of Apulia and Campania. All the olive groves are managed using traditional techniques and produce some of the finest extra-virgin olive oil in Italy. The oil ranges in color from yellow to greeny-yellow and has an intense flavor of ripe olives with subtly spicy undertones and a rich fruity aroma.
- Bruzio DOP: Although they originally come from Ancient Greece, the olive varieties used in this oil have been grown in Tuscany since the 4th Century BC! The oil has a characteristic bright yellow color which is a sign of its high quality as well as the strict regulations that oversee its production. The olive oil was named after the Tuscan tribe of Bruzi, or ‘Brutti’, and is made using Rossanese, Tondino and Grossa di Cassano varieties of olives. It has a strong fruity flavor with a soft underlying bitterness making it an ideal choice to use in salads and other regional delicacies.
- Cilento DOP: This well loved extra-virgin olive oil is named after the area of coast in Salerno, just south of the Amalfi Coast. Cilento olive oil uses Pisciottano olives which are one of the oldest varieties in Italy, as well as Leccino, Frantoio, Rotondella and Salella varieties. The yellowy green olive oil has a sharp taste and a strong aroma with a maximum acidity of under 0.7%.
Can You Bring Olive Oil Back Home With You As A Souvenir?
There are many food items which you cannot ship back to the United States or elsewhere in the world as a tourist or Expat. However, fortunately you are allowed to bring olive oil back with you from Italy.
If you’re worried about the bottles breaking in your suitcase you can arrange to have them shipped back for you by the producer or merchant. This will take the stress out of worrying if you’re going to find that your precious olive oil bottles will be smashed in your luggage during transport!
Italian Olive Oil – Experience The Taste Of Authentic Italian Cuisine.
Using Italian olive oil is vital to be able to create authentic Italian recipes in your own kitchen! Whether you’re putting together an Italian inspired salad, pasta, seafood dish or soup, using the correct olive oil is essential to get the best results.
Olive oil is one of Italy’s most important culinary exports and so it’s worth experimenting with a few different brands until you find the one which perfectly suits your palette and cooking style.