[ November 22, 2004 ]
Olive oil: Italy’s green gold (Part 1)
One cannot think olive oil without wondering at the impressive skills of Italians, renowned across the globe for their adept extraction of the most exquisite vegetable oil from this sacred fruit. Epicures, in selecting an olive oil, have a wide array of flavours, textures, aromas and colours among which to choose, thanks to centuries-old knowledge handed down from one generation to the next.

Occupying a choice position within the Mediterranean circuit, Italy has been the land of choice for olive trees since antiquity. This country boasts all of the qualities of the biggest producer of quality olive oils in the world: terroir, climate, tradition… all words that remind us greatly of the world of wine.

Like the vine, there are traces of the olive tree dating back between 5,000 and 6,000 years B.C. is Mesopotamia. And, like the grape vine, the olive tree—which quickly became sacred—inspires symbolism so strong that it is the basis for tradition that remains deeply anchored in our belief system. Mankind, the vine and the olive tree became civilized together!

The Phoeniciens, Greeks and Romans systematically implanted the culture of the olive tree everywhere they went, most notably in Southern Europe and along the coasts of North Africa. Added to the wheat and vine cultures, it contributed to the staple of the Mediterranean diet that we continue to enjoy today.

A wide variety

If Italy is the country that possesses and uses the largest number of native vine varieties in the world (about 450!) in producing its wines, it is also the country that uses the largest variety of olive trees (more than 150) and olives (there are close to 500!). By adding to this a diversity of terroirs and olive-producing techniques and perfectly combining these three elements, Italians are able to offer foodies an immense selection of olive oils of the highest quality.


There are three major olive oil growing and production zones in Italy: the north, primarily along the Ligure Coast, the Great Lakes and Emilie-Romagne regions; the central area, which includes Tuscany, Umbria, the Abruzzes, the Marches and Latium; the south, which includes Pouilles, Campania, Calabria, Basilicate, Sardaigne and Sicily. Each of these regions creates olive oils with a typicity all their own—a typicity characterized by protected appellations of origin (see framed text).

Appellations of origin: a little history
In 1992, the European Community created systems for the valorization and protection of geographic denominations (AOP and IGP).

What is a Protected Appellation of Origin (AOP)?
A Protected Appellation of Origin designates the denomination of the product whose production, transformation and development must take place in a determined geographic area and using constant and recognized know-how. To help consumers identify the different European countries, the AOP could eventually be replaced by traditional equivalent abbreviations (French AOC, Italian DOC or the Spanish "denominación de origen").

What is a Protected Geographic Indication?
Where Protected Geographic Indication is concerned, there must be a connection with the terroir at a minimum of one stage of production, transformation or development.

In total, there are 24 Protected Appellation of Origin olive oils and one Protected Geographic Indication olive oil:

- Aprutino Pescarese (AOP)
- Brisighella (AOP)
- Collina di Brindisi (AOP)
- Canino (AOP)
- Sabina (AOP)
- Riviera Ligure (AOP)
- Bruzio (AOP)
- Cilento (AOP)
- Colline Salernitane (AOP)
- Penisola Sorrentina (AOP)
- Garda (AOP)
- Dauno (AOP)
- Colline Teatine (AOP)
- Monti Iblei (AOP)
- Laghi Lombardi (AOP)
- Valli Trapanesi (AOP)
- Terra di Bari (AOP)
- Umbria (AOP)
- Toscano (IGP)
- Terra d'Otranto (AOP)
- Lametia (AOP)
- Chianti Classico (AOP)
- Terre di Siena (AOP)
- Val di Mazara (AOP)
- Veneto Valpolicella, Veneto Euganei e Berici, Veneto del Grappa (AOP)

A few tips to help you choose the right oil

Over and above AOPs, there is a hierarchy in the world of green gold. Did you know that 70% of Italian olive oils are "extra virgin"? So, what exactly does this mean? Here are a few definitions that will help make things easier when choosing an olive oil at the grocery store!

Like wine, olive oil boasts some grands crus as well as some piquettes!
The label on the bottle should normally provide you with some standard information: geographic origin, denomination, name of producer, etc.

You should also take the quality of the containers into consideration. Grands crus are normally sold in bottles of tinted glass—generally black in colour and thereby serving to protect the oil from the light.

Where price is concerned, you should expect to see a tremendous difference based on quality. Top-quality oils can be very expensive, but their cost is often justified. For the most part, the best olive oils are artisinally produced—in this case, close to 10 kg of olives are needed to make a single litre of olive oil!

What is virgin olive oil?

It is an oil made using the fruit of the olive tree, uniquely extracted using mechanical or other physical procedures in certain, notably thermic conditions that do not alter the fruit and do not subject it to treatments other than washing, decantation, centrifugation and filtration (Règlement du Conseil (CEE) No. 356/92, modifying regulation No. 136/66, published in the Journal Officiel des CE No. L39 of January 15,1992)

The following qualities can be found under this denomination:

Extra-virgin olive oil (extravergine): possesses an acidity rate lower than 1 g per 100 g of oil. The oil must be extracted from the olives using a simple physical or mechanical operation.

Virgin olive oil: also called "fine". It has a maximum acidity rate of 2 g per 100 g of oil.

Ordinary virgin olive oil: has a maximum acidity rate of 3.3 g per 100 g of oil.

Mild olive oil: due to the selection of olives used, the taste of the fruit is more discrete but its subtle flavour is still present. Ideal for accompaniment sauces and mayonnaises and for light cooking.

Virgin lampante olive oil: this oil cannot be consumed in its actual state and has to be refined before consumption or used for technical purposes.

Refined olive oil: obtained from virgin olive oil, this oil is generally lampante. It has undergone refinement treatments that do no alter its initial glyceridic structure.

Olive oil: without virgin or extra virgin denomination, it has a free oleic acidity that does not surpass 1.5% refined olive oil mixed with top-quality extra-virgin olive oil.

Olive oil: only the best!

When used for cooking, olive oil preserves all of its aroma, character and its different tastes. It can be delicate or fruity, have a powerful or light taste, a floral or herbal nose, be soft or austere… a range of flavours that lends itself to an endless array of new pairings.

At once a sauce, condiment or spice, it can be enjoyed naturally, with a good vinegar or atop a tomato. In its natural state, a light touch superbly enhances the flavour of fish or meat. It can transform a simple salad, tomato sauce, Tilapia filet, curry, cake or mayonnaise into a true culinary delight!

It is perfect for cooking sautés and fried foods. Contrary to popular belief, olive oil is not altered during cooking and it can be heated up to 280°C. And, in addition to being delicious, olive oil is also highly nutritious—an excellent choice at every level!

People have always enjoyed Mediterranean cuisine, and now you know one of its best-kept secrets!

Upcoming (Part 2):
Olive trees, an omnipresent everyday reality throughout Italy
Methods of production
Methods for tasting olive oil

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