The olive is a fruit. At its purest and best, olive oil is the ‘juice’ of this fruit—just crush and press the olives and it will drip free. Unfortunately, the process is rarely kept that simple. There is a world of difference between industrial extra-virgin olive oil and estate-bottled oil made from homegrown, hand-picked olives. The latter will more than repay itself in quality. An aromatic, fruity oil can turn a good meal into a great one.
Modern methods of cultivating olive trees, picking the olives and extracting the oil has guaranteed much higher quality oil-making in recent years in Italy. If the south – like Puglia, Calabria and the Cilento – are still home to some immense, sculptural olive trees more than one hundred years old, current thinking about oil dictates that it is from small or low trees that the best oil can be obtained, as the olives should be hand-picked before they are ripe enough to drop from the trees, and very high trees make this all but impossible.
It’s worth knowing that industrial extra-virgin oil is bought as ‘crude extra virgin’ from many Mediterranean countries, regardless of where the bottler is located. It is always a blend, often including seed oils—though companies are not obliged to declare that on the label. Industrially refined ‘virgin olive oils’ and so-called ‘light’ olive oils have been stripped of their natural taste and defects by chemical solvents.
Italy’s is one of the world’s most important producers of high-quality extra-virgin olive oil. As with all natural products, each oil’s particular characteristics are determined by plant type, climate, and geography. In Tuscany, for example, terroir makes a big difference. Lucca’s coastal oils, like Liguria’s, are light in color and sweet in taste; they go well with seafood. Oils from Tuscany’s central hills are more decisive in flavor, with a peppery aftertaste and agreeable bitterness; they are best on salads and vegetables or drizzled on grilled bread.
Reputable small producers are attentive to each stage of the (necessarily costly) process. To make the best oil, healthy olives are hand-picked early in the season before they are ripe enough to fall to the ground. (Falling means bruising, and the likelihood of rotting or fermentation.) They are carried in airy crates to the frantoio, or mill, and preferably milled within thirty-six hours of being picked. There are currently two non-industrial systems for extracting the oil: the traditional stone mill and the modern continuous cycle plant.
“Until recently, everyone agreed that stone-ground oil was the finest,” explained Marco Chiletti, a Tuscan oil producer. “It certainly is the most picturesque system—nothing could be more dramatic than to watch the great round stones as they crush the olives, with the air full of a fine mist of aromatic olive oil.”
The washed olives are ground to a dark brown pulp. This is usually heated very slightly, or it would not release its oil, and then kneaded before being spread onto circular woven mats. The mats are stacked onto a steel pole, sandwiching the paste between them. A hydraulic press squeezes the mats together, forcing the oil out. A final spin in a centrifuge separates the oil from its accompanying vegetal water. The residue of the paste, a hard brown substance that looks a bit like cork, is called sansa. It may be burned as a fuel or sold to refineries that extract more oil from it using chemical solvents. This Olio di Sansa (pomace oil) should be avoided in the kitchen.
“Nowadays, the modern ‘continuous cycle’ system is increasingly popular,” said Chiletti. “It has several advantages. It’s more hygienic: the olives and pulp are worked entirely in stainless-steel containers that are easily cleaned and reduce the risk of contamination from one batch of olives to the next. Each client can tailor the machinery to their needs as it’s temperature controlled at every stage. In some types the olives are not crushed but cut with a series of fine blades, enabling the oil to drip away by gravity. This is definitely the way of the future.”
Some producers prefer to remove the olive stones or pits before pressing the pulp. This ‘denocciolato’ style produces a more delicate, elegant oil.
Many fine wine producers also make olive oil: the terrain required to grow olives is similar to that for grapes and the harvesting seasons are staggered, the grapes being picked between late August and October and the olives usually between October and December.
There’s always a lot of talk about acidity levels and cold pressing in olive oils. Although an oil must have less than 0.1 percent acidity to be considered extra virgin, low acidity levels alone do not guarantee good flavor (industrial oils may be manipulated chemically to ‘correct’ acidity), and some experts claim that the difference between 0.02 and 0.06 percent acidity cannot even be distinguished by the tongue. Even the word cold is relative: unless the olive paste is at least 15°C/59°F, little oil can be extracted; below 8°C/46°F, the oil freezes. The most important factor for the layperson is the reputation of the producer—all the rest is personal preference.
A bottle of artisan-made, pure extra-virgin olive oil may seem expensive but, used sparingly, its wonderful fresh flavor will enhance any meal and last much longer than a comparably priced bottle of wine.
How to Store Your Oil
Pure extra-virgin olive oil is a delicate natural product. Keep it away from its principal enemies, heat and light (so don’t sotre it in the cupboard above the stove!). Oil is also easily contaminated by bad odors, so never refill your oil cruet unless it has been perfectly cleaned and dried. Even a little oxidized residue in the bottom of the cruet is enough to ruin the taste of fresh oil. Unlike many wines, oil does not improve with age. Use it ideally within a year of being made.
*pics by Carla Capalbo