Olives have been cultivated in Italy for centuries and tends to be particularly popular in southern Italian cuisine whereas in northern Italy, butter and lard tend to be more popular.
Like most oils, olive oil is susceptible to rancidity. Freshly pressed oil is at the height of its flavor, aroma and nutrition Oxidization of olive oil begins immediately after it is produced. For this reason, similar to milk, meat and seafood, olive oil is best consumed fresh, the fresher the better, (if possible, straight from the press) for maximum flavor and nutrition.. If olive oil is to be served uncooked such as in the case of salads, only the freshest olive oil should be used. If olive oil is over a year old, it is better to use it for cooking purposes.
The flavor of the oil depends on several factors such as the type of olives used, local growing conditions, harvesting time etc. It is not uncommon for artisanal olive oil producers in various areas of Italy be it Tuscany, Liguria or Umbria, to insist that their olive oil is the best.
Olive oil is a D.O.P. recognized product. D.O.P. stands for “Denominazione di Origine Protetta” in Italian which literally means “Protected Destination of Origin”. Olive oil with the D.O.P. mark is of the highest quality having been produced under strict E.U. guidelines. A few of the rules stipulate that the olives must be cultivated according to traditional methods, the oils must be exclusively produced in certain regions in Italy, using only natural ingredients (no chemicals and additives are allowed for D.O.P. olive oils, unlike some other oil products which use such chemicals for purposes such as oil extraction) and must be produced according to traditional methods.
Unlike D.O.P. designated olive oils which are exclusively made in Italy by artisan producers in specific regions of Italy, the title “Extra Virgin olive oil” is applicable to olive oil produced anywhere in the world and does not necessarily have to be produced by an artisanal olive oil producer. Extra Virgin Olive Oil is a title reserved for olive oils obtained from the first pressing of olives and contains less than 0.8% acidity. Thus, an Extra Virgin Olive Oil produced mechanically will simply be sold as “Extra Virgin Olive Oil”. However, an Extra Virgin Olive Oil product produced by an artisan producer in a specific region in Italy, produced following the strict quality guidelines to qualify for a D.O.P. designation will be sold with as “Extra Virgin Olive Oil D.O.P.”. For instance, an Extra Virgin Olive Oil produced by a qualified artisan olive oil producer in Liguria would be sold as “Olio Extravergine Riviera Ligure DOP” (which translates into “Extra Virgin Olive Oil DOP Liguria”).
Traditional method of making olive oil in Italy
Olive oil production starts with olives. Italy has over 350 varieties of olive trees or “cultivars” but usually only certain varieties of olives are used for producing olive oil such as Frantoio, Taggiasca, Leccino, Ascolano, Pendolino and Moraiolo.
Frantoio is a typical olive varietal cultivated in central Italy, particularly in Tuscany, and is a highly prized variety for producing olive oil.
Taggiasca is an olive varietal from Linguria, Italy and this olive variety derives its name from the village of its origin – Taggia. Taggiasca olive trees have been cultivated for centuries and today there exist Taggiasca olive trees which are over hundreds of years old that are still bearing fruit.
Traditionally olive fruits are handpicked from the trees (not machine-picked) at the right stage of ripeness (usually just before they fully ripen). By allowing the olives to develop naturally on the tree to the right stage of ripeness, ensures a naturally fruity, less acidic and more flavorful olive oil. Olives that spontaneously drop from their branches are not used for olive oil production as usually these olives are fully ripened. Fully ripened or overly matured olives are not ideally suited for oil production.
Once picked, it is time to crush the olives to extract the oil. The sooner they are crushed after plucking, the better, as fresh olives produce a fresh-tasting olive oil. The longer the olives sit after plucking, the more susceptible they are to rancidity, mold and spoilage, particularly if they are stored in environments with little aeration. This inevitably would have a negative effect on the flavor of the oil. The manner of storage also greatly affects the final oil. If the olives undergo significant trauma during the storage and transportation process, the olives could be injured, which also has a negative effect on the final flavor of the oil. Such trauma is less likely to take place in small-batch olive oil production facilities. At larger-batch olive oil production facilities, the freshly-plucked olives could be stored in thin layers to minimize such injury.
Within hours of picking, the olives are crushed at the local “frantoio” (“oil mill” in Italian) or “frantoi” (plural) using a traditional stone mill known as “molazza” in Italian. These traditional stone mills have been used for centuries to produce olive oil and today, some artisan olive oil producers continue to use centuries-old mills to produce their oils. In ancient times, animals such as horses or donkeys would be used to power the stone wheels which crush the olives at low speed. This way, the olives are crushed at temperatures not exceeding 27 °C into a paste containing oil, water and fruit particles. This crushing process is aimed at releasing the oil from the vacuoles of the olives, assisting the small oil droplets to combine and form large oil droplets and allowing the fruit enzymes to amplify the aroma and flavor of the oil.
The resultant paste is then sent through a “pressing process” whereby the solid particles or “pomace”, known as “sansa” in Italian are separated from vegetation liquid comprising water and oil known as “mosto”, using a presser.
Traditionally, this is done by pouring the paste onto flat fiber disks which traditionally were made with natural fiber from hemp or coconut but nowadays these disks may be made of synthetic fiber materials as these are easier to clean. These fiber disks, known as “fiscolo” in Italian, are filled with a certain quantity of the olive paste, then piled on top of each other to form a vertical tower. Next, pressure is applied to squeeze out the liquids (vegetation water made up of water and oil) while the solids are retained in the fiber disks. The vegetation water which seeps out slowly is collected. Once this step is complete, the disks are disassembled and the solid residue taken out and set aside. The disks are cleaned thoroughly and the process is repeated. If the disks are insufficiently cleaned, remnant residue in the disk could ferment and negatively affect the flavor of the next batch of oil.
Sometimes the press fails to extract all the oil in the “first press”. So the “sansa” is subjected to a second or third pressing to release additional oil. However, the oil extracted after the first press would not be sold as “Extra Virgin”.
Modern day olive oil production processes may utilize a mechanical crusher (which crushes the olives), a mixer (to “malax” the paste helping small oil droplets to combine and form larger oil droplets) and an industrial decanter which separates the oil from the vegetation water through centrifugation. These processes generally tend to be less labor intensive and more efficient than the traditional method. However, these tend to be more energy intensive and may result in a loss of healthy polyphenols.
The “sansa” is used for a variety of purposes from being a source of heating fuel to being an ingredient for food such as “taralli”.
Next, the vegetation water collected from the pressing stage is left to decant in large stone basins in a process known as “affiorato”. Since oil and water are non-soluble, and oil has a lower density than water, the oil separates and floats up to the surface. This is collected using a special pan known as “oliarole”.
Traditionally olive oil is not filtered, so after the decantation process, the product is bottled immediately. Unfiltered olive oil is known as “Non Filtrato” in Italian. This oil is cloudy as it contains olive fruit particles suspended in the liquid. Some find this traditional non-filtered olive oil to be more flavorful, nutritious and rich in phenolic compounds (which decrease the shelf life of the oil and so must be consumed fresh).
Modern day, non-traditional olive oils may be filtered which results in a clearer oil free of olive pulp sediments which helps increase the shelf life of the oil and produces a more “sellable” oil. However, filtered olive oil may not be as flavorful or nutritious compared to unfiltered olive oil since some of those healthy phenolic compounds are removed.