When it comes to Italy, one oil reigns supreme: olive oil. One of the oldest plants in the world, the olive tree features prominently in ancient mythology. The Romans, Egyptians and Greeks all included the symbolism of the olive in their literature, where it denoted good taste, well-being and peace. Stone tablets from the court of King Minos of Crete (2500 BC) reference the olive tree.
Introduced by the Phoenicians and the Greeks to the Iberian Peninsula, olive trees have been cultivated in the Mediterranean for at least 6000 years. Olive trees were introduced to Italy in Sicily around 800 BC through the expansion of the Greek empire. When the Greek empire fell to the Romans, olive oil production was focused in Italy, and by the first century AD, Roman olive oil was far superior in quality than the oil produced by Hispania and the Greek had been. Indeed, Pliny the Roman historian stated that the olive oil of Italy was the best in the Mediterranean.
Both olives and their oil have played a key role in the region’s economy through the ages. Olive trees require 15 years to mature before a marketable crop, but once they do mature, they continue blooming quality fruit for approximately a further 65 years. Today, olives and olive oil remain a primary industry in Italy. Italy is second only to Spain in extra olive oil production and is the largest exporter of olive oil products in the world, while also being the largest consumer of olive oil.
Regions throughout Italy focus on olive cultivation, including Puglia, Calabria, Sicily, Basilicata, Sardinia, Liguria, Garda lake, Veneto, Tuscany, Umbria and Lazio Abruzzo. Olive oil production, however, is the prerogative of Southern Italy, with Puglia, Calabria and Sicily being responsible for producing upwards of 85% of the country’s olive oil production. More than 50 varieties of olive are used in production and provide each oil with a different scent and flavour.
Several factors determine olive oil’s classification, such as the quality and freshness of the fruit, the level of acidity and the processing method. The categories of olive oil include:
Extra Virgin olive oil
Virgin olive oil
Second pressing/pomace oil
Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVO)
In order for olive oil to be labelled extra virgin olive oil (EVO), olive oil must meet legal requirements, including that the oil is derived directly from olives, with an acidity level of no more than 0.8%. Extra virgin oil is pure olive oil produced by mechanically pressing olives. Extra virgin oil cannot contain any additives or preservatives The only processing that extra virgin olive oil undergoes is, washing, decantation, centrifugation and filtration. It has been termed “liquid gold”.
While olive oil may meet the requirements not all extra virgin olive oil is quality oil; the quality of the oil varies, with the region of origin and price as determinants. The rule of thumb is that the best quality olive oil is the most expensive, since olives of poor quality result in poor quality oil, regardless of whether the oil is extra virgin. Consider the higher costs associated with yielding quality fruit, and it makes sense that these higher costs are passed on to the consumer via a higher price tag.
Another indication of quality olive oil is packaging. Oil that is packaged to protect the oil against deterioration caused by sun exposure indicates quality oil. Look for oil in dark bottles or wrapped in gold paper. Also, look for the DOP and IGP designations, which indicate the olives and the oil production are from a designated geographical region where strict compliance with the code of practice is monitored by an independent European Union commission.
Virgin olive oil
Virgin olive oil is produced and processed exactly like extra virgin olive oil and meets all requirements except for taste. The taste of virgin olive oil can be very good, but not reach the “superior” level required for extra virgin olive oil.
Olive oil is a mixture of 85% refined olive oil and 15% extra virgin olive oil, with a maximum acidity of 1%. This olive oil is excellent quality and can be used in any dish or recipe, both raw and cooked. The only difference in the resulting recipe is that the dish will not have the unique flavor that extra virgin oil imparts.
Second pressing/pomace oil is, as implied by its name, obtained from second pressings of olives. The extracted oil is then mixed with extra virgin oil to improve the extracted oil’s quality and reduce acidity. This oil is ideal for deep frying.
The next time you reach for oil, make it olive oil and enjoy the cooking and health benefits of this historically important oil.