Andar per Olio

Olive Oil in an Orcia, the Urn Traditionally Used to Store It

Olive Oil in an Orcia, the Urn Traditionally Used to Store It

If you visit central Italy in autumn and take a drive out in the countryside, you’ll see people spreading parachutes around the olive trees and climbing up into them to strip away the ripe olives with gloved hands — further south they also knock the olives loose with long sticks, but then again the trees are much larger, too big to make hand-stripping practical. The parachutes make it much easier to retrieve the olives that fall to the ground.

What happens next?

The Millstones Grind the Olives to a Paste

The Millstones Grind the Olives to a Paste

The olives are carted off to the frantoio, or olive press, to make oil, Athena’s great gift to humanity. Actually the word “press” is something of a misnomer — the procedure is more complex. To begin with the olives are washed, then, if the press is traditional, they’re ground in a trough, using upright stone millwheels that were once turned by oxen and are now mechanized.

In days of old the pulp then went onto rush-mat disks called fiscoli that were stacked and pressed. What came out was an oil-and-water slurry that went into a tank to separate; the first oil was the best and usually went to the landlord, who used it at table. The farmers, on the other hand, used some of their oil at table, and the rest around the farm, to keep lamps lit and whatnot.

One of the major problems with the traditional pressing technique is its slowness: Olive oil is extremely perishable, and by the time it finishes separating in a traditional tank it has also begun to oxidize (this is why the landlord skimmed away the first oil, and why the farmers used much of their oil for light rather than as a condiment).

To get around this problem, with the introduction of mechanization (in the early part of the last century) centrifuges were added that greatly hastened the separation, thus reducing the oxidation. There have also been advances in the milling equipment, and many modern presses have continuous feed mechanical crushers. But it’s still a wonderful treat to see a traditional stone wheel press rumble its way through the olive paste.

One extremely important thing about this whole procedure: It’s done at room temperature. The olives are never heated, nor is the paste, and the paste is simply squeezed. No chemical treatments of any kind. Otherwise the oil won’t be virgin or extravirgin, the two best grades.

Freshly Pressed Olive Oil

Freshly Pressed Olive Oil

Non-virgin olive oil is either too acidic to be virgin, or is pressed from pulp that has been processed one way or another, and there is a significant difference in flavor.

Italians generally cook with virgin oil, and use extravirgin raw, in salads, drizzled into hearty soups, and wherever the flavor of the oil complements the dish. Non-virgin oils are acceptable for cooking, but you won’t want to use one to dress your salad.

About Extra Virgin Oil:

The prince of Italian extra virgin olive oils has long been considered either Ligurian or Tuscan — Ligurian oil, especially that made from Taggiasca olives, is more delicate, whereas Tuscan oil often has a marked peppery tang that can be quite addictive.

Umbrian oils are also nice, as are those made on the southern banks of Lake Garda. South Italian extra virgin oils, by contrast, tend to be heavier and more oily tasting — fine for cooking with, but not necessarily what you want to put on your salad or drizzle over your minestrone. The problem is temperature, I heard at an olive oil conference: It’s too hot in the south when the olives ripen, and the temperatures that the picked olives are subjected to during storage and pressing result in heavy-tasting oils. This was until recently; South Italian producers have begun to experiment with refrigeration and their oils are improving dramatically, approaching the level of the best Tuscan and Ligurian oils. This bodes well for the consumer because southern olive trees are several times the size of their northern counterparts, and with high yields the producers will be able to make good oils at low prices.

There is a problem with this happy picture, however: Honest producers are being undercut through crafty use of an EEC food production loophole, according to which an olive oil imported from outside the EEC (North Africa, for example) can be sold as EEC oil if it’s cut with locally produced oil following its importation. All the unscrupulous farmer has to do is buy cheap foreign oil for a few cents per liter, filter it, blend in some local oil, and voilà! Locally produced extra virgin oil! It’s not going to be as good as what really is local, of course, but how’s the consumer to distinguish between two bottles from the same town without buying both and tasting them? Those who get burned will look elsewhere.

