The earliest evidence of olive cultivation in the world comes from the Livorno area on Tuscany’s coast.
So important was oil in the past that land would be bequeathed not in terms of metres but in numbers of olive trees.
Olive trees are planted usually on a hillside to allow for good drainage of the soil. The trees were cultivated to grow tall, with one main trunk and the foliage up nice and high so no one could steal the olives. After a bad frost in the early 1980s however, many trees died. The trees that grew in their place were let to grow freely, making them easier to harvest.
Harvest of olives is done around October-November, just when the olives are a perfect mix of just-ripe and nearly-ripe to ensure the right acidity in the ensuing product. To be officially considered extra virgin olive oil, the acidity level must be less than 0.8%, with late harvesting risks having a too-high acidic level.
Top-quality oil is still to this today produced from olives harvest by hand. There are also olive picker devices that are like a mechanical hand with fingers that are placed in between the leaves to then ‘tickle’ the olives off the branches, however this runs the risk of cutting the olive surfaces and causing bacteria to set in before the milling process.
Once the olives are collected from the trees, they are taken to an official mill. Whilst some larger producers will have their own onsite mill, most smaller producers must go to a local oil press.
As the pressing must occur as soon as possible after harvest, during the oil season the mills take appointments all throughout the day and night.
The olives are placed on a grill that is agitated to rid the olives of dirt, grass and the like. They then go through the a first cold pressing. The extracted product is thus “cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil” that is more green in colour and is delicious consumed raw. The remaining pulp may then be pressed again with heat, resulting in just “extra virgin olive oil” that is used for cooking. A further chemical extraction can be done to have just “olive oil”. Most Italians will say this is best used to polish the furniture however!
Extra virgin olive oil is a good fat that can even reduce cholesterol and other heart issues.
Just-pressed extra virgin olive oil is rich in antioxidants, minerals and vitamins. Once heated, many of these properties are lost, hence why Italians drizzle this oil over soups, cooked vegetables, salads, meats or on toasted bread with a sprinkle of salt (the original “Bruschetta” recipe), rather than cooking the oil with the dish. Pieces of fresh bread and raw in-season vegetables can also be dipped into oil as a tasty and healthy starter dish.