[ February 23, 2005 ]
Olive oil: Italy’s green gold (Part 2)
In Italy, the production and consumption of olive oil are acts which are profoundly anchored in the country’s culture—more particularly in mid-Italy and south of the boot. One can enjoy a tremendous variety—the differences in the oils stemming in large part from their respective methods of production. These differences can be appreciated using tasting techniques quite similar to those used for wine!

Italians have been cultivating olive trees practically since the beginning of time! The resulting oil is used in almost all Italian recipes and accompanies practically every meal. And, despite the fact that Italy produced over 600,000 tons in 1999/2000 and is the world’s second largest producer of olive oil, it has still managed to maintain a love for ancient production methods and olive groves of a small size. There are over 700,000 large and small producers—often family owned and operated—and more than 5,000 mills (compared to France, for example, which only has 150!), and close to half of the oil produced is sold by bulk to conditioning companies or consumed by the families themselves.

Olive oil is produced in most regions of Italy, although there are three main olive oil production regions: to the north, there is Trentino, Lombardia, Veneto; in the middle, there is Liguria, Toscana, Umbria, Lazio and Campania, Emilia-Romagna and the Marches; to the south, there is Calabria, Puglia as well as Sicilia and Sardegna. Note that Puglia and Sicilia alone make up half of the total surface of Italian orchards.

The peninsula offers a range of almost unlimited products: taste, texture, acidity, colour… these are the properties that vary from one mill to another and, if the terroir has an influence over the final result, the method of production used can also make all the difference, each producer appropriating it and tailoring it to their needs.

Method of production

It is clear that, over the centuries, several technological improvements have been made and have facilitated the work of producers. However, in the end, the basic methods of production have changed very little.

First, there is the harvesting
, which takes place from autumn to April, depending on the cultivars (variety of olive), and can be done by hand or using the hand pole beating method which consists of using long supple wooden poles to shake the leaves of the olive tree. Yet another method is the use of the olive comb with which pickers comb the twigs of the tree with a small rake to detach the fruit.

Once they are picked, the olives are sorted and then immediately brought to the mill to ensure that they do not start fermenting.

The olives are then crushed and the resulting paste is pressed into layers. The paste is placed in 2-cm-thick layers on nylon-fibre disks (scourtins) which are then piled in stacks around a centre pin (called a needle) that is mounted on a type of small cart.

This unit is placed on a hydraulic press piston which exposes the paste to pressure of around 100 kg/cm2. The liquid then makes its way into a bin, the husk remaining on the scourtins. The result is olive combined with water—which is then separated through a natural decantation process or by centrifugation. Since oil has a density that is inferior to that of water (0.920 g/litre), it automatically rises to the surface—this is called natural decantation. This method, however, is barely ever used because it is a slow process and because it is difficult to separate oil from water in the zone separating the two fluids.

A vertical disk centrifuge used to separate the olive oil from the black liquor is the tool of choice for this operation.

Just filter the oil… and enjoy!

Olive oil tasting

Perhaps the best way to truly pay tribute to the green gold obtained is to learn how to discover it, and take the time to taste and appreciate it.

But, how exactly does one judge an olive oil? It should be noted that there are certain regulations and methods that have been adopted by olive oil tasting judges:

It is important that the oil be tasted at a temperature between 26 and 28 degrees. Professionals enjoy tasting the oil on its own, while amateurs usually try it with a bit of bread.

Distinguish and appreciate olfactory senses (aromas). With a bit of practice, one can easily learn to identify dozens of different aromas: fruit, floral, spice, vegetable, wood, citrus, aromatic herbs, milk or fresh cream…

Then discover the tastes by taking into consideration that this is truly a subjective exercise—personal taste clearly determines preference. One generally appreciates the oil’s fruitiness—in other words, the aromatic sensations that remind one of a fresh fruit—the oil’s mildness and the oil’s spiciness. Note that a slight bitterness is not necessarily a negative thing. At the same time, too strong an acidity is definitely a flaw and indicates that the oil is of poor quality. One should not be able to detect the slightest acidity in the oil’s taste.

Contrary to wine, different varieties of olives can not be distinguished simply through tasting. The only criterion that applies to olive oil varieties is that they must only be perfectly adapted to the production region. The age of olive trees also plays a significant role.

In addition to these olfactory senses and tastes, one must consider haptic senses (the oil’s smoothness, for example) related to texture: the oil can be smooth and round to the taste, but it can also be mellow, rough, silky or fleshy.

Italian olive oils open up a whole new world to us. And, among the wide variety offered, one can doubtless find the perfect oil to suit his or her palate. Taste, discover, enjoy—this delectable nectar is as good for your health as it is for the senses!

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Trade Promotion Section of the Consulate General of Italy