Italian folk legends maintain that the ideal habitat for an olive tree has five true characteristics: sun, stone, drought, silence and solitude. It is no wonder that olive oil has achieved such a special place in the collective Mediterranean heart. This special oil has distinct properties, both nutritional and salutary. According to La Cucina Italia, olive oil is the most digestible edible fat. Other beneficial characteristics include increasing the assimilation of vitamins A, D, and K in the human body; slowing the human aging process; aiding the functions of vital organs; and providing our bodies with essential acids.
Ancient Romans were known to infuse olive oil with flowers and herbs to create medicines and cosmetics. Homer referred to olive oil as “liquid gold.” Perhaps the ancient Greeks also thought of the oil as akin to gold – athletes were known to rub themselves down with it before competition, which gave them a magical glow. Crowns built from the leaves of olive trees were donned by the best athletes and the bravest war heroes.
History of Olive Oil
Fossil remains of an ancient tree, dating back some 20 million years, were discovered near Livorno, Italy. This ancient tree is an ancestor of today’s olive trees and was not used for cultivation. Olives were first cultivated in the “fertile crescent,” an eastern Mediterranean region. Until about 1500 BC, Greece was the most heavily cultivated area, but olives were quickly making their spread throughout the Mediterranean. Olives reached southern Italy in the 8th century BC due to the expansion of Greek colonies. By the time of the Roman Empire, olive trees dotted the entire Mediterranean basin. Since then, olive oil has become a symbol of pride to Italians, and Italy is now the most prolific producer of olive oil in the world.
The leading production regions in Italy are Liguria, Tuscany, Umbria, and Puglia. In fact, Puglia is home to one-third of Italy’s olive trees. Piedmont and Val D’Aosta are the only Italian regions that do not produce olive oil. Italian extra virgin olive oil is in a class of its own. Chefs around the world find no match for its use in cooking and as a condiment in countless dishes, from soups and salads to seafood and meats. Each olive oil, produced from specific varieties of olive, has distinguishable characteristics due to terrain, climatic differences, and methods of harvesting. Today, Italy has 30+ DOP certified olive oils, and one IGP oil.
Parameters of Olive Oil
The European Community provides the following parameters for olive oil:
- Extra virgin olive oil with perfect taste is oil of the highest quality; it has a minimum organoleptic rating of 6.5 out of 10, low acidity (1% or less), and is untreated.
- Olive oil has a minimum organoleptic rating of 5.5, a maximum of 2% acidity and is untreated.
- The production of all other olive oils involves treatments.
Types of Olive Oil
Alto Crotonese DOP – This extra virgin olive oil is produced from olives grown in the province of Crotone, located in the Calabria region. The area is widely recognized as the first to grow olives, dating back to the second millennium BC. Alto Crotonese has a mild flavor that works beautifully with fresh fish, meat, or game.
Aprutino Pescarese DOP – The entire province of Pescara produces this extra virgin olive oil made from a blend of Dritta, Leccino and Toccolana olives. The Toccolana, native to Tocco Casauria, is known for its rustic taste and high oil yield, while the Dritta is local to Abruzzo, where Aprutino Pescarese is made. This olive oil ranges from green to yellow with a maximum acidity of 0.60 percent. Aprutino Pescarese is known for its fruity scent and taste.
Brisighella DOP – This olive oil, produced in the Ravenna and Forlì provinces, dates back to early Roman times. The Nostrana di Brisighella olive must be 90 percent of its grove’s fruit production for this olive oil to attain its designation of origin certificate. Brisighella is known for its emerald green appearance with traces of gold. A strong and fruity aroma is accompanied by hints of light vegetable and grass scents. Bitterness is a common undertone to Brisighella’s fruity flavor. Note: Brisighella DOP has a maximum acidity of 0.50 percent.
Bruzio DOP – Only a qualified area within the Italian province of Cosenza can produce this green olive oil with a maximum acidity of 0.80 percent. Mechanical and physical methods are restricted to those that preserve the integrity of the olives used in producing Bruzio.
Canino DOP – The olives used to make this oil must be grown within the Canino district of the Viterbo province. Olives have likely been grown in this area since Etruscan times. The maximum acidity of Canino is 0.50 percent. Tones of gold can be seen within the emerald green coloring of this robust, bitter, and peppery olive oil.
