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Olive oil

The Elixir of Long Life

What would the Mediterranean be without the olive tree? This singular plant born on mount Tabor from the mouth of Adam, carried by the dove symbolising peace and hope has a history as long as the civilizations of the area. Robust, generous, beautiful, it has determined the culinary tradition of the whole region. The Mediterranean diet is a way of life. Famous study showed that the population of those countries that eat mainly cereals, pasta, bread, fish, fresh fruit and use olive oil are less prone to “rich” diseases (heart attacks, arteriosclerosis, diabetes, hypertension, obesity) than those eating more meat and using mainly animal fats.

Olive oil shares a number of similarities with wine in terms of production. Like grapes, the humble olive is often hand picked, usually in the latter months of the year before being pulped and pressed.

These days, individual high-quality oils, known as extra-virgin, are often discussed in the same reverential tones as certain wines, and are branded with equivalent standards of quality, known in Italy as denominazione, which serve as a guide to the consumer. There are also different varieties of olive which lend their own individual characteristics to the finished oil.


All over Italy from November to February the olive harvest takes place. This is still done in a very traditional way. The best oil comes from olives picked directly from the tree by hand climbing on small ladders. Another common method is to lay nets around the trees in the olive groves to catch the fruit. The trees are shaken and the olives collected in baskets. A strange tool is run over the branches to help them fall. Animated discussion amongst the pickers keeps the company warm.

Most conversation is about the harvest, the comparison with other years, the quality of the crop, the yield and how this oil is better than the neighbours’!The key to harvesting is picking the exact time that maximum yield of oil can be achieved without too high a level of acidity. Too pale a shade of green and acidity will be low but the amount of oil may be negligible; too dark and there may be plenty of oil but the acidity will render the oil unusable.

Olive oil is now big business across the whole of the Mediterranean with Italy and Spain making claim and counter-claim as to who is numero uno. To meet this demand, mass-market brands are produced on an industrial scale with high-capacity machinery fulfilling the role once undertaken by a humble millstone and a press. As such, it is the means rather than the method that has evolved with time, although there are organic producers who prefer to produce oil using traditional methods because they feel it preserves more of the integrity of the finished product.

Reduce in Mill

Genuine olive oil is produced solely by mechanical methods. The whole process must be carried out at low temperatures, with no additives or solvents involved. After the olives have been cleaned, the stone and pulp are crushed in the mill liberating the oil. The emulsion of oil and water is stirred so that the oil drops aggregate. This pulp is then pressed in fibrous sacks from which it is extracted, then centrifuged or allowed to rest to sediment the impurities, then filtered to clarify it. Olive pulp contains between 18 and 30% of its weight in oil depending on the variety, the rainfall, the method of harvest, and the method of extraction.The process begins with the picking of the olives which then have the stem and leaves removed before washing to rid them of any dirt, and in the cases of some producers pesticide residue.

Storage usually lasts no longer than 72 hours before the olives and their pit, or stone, are then ground into a paste which is achieved using a stone mill or metal grinder. The next stage is the pressing, which serves to extract the oil from the paste. Modern hydraulic presses now more efficiently achieve the same results as the more humble lever or screw press, while big producers utilise centrifugal decanters that leave the heavier flesh clinging to the outside of the drum while the water and oil is channelled out through the centre. Centrifugal force can also be utilised to separate the water from the oil, alternatively a gravity decanter facilitates the process more naturally. Big producers store the oil in stainless steel tanks prior to bottling.


Temperature is vitally important during the production process. Heating the paste prior to pressing increases the yield but can impair the flavour of the resulting oil. As a result European Commission guidelines state that use of the term “first cold pressing” on a label is only possible if extraction has taken place below 27 degrees centigrade using traditional methods. Similarly, if centrifugal machinery has been utilised the same figure must be adhered to in order to label an oil “cold extraction”.

Olive oil is produced throughout Italy both on a large and small scale. The fruit itself prefers a temperate climate and as such the most prized oils come from areas that enjoy these climactic conditions. These include Liguria, Tuscany, the Veneto and Umbria.

Kinds of oil

The colour varies greatly from region to region from dark green, through all the hues of green and yellow, but it must be clear not murky. The taste varies from perfumed delicate to rich and sharp.

To guarantee the quality of olive oil the EEC Reg 2568/91 establishes the following classification according to the

  • acidity in % of olic acid, the lower the better, and
  • organoleptic qualities.

The oils usually available are:

Extra virgin olive oil: absolutely perfect taste; acidity < 1%
Fine virgin: perfect taste; acidity < 2%
Regular virgin: good taste; acidity < 3,3%
Olive oil: Mixture of refined and extra virgin oils. >br/>
Husk oil: (sansa) mixture of refined husk oil and extra virgin oils; acidity 1,5%.

Nutritional qualities

olive oil is rich in monoinsaturate fatty acids, in Vit. A, D, E and favours the absorption of A-D-E-K. Its composition is similar to that of maternal milk and is therefore highly dijestible. It also protects the mucose of the stomach walls helping ulcer sufferers.


Contrary to popular belief different oils have the same caloric content (9Kcal x gram). Still a little less than butter!


When using oilve oil raw in sauces, like vinaigrette, pesto or caper sauce, do not blend, but mix it in with a fork or hand whisk. The speed at which it blends is too high and the olive oil looses some of its distinctive aroma.


For 4000 years olive oil has been kept in terracotta jars, anphorae, that still survive today. olive oil should be eaten the year of production but will keep for two years if properly stored. It deteriorates if exposed to light or heat as it oxidizes. So store in dark bottles in a cool place not subject to sharp temperature changes. If it should freeze, do not worry it does not harm it.


Most regions have instituted DOP(Denominazione di origine protetta) for particular origins and varieties. Registered names for oil of particularly high quality, usually with acidity below 0.2% from olives picked by hand directly from the trees, have also been introduced. A few of the best known are
The important things to watch for on the label of the olive oil you buy are: the degree of acidity, the exact name, the source of the olives, whether it was obtained by cold pressing – spremitura a freddo.
N.B. Oil is sold by quantity or weight, but as it is lighter than water in metric terms, 1 litre is less than 1 kilo.


Olea Europea

780 million olive trees worlwide
650 million in the Mediterranean basin
476 varieties (cultivars) in Italy
Grey green leaf
Smooth bark when young
Gnarled bark when old
The oldest olive tree in the world is over 1000 years old.
The unsung wonder of the world: terracing with dry walls to contain the olive groves.

Using for Fry

Olive oil has a high critical temperature – smoke point – and so liberates less toxins.
Fry clean dry food. Toss in starchy coating – bread crumbs, flour, batter.

  • Low temperature -bubbling- for high water content foods
  • Medium temperature -sizzling- for fish and meat
  • High temperature -spitting- for quick deep fry.

Do not fry twice in the same oil.





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