Tuscan Olives and Oils
By now, everyone is probably well aware of the benefits of olive oil on overall health and wellness. We know it’s good for the heart, the arteries, and is a powerful antioxidant. In fact, olive oil is the only oil in which you can enjoy unlimited quantities of without worrying about harmful saturated fats.
Olive oil is a main component of Mediterranean and Italian cooking, and especially Tuscan cooking, because the flavor it imparts to foods is absolutely delightful. It is also one of the reasons Mediterranean cooking is considered to be so heart healthy. In Tuscany, especially, olive oil is traditionally used because of the lack of dairy cows and therefore the lack of butter. Even though the Tuscan Maremma region is famous for its butteri cowboys and organic, free range chianini cattle, the cows produce very thin milk which doesn’t make very good butter, although the cattle produce some of the best steaks in the world! Don’t miss an opportunity to enjoy one of these thick, lean steaks, typically seasoned with salt, pepper, and you guessed it, olive oil, and grilled over live coals.
Tuscany cultivates several types of olives, and has been doing so since the age of the Etruscans. The Etruscans were probably among the first to produce oils, soaps, and cosmetics made from olives, and the methods have largely remained unchanged among the small grove owners today. While these methods produce the finest, most coveted oils, the yield is small and expect to pay a good sum of money for a bottle of this beautiful, fragrant, and delicious oil. Each tree will only produce about a liter of good oil, making it Tuscany’s liquid gold. It is, however, money well spent, and you can savor your oil by using it for making bruschetta, panzanella, or olivada, and using a lesser, readily available oil for cooking.
Tuscany grows four main types of olives, Frantoio, Moraiolo, Leccino, and Pendolino. Frantoio is a Tuscan native, but because of its high demand, is now grown all over Italy, and in parts of Australia, North Africa, and California. It is considered the best oil olive, for it’s fruity aroma and character, rich, green color, and because it lends itself so readily to oil. It is a semi-prolific tree, producing moderate yields of slow-ripening, medium sized, purplish-black olives with a distinctive, pleasing nutty flavor when ripe. The preferred time for harvesting is before ripening, when the olives are green to purplish green. Incidentally, a factory that produces olive oils is known as a Frantoio, and a communally owned mill is called a frantoio comunale.
The Moriaolo, Leccino, and Pendolino olives are higher yielding and produce pleasant oil that is less desirable than the Frantoio. They are commonly used to cut the expensive Frantoio oils for export to the US and Europe, making an oil of average quality. You will probably notice when you return from Tuscany and are searching for equivalent oil that even the pricier oils for sale are only a small percentage of Frantoio and are roughly 70% of these other oils.
But, by now you will have been spoiled by Tuscan oils, and if you are lucky enough to find a way to purchase authentic Tuscan olive oil, you will also learn how to make your bottle of liquid gold last, saving it for special occasions and meals where you really want the oil to shine. Use it for fresh bruschetta (brus-SKET-ta), or add it raw to cooked foods, allowing the heat of the food to release the aromatic properties of the oil. When you are shopping for olive oils, beware of the labeling.
Extra Virgin olive oil refers to oils produced from the first pressing, without heat or chemicals added, and is the most desirable (and expensive!) oils. Only oils produced in the traditional manner can be called Extra-Virgin. It has a very low acidity (less
than 1%), superior flavor and color, and the highest health benefits.
Labels that read, “Imported from Italy” does not guarantee that your oil is Italian, read carefully to make sure the oil was not simply bottled in Italy and contains olives grown in Spain, Greece, Tunisia or Turkey.
“First Cold Press” means the oil was produced from the first pressing and is likely to be of higher quality.
“From Hand Picked Olives” also may indicate a better quality, since olives that have fallen are considered damaged and produce oils with “off” flavors.
“Light” olive oil simply means lighter in color, there are no reduced fat olive oils. To obtain the light color, the oil must be refined, don’t waste your money on these oils. Like wise with labels reading,
“Made from refined olive oils”, this is the lowest quality oil allowed on the market, and you may as well stick to “vegetable oil”. Again, don’t waste your money on this oil.
If you are fortunate enough to visit a small producer during olive oil harvest, late October to early November, you may be able to witness first hand the production methods used for centuries in Tuscany. Olives are very delicate fruits, and must be treated as such. When the olives are turning their purplish-green, nets are spread under the trees and the pickers climb ladders with baskets strapped to their waists. Each fruit is handpicked and gently laid in the basket. Tuscans are careful not to drop any olives, as the olive that falls from the tree is not worthy of inclusion in the press. These unfortunate olives are used for soap making, cheaper oils for export, or to make oils for canning. When the olives have been successfully harvested, they are carefully rushed to the presses (frantoio) for sorting and to extract the oils. Because of the high fat content, olives will grow rancid quickly, and so the time from tree to bottle is typically less than 24 hours.
