The story of Olive Oil
Italy is renowned throughout the world for the high quality of its olive oil, and rightly so. Some of the best of this olive oil comes from the Tuscany region, with single estate bottled oil being the most highly prized, and the most expensive.
The soil, type of tree grown, amount of sunshine and for that matter the amount of rain during the growing season all play their part in determining the flavour of the oil. A variety of olive trees are grown in Italy each with their own particular characteristics. The majority of the olive trees grown in Tuscany are Frantoio, Leccino, Pendolio, Maurino, Moraiolo and Taggiasca. The best type of soil to plant them in is clay or good loamy soil with plenty of drainage, although it is true that olive trees can still thrive in difficult conditions there is no guarantee of a reliable crop each year. It is essential that the trees have good irrigation throughout the growing season in order to maximise their yield. Olives crop, on the previous year's growth; therefore, annual pruning is essential for maintaining the health of the tree, ensuring an annual crop and encouraging an even fruit set throughout the tree.
Olives are picked by hand as this causes the least damage to the fruit; they are then washed to remove any dirt and dust. Then within 24 to 48 hours of being harvested the olives, including the skin and stones are crushed into a pulp by stone mill or metal grinder. This pulp is then pressed using a traditional wooden press or a modern hydraulic one. This is the first pressing and strict guidelines must be adhered to during this process. In order to label a bottle “first cold pressing” or in the case of an industrial process “cold extraction” EU guidelines state that the olives must be pressed at a temperature below 27degrees.
Perhaps the most skilled part of the process, is deciding when to harvest the olives, as this determines the flavour and taste. Picked too soon or too late the acidity of the fruit will not be right and will affect the quality and flavour of the oil. Extra virgin olive oil must have an acidity level of less than 1 percent. The Italian Government has introduced protected designation of origin labels for its olive oils DOP. In addition to this, olive oil from the Chianti region has a special quality assurance label of denomination of controlled origin DOC.
It is quite normal for an extra virgin olive oil to have some sediment at the bottom of the bottle; this is because many of the oils have not been filtered after pressing in order to retain maximum flavour. Once bottled, the oil should be stored away from direct sunlight and should not be exposed to extremes of temperature, a cool pantry or cellar is ideal. Once opened the oil should be used within a year or by the consume by date on the label, although it is so delicious it is unlikely to last that long!
Olive oil, in particular the pure extra virgin olive oil is a powerful antioxidant, containing monounsaturated fats, these are the good fats which can help reduce cholesterol levels, which is not only good for our hearts but also our general well being. In addition to all of the health benefits to be found in olive oil, it is also widely used in cosmetics, both in manufactured and natural products. It is used mixed with essential oils in moisturisers and has a long tradition of use in high quality soaps.
To Tuscany would be delighted to welcome anyone wishing to take part in the olive harvest or witness the season first hand, particularly at the hamlets of Montebuoni and Montefiorile, where To Tuscany pick the olives growing in and around both of these hamlets, and take them to our neighbours at the vineyard Casanuova di Ama, who in turn take them to be cold pressed in Volterra, after which the oil is then bottled.