It's an interesting phenomenon: when we travel to Italy we all expect to bring home a broader knowledge of Renaissance painting, ancient Roman engineering and Baroque architecture, but perhaps one of the biggest surprises is what we learn about the humble olive. Before we take that first train ride or daring drive around the hills of Tuscany, Lake Garda, Liguria or the Sabina, many of us don't even know what an olive tree looks like! Yet who can ever forget those graceful gnarled dancers with their feet firmly planted in the terracotta earth and their silvery plumage flashing in the breeze? It's hard not to love an olive tree, even harder to dislike their fruit and frankly impossible not to savor the oil they produce. Almost everyone brings home a bottle of it for themselves and perhaps even for their friends. The trouble starts when the bottle runs out, because now we have learned enough to distinguish the good oil from the mediocre oil that is available at most stores in North America. If we have actually stayed on a farm in Italy we know it's not even good enough to see "extra-virgin" or "cold-pressed" on the bottle. In a nutshell, here's why:
There are four basic types of olive oil, and the Italian government strictly controls every single bottle before allowing it to bear the "extra-virgin" seal. The only oils which can qualify are those which have an acidity level lower than 1% at the time of bottling. This eliminates most oils, which are sold at lower prices and used industrially or in the making of packaged foods or in restaurants or - here is the secret we learn on the farm - to dilute the very best oils.
Let's say Farmer Luigi has a grove of first-class trees planted in the very best geographical location (on a hillside, in soil that is heavily composed of limestone and well drained). Let's say he carefully hand picks his olives instead of using the machines and nets that make the job much quicker and less labor-intensive. Let's say he rushes his olives to the press and makes sure they become oil in the bottle before the end of the day they are picked. If he does all these things, Farmer Luigi's oil is likely to have an acidity level of about 0.3%, and can be considered to be among the very best olive oils produced anywhere on earth. Of course, if he does all these things, Farmer Luigi is going to end up with a modest amount of oil - just enough for his family and a very limited sale in the immediate vicinity of his farm. But because of its extreme low acidity, an industrial producer can purchase Farmer Luigi's oil and dilute it with up to thirty times as much lower quality oil, and the result will still qualify as "extra-virgin olive oil"! It qualifies for the label, alright, it's simply 30 times less "extra-virgin" than Farmer Luigi's oil. And there's thirty times more of it, so there's enough to sell to supermarket chains or foreign import distributors.
There's another thing you learn when you stay on a farm in Tuscany, and that is the myth about "cold-pressed" and "first-run" olive oil. There was a time, up until the mid-1980s, when those terms actually meant something. But today, virtually all olive oil sold in bottles in Italy is "cold-pressed" so, like "extra-virgin," this has become a term with many different meanings. Let us explain. There are basically two ways to get oil out of an olive. The first way - the way they've been doing it since the time of the ancient Greeks - is to take a bunch of olives, strip off the leaves and stems, quickly wash and rinse them, and then crush them, pit and all, between two large revolving stones. This process yields a pretty unpleasant looking mush, which is then gently centrifuged so that the water drains off, leaving only a pulp. In the traditional method, this pulp is then spread like chunky peanut butter on layers of cotton and subjected to pressure, which forces the oil to drip off. The pressure must be applied slowly and steadily so as not to cause any friction, which produces heat that seriously alters the properties of new oil. It was this crucial step in the process that gave rise to the term "cold-pressed," and also to the term, "first-run."
The alternative method makes much more sense economically but almost none gastronomically! After using pressure to extract the oil, a chemical is applied to the remaining "first-run" pulp. The ensuing chemical reaction extracts a much greater quantity of oil, but that is because it dissolves the oil that resides inside the kernel - a low-quality oil which has none of the properties of cold-pressed extra-virgin olive oil. This chemical procedure is still used widely, but very little of the resulting oil is bottled anymore, because the public knows too much. This oil, called olio di sansa in Italy, is used for other purposes such as canning tuna fish.
So you see, after learning these few simple notions, you too are now able to distinguish between one extra-virgin olive oil and another. Sadly, you now know enough to realize that the oil you really want is the one in the fancy half-liter bottle with the price tag of $25. and up. Of course it costs that much! Not only is it expensive to grow, pick and bottle such extraordinary olive oil, but it is equally expensive to get it to stores around the world, a few cases at a time. Yet if you are a person who cares enough to search out fine wines, great cheeses and super-aged balsamic vinegar, you should also never settle for anything less than the very best olive oil. That oil should come from hand-picked olives, be bottled the same day it was picked, and have an acidity level no higher than 0.5%. If you have ever eaten bruschetta in Italy, you know how easy it is to taste the difference. Oh, and by the way, don't forget to pronounce this delicacy brus-KETT-a, not bru-SHED-a.
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