SARONNO, Italy - Back in the day when I wasn’t even old enough to go to school, I used to hang out with my Grandfather and his cronies. The men would sit under the shade of the grape vine pergola behind our house, sip wine and reminisce about the old country and how much better the food was there.
One day one of the cronies was leafing through a magazine and came cross an ad for Wesson Oil. It said “Wesson Oil - light with barely a taste, or words to that effect. He scratched his head. Why, he asked, would anyone want to use an oil that doesn’t have any taste? Good question. But I didn’t realize just how good a question it was until I moved to Italy almost half a century later.
Over 500 varieties of olives are grown in Italy and millions of bottles of olive oil are produced every year. The southern provinces like Puglia, Calabria, Sicilia and Campania produce the most olives and olive oil, while up north the Veneto, Lombardia, Trentino and Emilia Romagna trail close behind.
Labor Intensive Work
In Puglia, for example, more than 2 million quintale (a quintale = 200 lbs) of olives were pressed for oil last year, while in Trentino there were fewer than 3 thousand quintale; and in Calabria, 1.5 million quintale of olives were pressed compared with Lombardia’s 8,000.
But those numbers represent commercial producers. What writers love to write about, and movie producers make films about are the small, family run olive groves, usually in Tuscany, where back to nature types harvest their own olives and make their own olive oil. It’s a great story, very picturesque and romantic. What they never show is the part where you have to rid your olive grove of weeds, especially the thorny wild blackberry that multiplies faster than a rabbit and climbs and smothers anything and everything in its path. And nary a word about the grasses that form a dense mat under the olive trees that have to be eliminated before they rob the trees of scarce summer rain.
You Go First, No - You Go First
Then comes the harvest. First the weeds must be mowed - again, this time right down to the roots. This is in anticipation of rolling out fine plastic netting under the trees to catch the olives. Netting has been used since the Fifties as a replacement for the more traditional “hands’n’knees” pick them up one by one method, and is a lot faster but only somewhat less labor intensive.
The olive harvest, which is in the fall, runs in ten day cycles. As the olives are collected they are transported to the olive pressing mill, the frantoio where owners usually require a minimum of 200 kilos of olives (about 30 buckets or 100 lbs.) before they will press your olives.
Sometimes it is difficult for small producers to reach the minimum weight requirements. Adding to the difficulty is the fact that once the olives are collected they need to be pressed within ten days of being harvested or they begin to rot. So sometimes Mother Nature need to be helped along by picking, stripping or banging the branches of the olive trees with a cane to coax the olives down. Often a picking ladder - a special ladder with a stabilizing third let – is needed, and for that of course you also need tree-climbing skills and a strong safety belt. But no matter how you do it, it is a slow process. For somewhat experienced pickers, 45 minutes per tree on average is a pretty good picking speed.
Only the Best Will Do
Sometimes Mother Nature gets a little quirky and brings the olives down with a strong wind or rain storm. Then they must be gathered using the tried and true hands’n’knees method, which usually yields about one bucket per hour. A novice couple, working in-between rain storms can usually manage to make the 200 kilo limit in the allotted ten days.
Once the olives are at the frantoio they must be weighed, washed, pressed and strained before the golden green oil starts to come out of the spigot. But that is the moment of truth: how much oil will your olives produce, and how will it taste.
Olive Oil Tasting
Truly excellent oil is rendered by cold pressing – using the age old circular millstone presses that were once turned by beasts or picturesque water wheels, but now by electric motors – or by a modern process that used hydraulics to extract oil from the mash. A liter of oil per tree is considered a good yield
There are basically three types of olive oil: extra virgin, which is a low acid oil (less than 1%) made from good quality olives pressed the day they are picked; virgin olive oil, pressed the next day after picking and has less than 2% acidity; and pure olive oil which has been extracted from olive pulp, skin and/or pits and has little or no aroma.
Delicious on Bread
Olive oil producers recommend that you store olive oil in dark glass bottles and not in plastic bottles because it will pick up the properties in the plastic. Keep the container tightly closed and store it in a dark place and preferably in areas slightly cooler than room temperature, but not in the refrigerator. They also suggest not buying oil that has been bottled for more than nine months.
You’ll find about 38 D.O.P. denominazione di origine protetta, or Protected Geographical Status olive oils in Italy. The D.O.P. label ensures that the product genuinely originates in a specific region. On a cultural note, one thing you won’t find are small plates of olive oil on restaurant tables for you to dip your bread into.
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