Cartoceto DOP – Historical evidence shows that olive oil production in the Cartoceto territory dates back to the 13th century. The “Mezzadria” arrangement of the time ordered olive growers to pay half of their crop, or 100 soldi, to the landowners. Cartoceto olive oil is very highly regarded. Written evidence from 1390 AD shows that Cartoceto was used as a currency.
Chianti Classico DOP – This central Tuscan extra virgin olive oil is bright green immediately after pressing. It then turns yellow, with faint hints of green. Chianti Classico is almost always used as a condiment and not in cooking because its flavors can be altered by heat. Eighty percent of the olives used to produce Chianti Classico must be of the following four varieties: Frantoio, Correggiolo, Moraiolo and Leccino. There are numerous DOP regulations for this olive oil. First, the maximum acidity can only be 0.50 percent. Second, the olives have to be hand-picked from the trees and stored in perforated baskets that are no more than twelve inches deep. The olives must be pressed in the production zone within three days of being picked. Finally, the olive paste cannot exceed 82.4 degrees Fahrenheit during the pressing process.
Cilento DOP – The chief feature of the Italian town of Cilento are its olive groves. The Pisciottana olives used in this oil must be hand or machine-picked before December 31, and pressed within two days of picking. Cilento can be green or straw-yellow in color, with a maximum acidity of 0.70 percent.
Colline di Brindisi DOP is made from at least 70 percent oil from the Ogliarola olive, with additions from varieties such as Cellina, Nardó, Coratina, Frantoio, Leccino and Picholine. Colline di Brindisi is usually green but can be yellow. It has a maximum acidity of 0.80 percent. This slightly bitter oil must be produced in the northern part of the Brindisi province.
Colline di Romagna DOP – Olive production was an important part of the Romagna region’s economy up until the early 1900’s. The farmers of the region are known to produce very high quality olives, which are used in producing this extra virgin olive oil. Colline di Romagna is unmistakably complex and has a biting taste. Olives are the only legal crop in the zone stretching from the hills of the Rimini province to the province of Forlì-Cesena.
Colline Salernitane DOP – The Rotondella and the Carpellese olive varieties give this oil its green-yellow hue. A combination of the Mediterranean climate of Salerno, and the expertise of the regions farmers add to its high quality seal. Colline Salernitane has a maximum acidity of 0.70 percent. Note: Only oil mills listed in the regional registry may press olives for this oil.
Colline Teatine DOP – A fruity aroma and flavor are common to this extra virgin olive oil produced in the Chieti province. Colline Teatine has a green or yellow color, with a maximum acidity of 0.60 percent. The remains of an ancient oil mill, dating back to the 2nd century, shine a light on just how long olive oil has been produced in this region.
Dauno DOP – Olives have been cultivated in the Foggio province since Roman times. Four zones within this province produce this oil exclusively: Dauno Alto Tavoliere, Dauno Basso Tavoliere, Dauno Gargano and Dauno sub-Appennino. Olio Extravergine d’Oliva Dauno has a maximum acidity of 0.60 percent. It has a pungent taste.
Garda DOP – Fossil evidence suggests olives were cultivated in the Garda region during prehistoric times. The remains of an ancient oil mill have been discovered around Lake Garda. It is apparent why this region takes its olive oil so seriously. Garda has a maximum acidity of 0.60 percent and a light almond flavor. This oil is produced in the provinces of Brescia, Verona, Mantua and Trento, which all overlook the basin of Lake Garda.
Laghi Lombardi DOP – This oil is produced mainly from the Casaliva, Frantoio and Leccino varieties of olive, cultivated in the region of Lombardy around Lake Sebino and Lario. It has a maximum acidity of 0.55 percent and a color range of green to yellow. Laghi Lombardi has a mild aroma.
Lamezia DOP – The olive was introduced to Calabria by the Greeks sometime around the 8th century BC. The crop has been a symbol of the area ever since. Lamezia, produced in the Tyrrhenian seaside resort of Lamezia Terme, is 90 percent pressed from the Carolea olive; the remainder is pressed from various varieties. The DOP certification comes with a few regulations: the olives can be harvested from the time they change color until no later than January 15 of the following year; the green-yellow Lamezia can only be offered in glass bottles or cans of no more than five liters; and, finally, Lamezia may only contain .5 grams of oleic acid per 100 grams.
