Olive oil from Italy - All about the green gold

Italy and the olive trees, an ancient love story. Italian cuisine without olive oil, unimaginable. The Italian landscape without olive trees, hardly imaginable. No other plant has left such a mark on Italy. Today, olives are a billion-dollar business.

The green gold from Italy. Together with Spain and Greece, Italy is one of the leading olive oil producers in the EU. Italy uses about 3 percent of its total area for the cultivation of olives. About two thirds of the Italian olive harvest comes from Puglia.

Every year, the USA buys about 350 million euros worth of Italian olive oil. The second largest buyer is Germany, which spends 135 million on Italian olive oil per year, followed by France with about 91 million euros.

green leaf fruit tree selective focal photo, olive oil from italy
The green gold from Italy
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Olive oil from Italy - an overview:

The olive tree: age, cultivation, harvest

The olive tree doesn't need much: a little soil, a little water, a lot of sun, heat doesn't bother it much. These characteristics have made the olive tree the defining plant of entire landscapes in Italy, from the terraced buildings in Liguria to the seemingly endless groves in Apulia.

Olives are green and turn violet-blue to black as they ripen. At the age of six to eight years, an olive tree can be harvested for the first time. Depending on size, weather, water and age, a tree can yield up to 30 to 60 kilos of olives per year. About six to seven kilos of olives are needed for one litre of olive oil. An olive tree has its highest yield after about 20 years. There are more than 500 olive varieties in Italy.

In Apulia, in the "Piana degli Ulivi Millenari", there is probably the oldest olive tree in Italy. Its age is between 3000 and 4000 years. Olive oil from this region, from the heel of the Italian boot, is offered under the protected designation of origin "Terra D'Otranto".

How the harvest goes

The harvest season begins when the olives change colour from green to red-purple, usually from mid-October to March. At this time, the olives have the maximum aroma, but they are 50 percent more productive when fully ripe. That is why oil from earlier ripened, more aromatic olives is significantly more expensive than oil from ripe or even overripe olives.

olives, olive oil from italy
The ideal time to harvest olives: When the colour of the fruit changes from green to red-purple.lt

Olives in Italy are harvested either by hand or mechanised. Small farms often pick completely by hand to select the olives and end up producing extremely high quality oils.

Another manual method is to spread nets under the olive trees. The olives are then picked from the branches with light sticks or the use of combs or similar. Mechanised harvesting with shaking machines only works in growing areas with suitable subsoil and sufficient space between the rows of trees.

Ideally, there should be a maximum of four hours between harvesting and processing in the olive oil mill. In the mill, the olives are washed and crushed together with the pit. The juice is extracted from the green fruits by pressing or centrifugation.

Most olive oil mills are in Apulia, 786 mills, followed by Sicily (719 mills) and Calabria (618 mills). Incidentally, there are only five olive oil mills in the whole of South Tyrol due to a lack of olive trees, and only six mills in Piedmont.

bowl being poured with yellow liquid, olive oil from italy

How to test the quality of your oil

Pour some olive oil into a wine glass, cover it and wait for about 15 minutes. Then take off the cover and hold the glass in your hand. If you can already smell aromas at this distance, the oil is good to very good.

The closer you have to get your nose to the glass to smell something, the lower the quality.

The history of green gold in Italy

The history of green gold in Italy is several thousand years old. Olive oil has been produced in the eastern Mediterranean for more than 8,000 years, and in Italy for at least 1,800 years. With scientific investigations, olive oil residues could be detected on excavated vessel shards in Apulia.

The hype about olive oil began in Italy around 800 years before Christ through the Greek colonies in southern Italy and the trade of the Phoenician and Carthaginian merchants. Phoenicia extends to the present-day countries of Israel, Syria and Lebanon. Carthage was a Phoenician colony in what is now Tunisia.

olive grove with a hill in the background in early morning, olive oil from italy
Olive trees need an average annual temperature of about 20 degrees
Photo by Mattia Verga on Pexels.com

When Rome itself becomes a world empire a good 600 years later, olive oil has become indispensable in everyday life. Olive oil is used as fuel for lighting, for skin care, as a sunscreen, for medicinal intermediates such as wound healing and treatment of ulcers. Olive oil is also used in religious rites and sacrifices and for the production of fragrances.

Monte Testaccio" is a mound of amphora shards about 1 kilometre deep, reaching 45 metres into the earth. More than 50 million amphorae were disposed of here in antiquity. Olive oil was imported from Andalusia in 80 per cent of the amphorae found. The amphorae held about 70 litres of olive oil and weighed about 30 kilos.

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What to look for in olive oil...

A warning first: You will NOT get good, high-quality - preferably certified organic - olive oil for 4 to 5 euros per litre in the supermarket. In reality, the production costs per litre of extra virgin olive oil are more than 7 euros per litre, and almost twice as much for organic production.6

person pouring olive oil
You can recognise the quality of an olive oil by its scent and taste.
Photo by RODNAE Productions on Pexels.com

The olive oil regulation of the EU divides olive oil into different quality classes. The highest quality class is extra virgin olive oil, alternatively also called extra virgin olive oil or extra virgin olive oil. This olive oil must not exceed a free fatty acid content of 0.8%. In fact, 0.8% of free fatty acids are extremely high: such an oil has nothing to do with high-quality olive oil.

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In practice, a small amount of good olive oil is often mixed with a larger amount of cheaply bought olive oil that is actually not suitable for human consumption until the free fatty acid content is 0.79%. Then it can legally be sold as extra virgin olive oil. In the shop you can recognise this by the small notice "Mixture of oils from the European Community".

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Sources: ISMEA: Tendenze e Dinamiche Recenti - Olio di oliva n.1/2022 - Settembre 2022

Cover image: leszek_kruk/pixabay via canva.com