Italian Olives and Olive Oil
Olive oil is essential to any kitchen and indispensable in Italian cuisine. Both a cooking element and condiment, olive oil is so versatile that it is ideal for preparing (frying, braising, sautéing, baking, broiling, grilling, marinating and basting) and for enhancing flavors of dishes and foods once served. As a monounsaturated fat, olive oil actively helps the body defend itself from heart disease by eliminating harmful cholesterol. Add olive oil to your pantry and the result is healthier, richer tasting food.
Many regions of Italy produce olive oil. Tuscany, often the most revered region for olive oil production, shares this wonderful responsibility with the rest of Italy. In Friuli Venezia Giulia, a cold region bordering Austria and Slovenia, olive trees line the northeastern hills, as well the Adige River, Lago di Guarda and Lago d’Iseo, where the microclimate is milder. Liguria, a coastal region facing the Tyrrenean Sea, contains many olive trees, which make sweet, modest oils that complement the local seafood. Umbria, in Central Italy, produces full-bodied olive oils, which are known for their aromas of artichoke, green tomatoes, pepper and fruit. In the nearby Abruzzo, many valleys are strewn with olive trees. In the extreme South, Sicily, because of its varied terrain, produces a variety of well-rounded, fruity oils. Finally, a great quantity of fresh and fruity oils come from Apulia—Italy’s top olive oil producing region.
The olive tree is an evergreen tree or shrub native to the Mediterranean, Asia and Africa. These fruit bearing trees flourish properly only in a warm climate and are one of the world’s oldest cultivated trees. Olive oil is the only eating oil obtained by squeezing the fruits of a tree. Regular fertilizing and pruning is required to preserve continuing olive production.
When the olives are deemed ripe, after maturing from green to black in late autumn and winter, harvesting begins. Between November and February pickers will gather olives by hand and with nets. The time spent between picking and pressing is the most critical for the olives. It is of utmost importance that the olives arrive at the press healthy, whole, and as quickly as possible to avoid molding and decomposition that occurs after they have been removed from the tree. Leaves, twigs and any other remaining debris are removed and the olives are moved into the press to be ground and mixed. Then the resulting oil is separated from the water and further liberated of extraneous residue.
Virgin olive oil is the result of the first unfiltered press from the olive and is often more expensive. The premium on virgin olive oil is explained by its unique aromatic and taste traits specific to the region of origin. For an olive oil to be classified as virgin it must contain no more than 2% acidity (the acidity is in reference to oleic acid; a monounsaturated fatty acid). The extra virgin olive oil classification demands similar quality as the virgin classification, but requires less than 1% acidity (some purists specify acidity must not exceed 0.8%). Ordinary or pure Italian olive oil contains no more than 3.3% acidity.
Fruity, fresh, buttery, sharp, peppery, sweet or green are the most common terms used to articulate the flavors when tasting olive oil. Italian olive oils can be pale yellow, greenish-yellow, or olive green in color, with a perfume that is delicate, or sweet, or refined, or fresh, or intense. To experience the diversity of flavors and aromas pour a tablespoon of olive oil into a small, clear glass. Swirl the oil around the glass to coat the entire surface. Hold the bowl of the glass in your hand to delicately warm the oil. This releases the oil’s natural aroma for you to inhale the fragrance before tasting. To taste the oil you may sip it directly from the glass (hold in your mouth for 5 seconds and then spit it out) or dip a small piece of unsalted bread into it.
Enjoy the many delights of using Italian olive oil in your kitchen and on your dining room table, remembering that this fresh, all-natural product can be stored for more than 18 months, but must be protected from excesses of temperature, from light and from contact with the air.