Lucca DOP – Documents dating back to the 11th and 12th centuries specify rules and regulations for olive oil sale and production in Lucca. One of the most respected agrarian academies in Tuscany, Accademia dei Georgofili, has acknowledged this region’s farmers as having advanced knowledge and skill.
Molise DOP – Molise olive oil from Venafro has been mentioned by many personalities throughout history. InDe Re Rustica, Cato discusses the regulation and sale of olives in Venafro. In De Oleo, Pliny the Elder mentions the Licinian olive, named after Licinicus; he specifically praises their quality oil yield. The Aurina, Gentile di Larino, Rosciola, and the black olive of Collotorto are each grown in a restricted area in the territory of Larino. Each produces oil with distinct characteristics.
Monte Etna DOP – According to legend, Odysseus bound Polyphemus (Monte Etna’s Cyclops personification) to the trunk of an olive tree. The slopes of this Sicilian volcano have a rich olive growing history. Monte Etna’s volcanic soil seems to be the perfect match for olive cultivation. Venetian scholar Pietro Bembo praised the region’s olives in his Renaissance-era book De Aetna.
Monte Iblei DOP – Olive cultivation around Monte Iblei dates back to the times of Magna Grecia. Ancient commercial olive oil agreements, known as pandette, substantiate the long history of cultivation in the area. Monte Iblei olive oil has a maximum acidity of 0.65 percent, with a mildly fruity scent and flavor. Numerous names are used for the principle variety of olive indigenous to this region; among them are: Tonda Iblea, Cetrala, Prunara, Abbunara or Tunna. The provinces of Syracuse, Ragusa and Catania are home to this production zone.
Penisola Sorrentina DOP – Olive oil on the Sorrento peninsula dates back to ancient times when it was offered as a gift to Minerva, the goddess of wisdom. Olives were vigorously cultivated around the temple on Capo Minerva (known today as Punta Campanella). Minucciola olives from this volcanic area produce oil with a distinct flavor. The province of Naples can claim the production zone for this oil with a maximum acidity of 0.80 percent.
Pretuziano delle Colline Teramane DOP – Named after the Praetutti, or Pretuzi population that was conquered by the Romans in the province of Teramo in the 3rd century BC, seventy-five percent of this oil is pressed from the Leccino, Frantoio and Dritta olive varieties. It has a fruity scent with rich undertones.
Riviera Ligure DOP – Evidence shows that olives were grown in Liguria since approximately 3000 BC. Benedetto introduced specific skills and methods of olive cultivation to Liguria around the end of the 16th century. Olive groves began to expand to hillsides and mountains by the end of the 18th century. This yellow olive oil has a maximum acidity of 0.80 percent. A sweet flavor is accompanied by a mild scent. Riviera Ligure is perfect for seasoning foods without overpowering the essence of a dish.
Sabina DOP – The Regestro Farnese, kept in the Farfa Abbey, makes reference to olives being cultivated in the Sabina area for thousands of years; in fact, the oldest productive olive tree is native to the Canneto-Sabino district. DOP certification insists that Sabina be produced from at least 75 percent of the following olive varieties: Carboncella, Leccino, Raja, Frantoio, Moraiolo, Olivastrone, Salviana, Olivago and Rosciola. This golden oil has a maximum acidity of 0.70 percent. The flavor of Sabina is sweet and velvety. The production zone stretches through the provinces of Rieti and Rome.
Sardegna DOP – Ancient Phoenician and Roman shipwrecks provide proof that there was a thriving oil trade between Sardinia and other major Mediterranean ports. Olives have always been a part of Sardinia. During the Middle Ages, monasteries cultivated olives for oil, expanding groves at the same time. Laws of the time stated that each farmer plant at least ten new olive trees per year, and those owning five hundred or more trees were required to build an oil mill.
Tergeste DOP – Olive trees were common to the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region even before its colonization by the Romans. Emperor Augustus founded the colony of Tergeste (known today as Trieste), giving this olive oil its name. Olive presses were installed on virtually every farm because of the high skill level of the Roman settlers. Production of olives in this area came to a halt with the collapse of the Roman Empire, but thrived once again during the Byzantine Empire of the late 8th century.
