Italian olive oil, provinces, types, categorization, recipes, description
Olive oil arrived in Italy during the reign of Lacius Tarquinius Priscus the elder who lived in 616 BC – 578 BC. I have discussed the history ad nauseam and have decided to discuss the oil itself here today.
Italy is the second largest producer of olive oil in the world and the extra-virgin olive oil is produced everywhere in Italy, excepting Piedmont and Val D’Aosta. The most prolific producers can be found in Liguria, Tuscany, Umbria, and Apulia. In Tuscany the extra virgin olive oils differ from each other to such an extent that they are not recognizable in the slightest – the variety is simply too large. In Umbria, the massive groves dominate the landscape completely and Apulia is home to one-third of Italy’s olive trees.
Italy alone produces around 3,150,000 tons of olives per year and her plantations cover about 1,2 million hectares with almost ¾ in the higher hilly areas that yield much less oil but produce superlative oils – simply the best of the best. The olive harvests are, traditionally, in November when the olives are just starting to turn purple. They are at their best then, fully aromatic and at their most nutritious.
In Europe Italy is, generally, the leader in the field of special agricultural technology and naturally in Elaio technology (the technical term for oil extraction). Interestingly, whilst the olives are still ground by granite millstones in a pan grinder until they form a pulp – the presses and centrifuges are the most modern in the world. On top of all this, most olives in Italy are still hand picked – this being one of the reasons for the superior quality of Italian oil.
Olive oils in Italy are strictly tested and tasting, origin and quality are strictly categorized. It is common cause that Italians take their food very seriously – and only once all criteria are met, the oil is categorized as follows:
- Olio d’oliva extra vergine (extra virgin olive oil) – from the first pressing
- Olio d’olive vergine (virgin olive oil) – from the second and the third pressing
- Olio d’olive (pure olive oil) – a mixture of local and refined oil
- Olio d’sansa d’oliva (olive pomace oil) – here they use solvents and extract it from the pulp that remains after the pressing
Italy’s geography lends itself to the production of wine and olive oil and since the earliest of times olive oil has been paramount. The Italians, once the Greeks introduced them to it, were responsible for taking olive oil everywhere in Europe.
In the North of Italy, the Ligurian Riviera dominates oil production and the Taggiasco olives that are prolific there produce very fine, delicate, light, almondy oils. The Lavagnina olive, making up a very small percentage of oil, cannot be ignored and is an important olive in the oil production of this area. Sadly you may have to take a drive to Liguria to buy some olive oil from here. Unlike in the south where the olives are picked in November already, these smallish olives are hand-picked in December and January.
The lake Garda area, near Veneto produces very delicate oils and then in Lombardy the Casaliva, Leccino, Morailo olives render stronger, fruitier, herby oils that are greenish in colour.
In Central Italy Tuscany, Umbria, Lazio, Emilia-Romagna and Le Marche the olives are hugely varied but in Tuscany and Umbria the Frantoio, Leccino and Morailo are the best known. Herby, peppery, nutty and with a taste that (to me) reminds of Cape spices would be the best way to describe the flavour of these oils.
Southern Italy, where the most oil is found, is the most difficult part of Italy to categorize. Each region has their own favourite olives and they all consider their oil to be the best. I have no idea how anyone can decide something like that since Italian olive oil is just so good that I simply would be unable to do that. Apulia has the Cima del Bitonto, Calabria the Ottobratica, Sicily the Nocellara, Sardinia the Palma, Abruzzo the Gentile di Chieti. How on earth is one supposed to decide? The only thing they all seem to have in common is that their sun imparts strong golden colour, a taste of olive and of fruit. I mean really!
In Liguria most villages have their own olive mills, known as gumbi and can often be found in the cellars of private homes. Rabbit is very plentiful there and I simply had to add my version of a recipe for
CONIGLIO CON OLIVE TAGGIASCHE
Rabbit with taggiasco olives
1,5 kg oven ready rabbit
2 tablespoons thick oyster sauce
3 cloves garlic, peeled
1 small onion, chopped
2 small carrots finely sliced
1 sprig rosemary
1 sprig thyme
4 pimiento’s, crushed
4 cardamom, seeds removed
2 small chili
Extra virgin olive oil
Sicilian salt to taste
750 ml good fruity white wine
200 g taggiasca olives, pips removed
Cut up the rabbit into medium pieces, wash and dry.
Sauté onions, herbs, chili’s and spices in the olive oil and when soft, brown the meat in the same pot – adding the oyster sauce.
Add salt, wine and simmer over a low heat for about 40 minutes.
Add the olives and simmer for a further 20 – 25 minutes until the sauces thicken.
Serve with crispy roasted potatoes, lots of crusty bread and good a Picotendro.
In Tuscany the Medici family, particularly, went to great lengths to promote olive oil. In the 15th century the Granduca Cosimo II gave land to any family that wanted to grow olive trees. Thanks to them, their planning, economic initiatives and, quite honestly, their money Tuscany is not only an exquisitely beautiful piece of land, but a major olive oil producer in Italy today.
