The Olive Oil – L’olio d’oliva

This nectar is obtained by the cold working pressure of olives picked up by hand and brought to the oil mill in a brief time. These olives are washed, milled and then kept under a pressing machine.

The obtained must pass in a separator that separates oil from working water and then is strained. The olive oil is defined as “extra virgin” if it has an acidity lower than 0.8 % (and if it fulfills other quality requirements, “virgin” with an acidity lower than 2%, “lampante” with an acidity higher than 2%.

The characteristics of a perfect “extra-virgin” oil are the following: the light green color with gold grales, the intense smell of grass and green leaves, the flavor a little piquant, and a delicate taste of artichoke.

The fittest Tuscan varieties to have an esteemed oil are the following:

MORAIOLO, for the low acidity;

FRANTOIANO for the smell and the sapidity;

LECCINO for the delicate spicy sensation.

Eating does not mean filling yourself up with food. Instead, it is history, culture living together, reassurance, pleasure, and tradition. In the Mediterranean culture, olive oil typically represents these ties.

To pay homage to this indisputable player in the Mediterranean civilization, we must rediscover this valuable product to recognize its advantages and irreplaceable contribution to man’s nutrition.

The variety of wild olive trees in the countries bordering the Mediterranean sea is a thorny bush that produces small fruit with large seeds and little flesh, quite different from the cultivated variety, which is not thorny and makes a fleshy fruit reach in oil.

The cultivated olive tree probably doesn’t originate from the oleaster or wild olive, even if the two varieties have quite similar genetic and chromosomal features. Instead, the graceful olive tree probably comes from a hybrid of two species from the Olea Africana. It inherited the elongated leaves, the fleshy element, and high oil content from an unknown one.

The main differences between the wild and the cultivated varieties are due to man who has selected, cultivated, nurtured the olive trees for thousands of years deeply changing its features. Almost six thousands years ago, during the Copper Age, the early farmers living in the coastal regions of the Eastern Mediterranean (Syria) cultivated a type of olive tree bearing a large fruit and began to select the varieties systematically.

They discovered that they could, with difficulty, obtain a dense and oily liquid, beneficial in protecting their skin, with a rather pleasing aromatic taste and which could be easily burnt. Studying the lengthy selection process is highly complicated as it is not always possible to recognize the different varieties from the vegetable remains.

With the advent of the first urban civilizations, we can confirm the relation between the civil and olive-culture development, which has remained constant throughout the history of the Mediterranean basin.

The continually increasing demand for oil and wine in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Anatolia determined the prosperity of settlements in the coastal areas favorable for cultivating olive trees and vines. The cultivation of olive is confirmed by archaeological sites dating back to 3.500 B.C., with the findings of big olive stones and the large quantity of coal from burnt olive wood used as a fuel or building material.

These remains are sometimes found in semi-desert areas where the olive tree could not have grown spontaneously and therefore is proof of the first human efforts to spread the cultivation of the olive. In the area of Syria, Ebla was one of the leading centers on the caravan trade roads which supplied the products of an already “Mediterranean diet” (wine instead of beer, olive oil instead of sesame oil), connecting Egypt, the Mesopotamian settlements, and Assyria, the leading state companies and the most important business centers in the world. Sophisticated Egyptian objects, alabaster vases and lamps, jewels, gold, silver, and precious stones were traded for local products: fabrics, bronze manufactures, olive oil, and wine.

In the 4th century B.C. Athens was about to become one of the most important and splendid capitals in the history of humankind.

However, the problems resulting from an internal demographic growth forced Athens and other cities in Greece to implement economic changes and significant development in exportation to meet the need for cereal products.

According to legend, all the olive trees in Athens came from the first tree, which the goddess Athena caused to sprout during her contest against the God Poseidon to dominate the city. If a person had cut down one of the sacred olive trees direct descendants of the one that Athena planted, they could have been condemned to death or to exile and all their property confiscated.

Solon, one of the seven sages of ancient Greece, gave the city a code of laws, which exalted the role of the Athenian olive culture. According to this code, it was prohibited to cut down an olive tree, if not for the service of the sanctuary or the community, anyway up to a maximum of two per year. As well, the exportation from the city of any agricultural product different than olive was forbidden.

There were also precise rules established in minute details for agriculture, for example, the planting in rows and the distance between the olive trees.

Oil was one of the goods most in-demand in the Mediterranean trade during the archaic period. Consequently, oil amphora from Athens, Corinth and other cities have been found in colonial settlements from the Black Sea to Africa, in Spain, in Etruscan emporiums and in Phoenician cities, as well as in “barbarian” settlements, where olive oil was held as an exotic and valuable product.

The dominion of Rome around the Mediterranean represents the ancient era of significant development of the olive culture. Production, trade, and consumption of olive oil were significantly interwoven with the development of the rural system and land property organization.

During the Roman period, essential refinements in oil production technology were introduced, and numerous Latin words on agronomy were written from the beginning of the 2nd century B.C. by authors such as Catone, Columella, the Saserna, and others, laying down guidelines for landowners as to the best way of cultivating their lands and all the most efficient methods for pruning, fertilizing, harvesting and tending the olive trees.

After the end of the 3rd Punic War, the entire Mediterranean area witnessed the spread of the olive tree. As a result, the importance of the Italian production, where the Greeks had introduced the cultivation of the olive to the local peoples and the Etruscans, was supplanted by the provinces’ one in the imperial age.

