Olive Oil

 

Talking about Italian olive oil is somewhat difficult, because while Italy really is the second biggest producer in the world (Spain is first)… there is no such thing as “olive oil”. There are two reasons for this. The first is strictly technical, as ‘olive oil’ is the definition of over twelve different types of product, only three of which are actually edible: extra-virgin oil, virgin oil and pomace oil. The second reason is a finer one. Italy is home to no less than 41 different DOP (meaning ‘protected origin denomination’) olive oils, like in example the Tigullio produced in a very small part of Ligury, or the Alto crotonese from Calabria.

Fact is, they all have different flavors, sometimes wildly so just like wines do. Finding the right olive oil for your recipes isn’t too difficult, however: keeping in mind that Italian cuisine is strictly regional, you just have to choose an oil coming from the same region where your dish comes from. And you’d better do that, as the use of olive oil is one of the little secrets that make traditional Italian cooking so tasty. In fact, up to the 1970s other cooking oils (with the exception of lard) were simply unheard of in Italy. What makes these oils so unique are, again, two reasons. First and foremost is their molecular composition: olive oil is extremely rich in monoinsature acid fats and antioxidants, meaning that it fries better and preserves better (‘conserve sott’olio’, or food preserved in oil, are an Italian classic). Of course it also has a better flavor than other oils, and it is actually much better for your health. This is why, before the globalization of food, senior Italians were generally older and healthier than other populations: the so-called Mediterranean diet does wonders for your body, even if it makes liberal use of (olive) oil. Of course you shouldn’t exceed, yet where else but Italy could you find highbrow “oil bars” where it is tasted like wine, or just the traditional bruschetta (a simple toasted bread rubbed with garlic and sprinkled with olive oil)?

The other secret of good olive oil is how it is made. High quality product is made from olives harvested in the old fashioned way, by beating the branches of olive trees with long flexible poles. This makes only the properly matured olives fall down, where special nets softly catch them before they smash into the ground. In fact, some of the highest quality oil is even harvested by people using stairs to go up into the branches and choose the best olives one by one. Either way, the olives are then crushed in a mill within 48 hours from the harvest to prevent their fermentation. The next phase is to filter the water out, let the residue settle in order to remove it and finally bottle the finished product. Differently from every other oil type, no chemical process is used at all. The ‘virgin’ and ‘extra-virgin’ labels depend on the different acidity of the product, but they are both very delicate. Pomace oil comes from the re-crushing of the residue instead and isn’t used very much today, but it was an important ingredient in traditional cooking of old. The process described above is of course slow and wastes a lot of the starting material. This is why real Italian olive oil can be rather expensive – and a frequent source of frauds. A recent survey found that over 60% of “Italian” oil sold abroad is anything but. Which is a shame, for “a tear of oil”, as Italian cooks are fond to say, can really make the difference.