[ 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.
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.
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
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…
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!