Sun, stone, drought, silence and solitude: these are the five ingredients that, according to Italian folk traditions, create the ideal habitat for the olive tree. And Italians should know, as cultivation of the olive tree started there as early as the 8th century BC. It arrived from Greece (where its cultivation began around 5000 BC), with the expansion of its colonies. The liquid gold was treasured so highly that it was awarded instead of medals at the Olympic games.
Its properties were valued for food conservation, as medicine and as cosmetic – both internal as external. Although we nowadays lack the necessity to treat out torn skin after circus fights – as the roman gladiators supposedly did - the health benefits of extra virgin olive oil are well reported: their high levels of antioxidants are said to be beneficial to fight cholesterol, coronary disease and cancer.
When buying olive oil, there are two kinds of information that need to be evaluated correctly: one is the grading into extra virgin, virgin and olive oil and the other is the reference to IGP and DOP.
Extra virgin tells you two things: it has been cold pressed at a temperature below 77°F (virgin) and is has a very low acidity of less than 1% (extra). Cold pressing guarantees that the enzymes are not destroyed, but the yield will be much lower and the oil hence more precious. The “extra” can only be obtained from a first pressing of perfectly intact fruit. Olives are very delicate and need to be picked carefully and pressed as fast as possible – preferably 24 hours after the picking – otherwise it decays.
IGP and DOP are indicating that the oils are representing a typical regional oil. The producers need to follow a production protocol and shared standards. There are more than 40 different IGP and DOP labels for extra virgin olive oil in Italy. Exaggerated? No, because the character of an extra virgin olive oil varies significantly based on where the olives were grown. An olive oil from the Ligurian Coast shimmers yellow, is fruity and sweet, where as the Tuscan one is more spicy, almost pungent and is dressed in green. The Apulian oils are more fruity, also in their scent, and have a more herbal note. Going further south to Sicily the oil will be fruity and very mellow.
An extra virgin olive oil does not need to be IGP or DOP though in order to be exceptional. Many small artisan producers cannot afford the pricey certification and sell beautiful oil without the IGP or DOP label. One of these is Cosimo. The Scrumptious Pantry brings you his two single estate olive oils from the hillsides of the northern Chianti region. The nights there are cool and the days are hot – a more peppery taste is the result. The blend is a spicy, pungent oil that works perfectly to top of soups, grilled veggies, pasta dishes and risotto. The premium blend is a more elegant oil, sweeter at first, but quickly developing a peppery sensation: it is great to top off meats, salads or to be drizzled over cheese. Given its pungent note, it might not be the best match for peppery salads such as arugula or delicate fish dishes (useless to say that Tuscans and Cosimo do use their oil on everything and totally love it). We are working on a detailed report of the 2008 olive harvest at Cosimo's - stay tuned for more!
One last note: Olive oil needs to be conserved in the dark at a low temperature. Do not keep near the oven and make sure your olive oil is in a dark bottle or wrapped in aluminium foil. Do not keep a selection of too many varieties if you do not use them regularly or buy more special oils in small containers. That way it will not oxidize or become rancid.