Olive oil is an ancient food product, born along the shores of the Mediterranean Sea due to the presence of olive trees. Archeological findings, including large ceramic olive oil jars, or amphorae, are proof that olives were cultivated on the island of Crete since 3,500 A.C.
For all Mediterranean populations, oil made from cold-pressing olives was considered a heavenly gift and fundamental part of religious rites and celebrations. For the Phoenicians olive oil was “liquid gold,” for the Egyptians it was a gift from the Gods and for the Jews it was used for unction, for consecrating kings and to fuel lamps. A dove carried an olive branch in his beak to announce the universal floor and has been considered a symbol of peace ever since. “Christ” literally means covered in the oil of God and the oil is still used in the Christian rites of baptism and confirmation.
The Greeks, according to Greek mythology, widely cultivated olives along the coasts and used oil for its medicinal powers and to treat skin problems. The athletes at the ancient Olympic games would rub themselves with olive oil before competition and used special bronze instruments to remove the excess oil. The physician, Galena, documented the medicinal qualities of olive oil in a text written in the 2nd century A.C. Romans learned about the olive tree thanks to the Greek colonies, however it seems as though the Etruscans were the first ones to discover the culinary uses of olive oil.
The Romans were great olive oil lovers. They used it in the kitchen and after bathing. They are also responsible for spreading their appreciation of olive oil throughout the Mediterranean, by planning olive trees in the places they conquered. A large fleet of boats was appointed to transport olive oil in large ceramic amphorae that were placed on a bed of sand to keep them in place. The precious liquid was unloaded in the port of Rome and the empty amphorae – that could not be reused – were broken into pieces and tossed aside. Over time, all of the clay fragments formed a small hill in Rome, called “Testaccio”, referring to the Latin term for pottery.
There is plenty of information, dating back to the Roman period, about olive trees, olive cultivation, olive-oil making methods and the sensorial characteristics of olive oil. In “De re rustica,” written in the 2nd century A.C., the Roman writer Columella defined the olive as “the first of the plants.”
With the fall of the Roman Empire, oil production slowed abruptly. There was less demand and the seas were more dangerous due to pirates, causing fewer people to cultivate olives and isolating its uses. Christian monks were responsible for keeping alive and improving the ancient olive oil making techniques during the Middle Ages. Their monasteries were the centers of olive oil production and housed inside one production facilities and even olive presses.
With the population growth between the 1000 and 1300s, olive cultivation picked up again and spread, especially in some regions, like Liguria, Tuscany and Puglia. An increase in production of olive oil can also be attributed to the opening of the ports of Genoa and Venice, allowing for Italian oil to be transported towards Asia and Northern Europe. Florentine merchants sold olive oil along with fabric and spices. In the Venetian Republic, after having imported oil from the Aegean islands, started cultivating olives on their inland territories, from the Euganean hills to lake Garda – protecting themselves from commercial uncertainties and increasing the competition.
During the Renaissance, the production and sales of Italian olive oil grew dramatically and word it its quality and flavor spread quickly. The olive tree even became an important artistic image. Whereas in the classic illustrated calendars of Northern Italy, artists would often depict men harvesting grapes, in Tuscany, Luca della Robbia depicted the month of November with the harvest of olives.
The work of cultivating and pressing olives went unchanged until the beginning of the 20th century, when modern technology was introduced to the process.
Only in the 18th century, during the peak of encyclopedic studies and botanical classification, were all the varieties of olive trees classified scientifically.
After the crisis in olive oil production during the first half of the 20th century due to wars and the depopulation of the countryside, olive oil came back into fashion thanks to growing interest in the Mediterranean diet and regional olive oil varieties that would lead to Italy’s place as the top olive oil producer and exporter of the best oil worldwide.
Olive oil is made from olives that have reached maturity. Towards the end of the fall, the green olives turn black, indicating the time to harvest and the best chance at achieving good quality oil. The olives are harvested by beating the trees. This was once done by hand, but depending on the landscape it can also be done using machines. After the harvest, the olives are placed in large containers where they begin to ferment. In order to prevent damage and the growth of microorganisms or mold that would alter the flavor and quality, the olive must be taken to the oil mill within 36 hours of harvest.
Here, the olives are separated from the leaves and branches. They are washed and dried and then undergo frangitura, or crushing, using a traditional stone press or modern inox steel machines. The olive paste, which contains both pulp and seeds, is places on cylindrical hemp disks that are piled up and pressed using a process called gramolatura.
The liquid that is collected is composed of oil and brownish red water. A centrifuge is used to separate the water from the oil, which will take on its final color and aroma.
The color of an oil is largely due to the vegetal pigments, like xanthophylls, chlorophyll, carotene and carotenoids. If chlorophyll dominates, the oil will be a bright green color – typical of the Tuscan and Ligurian oils. If, however, carotene is the dominant pigment, the oil will be golden yellow. In order to keep oil from going bad, it must be kept in a dark place. Traditionally, olive oil was stored in well-sealed ceramic or dark glass containers to keep. Oil should not be exposed to too much air, otherwise it will go rancid. Olive oil doesn’t last forever and it is best consumed within a year.
In the country, when it is time to sell the newly made olive oil, or olio nuovo, customers are offered a piece of bread to dip in the oil in order to fully taste the flavor in its pure form. In Italy, there are oils of all flavors, from fruity to sweet, to strong, spicy or pungent. Even the color can vary based on the area of production and how it was made.
Italian Extra Virgin Olive Oils
There is no “one” single flavor or color that characterizes Italian olive oil. One should choose an oil based on their personal preferences and on its intended use. Actually, in every kitchen there should be multiple bottles of oil from different regions – like Ligurian Riviera dei Fiori DOP oil to Sicilian Monti Iblei oil, to Puglian Castel del Monte DOP, to Daunian and Umbrian DOP oils – and with different flavors. You should choose to use an oil based on what you are cooking or serving with it.
However, the quality is not measured based only on flavor, but on the level of acidity. The lower the acidity, the better the oil – generally speaking. Cold pressing the olives makes the best quality extra virgin olive oil and by law the oil can’t have more than 1% acidity. Cold pressing gives the oil its rich color and excellent aromas which can be enjoyed by everyone and with every dish.