Terra di Bari DOP – Olives have been the main agricultural activity of this region for thousands of years. Historical documents point to at least the Neolithic Age (5000 BC) for the beginning of olive cultivation. This olive oil has a maximum acidity of 0.60 percent. Undertones of grass and almond accompany the flavor of Terra di Bari. Castel del Monte, Bitonto, and Murgia dei Trulli e delle Grotte, all produce variations of Terra di Bari within the Bari province.
Terra d’Otranto DOP – The Messapi tribe of the Salentina peninsula district was the first to start cultivating olives in the 1st millennium BC. This oil is named after the town of Otranto, widely considered to be the most important Salentinian town of the Middle Ages. Terra d’Otranto is a green or yellow olive oil with a maximum acidity of 0.80 percent. The entire province of Lecce claims the production zone for Terra d’Otranto.
Terre Tarentine DOP – Italians have been growing olives in the Taranto region for some 8,000 years. Historical evidence shows that the Messapi, who settled this region in the 2nd millennium BC, had already acquired the necessary skills to make olive oil. Taranto’s National Archeological Museum holds many ancient treasures, including remains of ancient oil mills and olive crates dating back to these historical times. Terre Tarentine olive oil is almost always produced in the western side of the province. The area is perfect for olive cultivation, with its microclimate created by protection from the Le Murge hills to the north.
Toscano IGP – Tuscany has long been associated with high-quality olive oil. There is evidence that olives have been cultivated in the area since the 7th century BC. All stages of production for Toscano olive oil must be completed in Tuscany. This oil ranges in color from green to golden yellow, and has a maximum acidity of 0.60 percent. Toscano has an unmistakably fruity flavor, and its scent is accompanied by hints of green leaves, almond, artichoke, and ripe fruit.
Tuscia DOP – Fresco paintings of ancient Etruscan tombs depict the importance of olives and olive oil to the territory of Tuscia, known today as the province of Viterbo. Many olive millstones have been unearthed around the province as well. In fact, olives have been cultivated in this area since the 5th century BC. Ruins of olive presses can be toured today in the town of Civita di Bagnoreggio.
Umbria DOP – The Umbria region has been cultivating olives since the 1st century BC; many mills and crude containers have been unearthed as evidence. The climate of Umbria allows the olives to ripen slowly, resulting in a low acidity. This oil has a maximum acidity of 0.65 percent, and is known for its leafy scent. Umbria has a fruity flavor with a bitter, peppery finish.
Val di Mazara DOP – Named after the once largest county in all of Sicily during the Middle-Ages. Olives have always been an important part of the local economy here. In the 12th century, olive trees began appearing on the hills of Cefalù, in the Conca d’Oro, and in the plains of Carini and Partinico. By the 15th century, olive presses became a common item around Palermo. Val di Mazara olive oil is produced only with local olives, which are known for their unique qualities.
Valdemone DOP – The Vallis Nemorum (today known as Valdemone) region was popular in Roman times because of its dense forests. The commune of Samperi alone had at least eight olive presses around the year 1500 – a clear example of how important olive cultivation was to this area. The Valdemone region was once a seat for administrative and financial business. Olive oil from Valdemone has a rich history.
Valle del Belice DOP – This long lasting Sicilian olive oil is known for its very low acidity, around 0.20 percent. Gold reflections bounce from the deep green color of Valle del Belice. Hints of fresh herbs, tomato, and artichoke accompany the distinct aroma of this oil. Valle del Belice has a pungent flavor. This olive oil works very well on salads.
Valli Trapanesi DOP – Olive oil has been produced in the province of Trapani since ancient times. It has always been known for its high quality and nutritional value. Valli Trapanesi has a maximum acidity of 0.50 percent, and ranges in color from green to yellow. This oil has a distinctly bitter finish. The production zone is located in Valle del Belice and Valle di Erice, each sharing a uniquely mild Mediterranean climate.
Veneto DOP – Local oil production has skyrocketed since World War I, thanks to the efforts of regional olive farmers. Historical documents from the 16th and 19th centuries mention Venetian olive oil and its special organoleptic properties. Veneto and its DOP certification have three sub-classes: Veneto Valpolicella (made from the Grignano and Favarol olives), Veneto Euganei e Berici (Leccino and Resara varieties), and Veneto del Grappa (made from the Frantoio and Leccino olives).