The olives, after being washed, are slowly crushed by traditional granite stone grinders making sure not to generate heat from friction, and then carefully pressed to release the oils. The oil is quickly bottled and must be kept below 65 degrees F to ensure quality and freshness. Unlike Tuscan wines, olive oils do not improve with age, and must be used within a year of harvesting. Do not let the beauty of your bottle of Tuscan oil tempt you into placing it on display in your kitchen. Even though it looks beautiful, sunlight will destroy the oil and render it unusable. Keep your oil in a dark, cool place and keep it tightly sealed. Enjoy!
Olive oil’s health benefits
Lowering the risk of heart disease
Lowering the risk of cancer
Reduction in the level of LDL (bad) cholesterol
Lowering of blood pressure
Decrease in blood sugar levels
Increase in the absorption of several vitamins including A, D, E, and K
Stimulation of the gall bladder to secrete bile, which helps to prevent gallstones
Promotes cellular growth, speeds healing, and helps the metabolism
Olive oil is also thought to slow aging, and the high amount of anti-oxidants to improve mental clarity and faculties. Olive oil works wonders to soothe dry, chapped skin, and applying a mask of olive oil to treated, dried, or damaged hair rejuvenates it and makes it soft and shiny and easily managed. Olive oil soaps are gentle enough to use on a baby’s skin, and help keep skin soft and supple without drying.
From Grove to Bottle
It is said that the Goddess Minerva (Athena in Greek mythology) gifted humans with the olive tree as a symbol of peace, wisdom, and longevity. There are many legends and myths that take place in an olive grove, and even today, we are discovering that the promise of a long life when using olive oils is more than just fables.
Although olive trees have been growing for eons, and the first known cultivated olive grove in Tuscany was about 1000 BC, the Romans made the practice of cultivating groves widespread through out Italy by placing a high monetary value on olives and oils. Olive oils were often used as compensation for labor and loyalty. Olive oil traders dedicated a statue and temple to Hercules Olivarius. The dead in ancient Rome were adorned with olive leaves, and the nobility, heroes and Olympiads wore crowns of olive boughs. The Medici family, in 1500 AD, reinforced the value of olive oils by offering any family free land if they promised to produce olives for oils on it.
Traditionally, olive groves are planted along the hill sides in terraces, not too close together. The tree can live for up to 200 years, but they are very sensitive to extreme cold and frost. But even when a tree dies, a new one will grow up from the roots, so the tree seemingly is immortal. There is a particular tree in Tuscany, the “Olive Tree of Magliano” that is said to be over 3500 years old! The leaves are shiny, silvery green, and shimmer in the sun and breezes. A hillside planted in olive trees is an incredibly beautiful sight.
The methods of harvesting olives have remained virtually unchanged for centuries. Olives are delicate fruit, and so much care is taken with all aspects of the oil making process. Groves are typically planted on steep slopes, in terraces, with trees being spaced a fair distance apart. A typical farm will have over 100 trees, many farms planting several varieties of olives.
Olives are harvested once a year, usually in late November, just before the olives become too ripe. Huge nets are spread beneath the trees to catch fallen olives, which will be used to make less superior oil. The olives are taken to the frantoio, where leaves and stems will be carefully removed, and the olives rinsed with cold running water before going through the granite stone grinders. Some frantoio are using electrically driven mills, but there are plenty of traditional frantoio that still use water or mule power. It goes without saying that these frantoio produce the best oil, at least in popular opinion! The olives are slowly mashed by the granite stones into a coarse paste that resembles peanut butter in consistency.
This mash, called pumice, is then spread on round mats which used to be made of straw but are now synthetic. These mats have a whole in the middle, which will allow the mats to be loaded onto a trolley that has a central spindle. The mats are placed on top of each other, looking like a stack of enormous pancakes, until it is about 6 feet high. The stacked mats of olive pumice are then placed in the press, which slowly squeezes the oils from the paste.
After the pressing, the liquid run off will be a mixture of oil and water, this is then placed in a centrifuge and spun at high speed separating the oil from the water. The water is discarded, and the brilliant green oil is stored, traditionally in terracotta jugs, but now in stainless steel. A happy tradition that the lucky witness will take part of will be to taste some of this incredible, fresh oil, drizzled onto bread. All involved in the work will partake of the zuppa frantoio, the traditional frantoio supper, consisting of a thick bean and vegetable soup served over grilled bread rubbed with garlic and generously drizzled with the fresh, pure olive oil. There is no other oil available that compares to this pure, first pressed oil, the prima spremitura.