By the 16th century Tuscany was exporting olive oil and the production has grown, consistently, since then. Many of the olive groves were planted in the latter half of the 19th century. In 1985 the ferocious cold frosted a huge number of trees in Tuscany. It was so cold that it snowed as far South as Sabaudia in Lazio, which delighted my children and myself but certainly not everyone, in particular the farming communities. However, many of the Tuscan farmers took that opportunity of replacing their frosted trees with varieties that were more suitable to modern agricultural conditions. The most predominant varieties of olives grown in Tuscany are Frantoio, Leccino, Moraiolo and Pendolino.
A rule of thumb with olive oil is that the oils that grow nearer the sea (Lucca) are rounder and softer in flavour. The hilly areas and even the foothills around the Appenines, where the temperatures are lower and the olives do not get as ripe, produce well balanced, slightly bitter and full bodied oils. Since the olives are harvested while they are slightly unripe, the oil is greener. The quality of the olive oil is dependant on the free oleic acid content – extra vergine, for example may never exceed 1% but the better oils usually range from .2% – ,5%.
My favourite oils in the world are from Le Marche, Tuscany, Apulia, Abruzzo, Molise, Sicily and Umbria. My second favourite are from the rest of Italy.
The lime soils as well as the dry climate of Apulia offer one of the very best climates for olive growing in Italy. The provinces of Foggia, Bari and the Salento peninsula (which in turn includes the provinces of Lecce, Brinidisi and Taranto) provide some of the most exquisite fruity and acidic oils in the world. The trappeti in Apulia (the forerunners of the modern oil mills) are always worth a visit. Set in subterranean caves with the thick lime walls protecting the valuable oil this ground feels almost ‘hallowed’. All entrances to a trappeto face the south and are the only entrances! I could spend months here – visiting, exploring and eating – enjoying time with a truly lovely people.
To celebrate the oil – I share a few recipes of my own:
REALLY EASY WALNUT PASTE
1kg fresh walnuts (you can also use pecans here)
2 – 3 garlic cloves, peeled
½ teaspoon medium ground paprika
50 ml olive oil (a delicate one would be good here)
Toast the walnuts for about 4 -5 minutes in an oven pre-heated to 170 C.
Rub them between your fingers to remove as much of the skin as possible, then remove whatever remains with a small knife.
Put everything in the food processor and process until you have a smooth puree.
Keep in the fridge for about a month, covered with olive oil. It can be used for a host of delicious dishes!
This is more or less what he does – with an inborn talent, ferociously denied, he is bold with flavour’s, strong on texture and ignores all recipes and rules absolutely. The results are usually out of this world.
2 large garlic cloves, peeled
50 g pine kernels, peeled and toasted
250 g basil leaves, picked off the stalk
50 g grated Parmesan, freshly grated
300 ml Ligurian extra virgin olive oil
a touch of Sicilian salt (to be honest he uses Maldon, but Sicilian would be better)
In your processor add the garlic, the kernels, the basil – a few at a time, the cheese and then the oil.
Remember to do this as quickly as possible to retain the fresh green colour, if it takes too long you can rest assured that the colour will darken.
Served with pasta of your choice, more Parmesan if you like and a good dry German Riesling or an Italian Pinot Gris – all well chilled.
* Please note all wine suggestions here are strictly subjective and only illustrate what I like – certainly not what one should have.
This recipe is strictly for the harassed person that has absolutely no time whatsoever
EMERGENCY LENTIL PATE
500 g cooked green lentils, soft and drained (tins can be used here, if you must)
2 large cloves garlic, peeled
2 large lemons, zest and juice
1 green chili, pith and pips removed
½ tsp ground cumin
200 grams parsley, finely chopped
200 ml good Sicilian extra virgin olive oil
50 g anchovies, drained
handful capers to taste
Sicilian salt to taste
100 ml fresh white breadcrumbs
Place everything in your food processor (with the exception of the crumbs) at one time, retaining half of the oil.
Process on very slow, checking on the machine constantly as it may put a strain on lighter machines.
Add the olive oil in a steady stream and process with care.
Should the mixture be very soft, add some of the breadcrumbs to ensure firmness and process until the mixture is very smooth.
Place in individual paté dishes, cover with a thin layer of oil and refrigerate. Serve as a budget friendly hors d’oeuvre with preserved wild mushrooms, crusty bread, slices of lemon and an ice cold Vergine Stravecchio Masala from Sicily – for which the wine connoisseurs can crucify me now.
On a lighter note, did you know?
- Olive oil is extremely easy to digest and has a positive effect on both the stomach and the digestive system.
- The enormously high content of simple, unsaturated fatty acids (80%) reduces the risk of heart and circulatory disease.
- Olive oil, unlike any other animal or vegetable fat (or oil), can be heated without forming any substances that may damage ones health – this because of the high percentage of antioxidants in the oil
- Olive oil is the healthiest oil on the market and the best assimilated by the human body.
- An olive tree can live for over 200 years – after a tree dies new branches will begin to bud in the same place – this is why they say that an olive tree can live forever.
- The ‘Olive tree of Magliano’ in Tuscany is 3500 years old