Italy, Spain and Greece are the world’s three major olive producers, and Italy’s major oil cities, or "Città dell'Olio", include Olevano Sul Tusciano, in Campania and Siena, in Tuscany. But it’s not only in cooking that Italy’s liquid gold holds value; from medicines to soap-making, olive oil has been a precious commodity in Italy for centuries.
In Italy, growing olives and extracting oil is a straightforward process, and one that families and farmers have been practicing for centuries. Olive trees are some of the more resilient plants in the Mediterranean and are able to thrive with minimal cultivation, and once the fruit has been picked, oil can easily by extracted for cooking by hand-grinding or chemical extraction.
But cooking in Italy relies on superior raw ingredients and the very best oils for cooking are born out of meticulous care. Every stage and aspect of olive production influences its quality and taste, from the region of Italy the olives are grown in, to how their transported and stored.
The type of olive is the key starting point for producing high-grade cooking oil in Italy, with taste, aroma and colour varying wildly between different varieties. Harvest time in Italy is also critical, so great care is taken to make sure the olives are perfectly ripened: green olives produce a bitter oil with a longer shelf-life; riper fruits yield more oil and are milder, with few antioxidants; and overripe olives can produce rancid oil. The very best olive oil in Italy is made from hand-picked, high quality olives that are brought immediately to the mill to be crushed, limiting their exposure to oxygen and light.
In Italy, great care is taken to protect the olives from pressure, temperature, pests and abrasion, as any damage to the fruit begins the fermentation process and can cause defective oils, which will be noticeable in cooking. Before processing, fruits are graded and separated by variety and condition. High quality fruit is made from olives picked directly from the branch, with fallen fruit used for lower-grade oil.
Cooking oils produced in the traditional way - using no chemical treatment - are classed as ‘Virgin’, whereas chemically treated oils are labeled as ‘refined’. Further classification then refers to taste, with ‘Extra-virgin’ olive oil judged to have a superior taste and no more than 0.8% acidity. In Italy, around 45% of cooking oils are considered to be in this superior category.
You have to work quickly in extremely clean conditions to produce perfect oil, with the best cooking oil processed at cooler temperatures, to protect the aromas and further reduce the risk of oxidation. Correct storage encourages the proper aging and conservation of oil, even when sitting on the shelf in an Italian kitchen, in preparation for cooking; the best oils are stored in dark glass bottles or steel containers at temperatures below 18°C.
The value and authenticity of olive oil is monitored by the International Olive Council (IOC), who perform taste and quality tests. Olive oil is central to cooking in Italy and the practice for producing high-grade oils is for cooking is certainly no secret, but the truly magnificent oils are produced by real experts, who know just what it takes to produce, harvest, and process olives of high quality, using sensory evaluations of the oil.
Join us for our short break Italian cooking course in Tuscany this October and November to get a first-hand feel of the the delicate art of the olive oil harvest!