Along the course Quadalquivir in Betica, the land was covered by immense olive groves whose oil supplied the capital and the armies stationed along the northern borders of the Roman Empire, where olive trees could not grow. During the Middle Ages olive oil became quite rare and valuable and in some cases was used as a currency. Since the early 5th century, state controls on oil began to diminish and almost vanish. The religious orders owned the most of the still cultivated olives groves and olive oil was found only on the tables of the very rich people and especially the ecclesiastical ones. In the monasteries there were the “cellar-men” responsible for the daily distribution of olive oil.

Olive oil during the Middle Ages was also used for the catholic liturgy. The Sacred Oils and the Chrism necessary for performing the sacraments were blessed during “Chrism mass” which the bishop presided over on Maundy Thursday. The consecrated oil distributed to the different churches had to last all the year long. Also the lamps which adorned the altar in front of the image of God could only use olive oil, as prescribed in the scriptures.

Today the olive tree has spread beyond the Mediterranean areas to all continents of the world, except the Poles.

There are olive groves in South Africa, China and Vietnam, in southern Oceania, in North, Central and south America and the total world-wide production of olive oil has been steadily increasing since the beginning of 1900.

The ancients use to say “the Mediterranean begins and finishes with olive tree”, to mean the intimate and close links between the plant and the geographical area, considered an organism quite distinct from the cold and wet provinces.

Between 1830 and 1840, the Holy See started a policy of incentives so that in the single area now called Umbria 40.000 olive trees were planted.

Since then Italian olive-culture has continued to grow in quantity and quality. The techniques of planting and pruning have changed.

The olive groves of low productivity have been replanted and the mechanization of the harvesting in some zones has become a reality.

The introduction of new techniques in pressing, together with the overall advances in harvesting, have made possible an enormous qualitative growth.

Extra-virgin-olive-oil (olio extra-vergine d’oliva) is obtained from the mechanical grinding and pressing of olives in special temperature conditions so as not to cause any changes in the product. The only processes allowed are the washing and the pressing of the olives, the decanting, the centrifugation and the filtering of the oil. The maximum of acidity in oleic acid is gr. 1 on gr. 100.

Extravergine olive oil is the queen of the kitchen in the Mediterranean. There is a vast range of choice. Every producer in every region, like for wine, is able to offer an unique product, in respecting the typical traditional taste of the area. As in the case of wine, the type food determines which oil is to be used.

For delicate dishes, raw or cooked, a soft and slightly fruity flavor oil is most indicated. For tasty dishes a full-bodied oil is suggested, even with a bouquet and a strong fruity and spicy flavor. Some examples include: a Ligurian extra-virgin oil for an excellent mayonnaise, a delicate new oil for a broiled fish, a strong flavored oil for bottled beans, a Tuscan flavorsome oil for bruschetta and ribollita. Grilled meat is an already taste dish but a little of Pugliese oil at the end of cooking will add that extra something. If the meat is raw, as for carpaccio or albese, try the oil from Liguria. For grilled fish, we recommend a fine clear oil while a strong Sicilian oil is requested on salads. Also the olive oil can be successfully used for cakes, pie pastry and biscuits.

The olive tree and the oil obtained from its fruit was already known by the peoples of the south-eastern Mediterranean, particularly the Palestinians and Phoenicians. However, they didn’t use it as a dressing, also because their methods and production were more limited compared to those of the forunners of the Greeks, the mythical Cretans, for whom this culture was a major source of wealth right up to 2,500 BC. Methods of cultivation, harvesting and pressing were perfected further by the Greeks.

Sample fruits were taken from different plants, pressed into a sieve of very small holes and the oil filtering through collected into a small container. From the color and taste of this sample they checked the maturity of the olive and decided on the best moment for the harvest. This happened, more or less as today, by shaking the tree, beating it with long sticks or stripping it by hand. The extraction of the oil was carried out immediately after the olives were harvested.

These were ground and crushed by rotating cylinders where the pressure could be increased until the seeds were extracted but without also crushing them. Then, using a press, a mixture of oil and water was squeezed out, which was left for period, after which the watery substance – the bitter, sour part – was removed. Further pressings, up to three, produced oil but of an inferior quality and different taste.

    Olive Oils DOP

  Alto Crotonese DOP
  Aprutino Pescarese DOP
  Brisighella DOP
  Bruzio DOP
  Canino DOP
  Cartoceto DOP
  Chianti Classico DOP
  Cilento DOP
  Colline di Brindisi DOP
  Colline di Romagna DOP
  Colline Salernitane DOP
  Colline Teatine DOP
  Dauno DOP
  Garda DOP
  Laghi Lombardi DOP
  Lamezia DOP
  Lucca DOP
  Molise DOP
  Monte Etna DOP
  Monti Iblei DOP
  Penisola Sorrentina DOP
  Pretuziano delle Colline Teramane DOP
  Riviera Ligure DOP
  Sabina DOP
  Sardegna DOP
  Tergeste DOP
  Terra di Bari DOP
  Terra d’Otranto DOP
  Terre di Siena DOP
  Terre Tarentine DOP
  Toscano IGP
  Tuscia DOP
  Umbria DOP
  Val di Mazara DOP
  Valdemone DOP
  Valle del Belice DOP
  Valli Trapanesi DOP
  Veneto DOP

Enrico Massetti was born in Milan, Italy.
Now he lives in Washington, DC, USA.
Still, he regularly visits his hometown
and enjoys going around all the places in his home country
especially those he can reach by public transportation.

Enrico loves writing guide books on travel in Italy
to help his friends that go to Italy to visit
and enjoy his old home country.
He also publishes books on the Argentine tango dance.

You can reach Enrico at