Olive oil, rich in vitamin E, has been known for its health and culinary properties since before Roman times. How is this fundamental ingredient of the Mediterranean diet harvested and produced? What is the difference between extra virgin oil and other type of olive oils? Which parts of Tuscany are most famous for their oil? And finally, what is Olio Nuovo?
A Brief History
The olive plant is originally from Asia minor and was probably brought to Italy by the Greeks. The Romans quickly caught on to its culinary and medicinal uses and promoted the production of olive oil.
In Tuscany, the Medici family greatly encouraged the plantation of olive groves and vineyards on the hilly parts of the region by lowering their rental prices if the land was destined to that production.
Still to this day, the most important agricultural products in Tuscany are olive oil and wine.
How Is Olive Oil Produced?
The harvesting period is from October to November, depending on the maturation levels of the olives. Nets are laid under the olive trees and a comb like tool is used to make the branches vibrate enough for the ripe olives to fall.
To guarantee the freshest product, within 24 hours of the harvest, the olives should be taken to the olive press where they will be washed and ground using large millstones (traditional method) or steel drums (modern method).
The liquid extracted is part vegetal water, part oil. In order to the separate its content, the liquid is put in a centrifuge.
What Makes Tuscan Extra Virgin Olive Oil?
In order for oil to be considered Tuscan extra virgin olive oil (olio extravergine toscano), the production process has follow strict guidelines.
It can only be made using mechanical processes that don’t alterate the oil. Chemical processes or heating are not permitted. The only allowed phases are washing, decantation, centrifugation and filtering.
The production and following processes must be carried out in Tuscany.
The acidity of the oil must be under 0.8% and it must be tested for defects by a group of olive oil sommeliers.
What Things to Watch Out for When You Buy Olive Oil?
Extra virgin olive oil is the highest quality of olive oil on the market but it can easily be confused with its cousins: virgin olive oil and olive oil.
Check the label on the bottle to make sure that the whole process from harvesting to production has been done in Tuscany. To lower prices, producers will mix olive varieties (from Spain, Greece, North Africa) thus muddling the flavours.
Another sign to look out for is whether the extraction was done using heat (the label should say pressione a freddo).
And finally, high quality has a cost! If the oil cost less than €13 a litre, it is probably not Tuscan extra virgin olive oil.
Which Areas of Tuscany Are Famous for their Oil Production?
There are three different varieties of Extra Virgin Olive oil famous in Tuscany.
Olio extravergine d’oliva Chianti Classico (DOP)
This oil is produced in the Chianti area between Florence and Siena. It has a fruity, peppery taste and is slightly bitter. If you take a tour in the Chianti region with a visit to a farm you are going to taste an actual Chianti Classico olive oil.
Olio extravergine d’oliva Toscano (IGP)
This oil is produced in many areas of Tuscany (such as the Grosseto, Lucca, Firenze, Arezzo, Massa e Carrara, Prato e Pistoia provinces).
Olio extravergine d’oliva Colline di Firenze (IGP)
This oil is produced on the hills around Florence that include the Chianti, Montalbano, Pratomagno areas. But also around towns like Rufina, Bagno a Ripoli, Montespertoli, Certaldo, Impruneta and many others.
What Is Olio Nuovo?
Olio Nuovo, literally, new oil, is the freshest production of the year. From October to November is harvest and extraction time in Tuscany and also the period of the Olio Nuovo. Oil, when first out of the presses, has a vivid green colour. As olive oil ages, it takes on the golden colour it is famous for. Olio Nuovo, because it is so fresh, has a much sharper, almost peppery flavour.
All over Tuscany, you will find food festival themed around the Olio Nuovo. These festivals showcase the newest extra virgin olive oil productions. The typical tasting method is a slice of bread with a drizzle of Olio Nuovo.