Olives have been enjoyed in the Mediterranean for thousands of years and are thought to have originally come to Italy from Greece. Italy now produces nearly one-third of the world’s olive oil. Benefits of consuming olive oil include reducing cholesterol, improving the functioning of the cardiovascular system and, because of its phenols, protecting the heart. Olives are also high in Vitamin E and have anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
Olive oil varies like wine. Its character is determined by the type of tree, the soil on which it grows, the position (on hill, plain or coast), the weather, when and how the olives are harvested and how quickly they are pressed and by what means. Highly prized extra virgin olive oil, which tends to be more expensive, comes from hand-picking and under ripe olives It is dark green oil with a fruity aroma and full flavor. More mature olives produce oil of a lighter color. Great nets are sewn together and held up with stakes to catch falling olives. If the olives get bruised, they spoil quickly.
Traditionally, olive oil was made by crushing the olives and pits to form a paste and then placing the paste in sacceti (flat cloth bags) and squeezing it in a press to extract the oil. There are still a few regions where stone crushing and mat pressing is still used, but most commercial olive oil production uses a centrifuge to spin the heavier flesh and pits to the side and to tap off the water and oil from the center. The oil and water is put into tanks where they separate by gravity.
Cold-pressing produces a higher quality of olive oil which is naturally lower in acidity. When purchasing olive oil, it’s important to check labels for the percentage of acidity, grade of oil, volume, and country of origin. The level of acidity is a key factor in choosing fine olive oil, along with color, flavor, and aroma. These oils are best within a year of the harvest, since flavor slowly fades.
The production of olive oil in Italy is governed by standards established by the International Olive Oil Council. By law, olio extra vergine di oliva must come from the first pressing of olives by mechanical (not chemical) means and must contain less than 1 percent of oleic acid (the key measure: the lower the acidity the better). Olio vergine di oliva may have a maximum of 2 percent acidity; what is called simply olio di oliva may be rectified and de-acidified.
In the Campania region of Italy, the production zone includes 82 town districts from the AmalfiCoast to Cilento. Olive oil from the Cilento and Sorrentine peninsulas as well as those from the hills of Salerno, east of Amalfi, carry the prized label Denominazione d’Origine Protetta (Protected Denomination of Origin or DOP) This is a regulated and controlled qualification that verifies the characteristics and authenticity of the product. Another classification is Indicazione Geografica Protetta (Protected Geographical Indication or IGP) which denotes that the product comes from a specific geographical area but does not dictate how it is made. Some of the varieties of olives grown in the Campania region are Minucciola, Rotondella, Carpellese, Frantonio and Leccino.
Olive oil tastings are often available where oil is made at a tasting bar where little plastic cups and cubes of bread are supplied. Appreciating a good olive oil starts with looking at color and consistency. Then warm the cup of oil between your palms and breathe in its aroma. Next, quickly suck the oil over your palette with a lot of air, so it evenly coats your mouth and doesn’t settle on your tongue. This is easier to explain than to execute. Terms describing the characteristic aroma and taste of olive oil include buttery, nutty and peppery (desirable) to burnt, metallic and moldy (undesirable).