Alas, this gambit is not limited to Southern Italy; in November truckloads of oil from elsewhere are driven into Tuscan estates to emerge as Olio Extra Vergine Imbottigliato Nella Tenuta (Extra Virgin Estate-Bottled Olive Oil). For that matter, the same trick is probably also used in Spain, France, and Greece.

How to defend yourself?

In general, the better oils come in glass bottles, and their labels will say where and when they were pressed. Be careful about oils that simply say estate bottled because of the problem mentioned above.

Don’t worry if the oil is opaque, because it often is, nor should a bit of sediment upset you. Be wary, on the other hand, of overly green oil; that green could be from the olives, or it could be from leaves that got pressed with them. Also, be wary of an oil that is either extremely light colored, or far into the yellow (towards gold). The former could be tasteless, while the latter is almost certainly old.

An Oil and Water Slurry Drains from the Press...

An Oil and Water Slurry Drains from the Press…

These guidelines of course apply to all extra virgin oils, not just those made in Italy. If you live in the United States, I have heard good things about Californian olive oils, and I have tasted some superb Cilean oils.

What to do with olive oil, other than dress a salad? The simplest thing is bruschetta: You will need day-old Italian bread (Tuscan-style would be best). Toast it, ideally over the coals, rub it with a peeled slice of garlic, then drizzle it with oil, season with salt, and serve. Four slices will serve four, and you’ll have your guests asking for more.

Bought Some Olive Oil?

How To Keep It When You Get Home

  • Don’t expose it to heat
  • Don’t expose it to light
  • Don’t keep it in a clear glass bottle
  • Don’t keep it in a half-empty bottle
  • Do keep it cool
  • Do keep it in the dark
  • Do keep it in a dark bottle
  • Do decant a large bottle into several smaller ones and use them one at a time

Winding Down, A Rundown Of The Grades Of Italian Oil

Olio Extravergine D’Oliva

The best, produced exclusively through cold pressing. The maximum allowed acidity level is 1% and it must pass the examination of a tasting commission with a score of at least 6.5.

What to use it for? As a condiment, over salads (with a little vinegar), drizzled into hearty soups at table, to make bruschetta, (sparingly) in marinades and so on.

The Olive Paste is Mixed...

The Olive Paste is Mixed…

Olio Vergine D’Oliva

A step down from Extravergine; its acidity can be up to 2%, and it must receive a score of at least 5.5 from the tasting commission.

What to use it for? If it’s good, it can be put to the same uses as the above; you can also use it for cooking.

Olio di Oliva

This is produced industrially by treating oils that are too acidic or suffer from other defects, and adding some virgin oil for balance. The maximum allowed acidity is 1.5%, and there is no taste test.

What to use it for? Primarily cooking.

Olio di Sansa di Oliva

This is produced by treating the paste from the first pressing (called sansa) with solvents to extract the remaining oil and then adding some virgin oil for balance. The maximum allowed acidity is 1.5% and again, no tasting panel.

What to use it for? Cooking

More Information, Off the Net:

The Olive Oil Source: Everything you need to press your olives, whether you’re a 1-tree amateur or have a grove.

How Olive Oil is Made: The process, from cleaning the olives to storing the oil once it comes out the press.

Olive Oil Facts: Lots about Athena’s gift to Humanity.

Olive Varietals: There are many more than you would guess — an exhaustive alphabetical listing, many with links to pages of information on them. Something you should check if you plan to grow them.

Olives and Olive Oils Lots about both, with descriptions and pictures of the olives available in the US, and information on the various categories of olive oil, from Extravergine on down. Well done.

How Olive Oil is Pressed in a Traditional Press
How Olive Oil is Pressed in a Modern Press


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Categories: Italian Ingredients

Author:Cosa Bolle in Pentola

Italy boasts an astonishing number of varietals, denominations, and wines, and tremendous changes are sweeping the land. New wines are being created, new DOCs are being introduced, and the existing denominations are overhauling their regulations both to reflect the practices adopted by their member wineries and to favor improvements in quality. Even the most staid and stolid region can flower seemingly overnight, emerging with exciting new wines and wineries that require rewriting the enological maps and rethinking one's positions. And, of course, recipes too, because cuisine and wine are closely intertwined and it's difficult to imagine one without the other.


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