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Olive oil, quality on our tables


Olive oil, quality on our tables Rome - (Ign) - For the Egyptians it was a divine gift, the Phoenicians defined it "liquid Gold", the Greeks used it as ointment and as a fuel in votive lamps, and the Romans reserved it for use in funeral rites. According to food historians, it has been used for no less than six millennia, and it would be no exaggeration to say that olive oil is as old as the very civilisations of the Mediterranean. Its story is one in which history and legend often meet, and which has seen this most noble of vegetable cooking fats pass from altars and religious use to misery and contempt in the 1970s, when it was considered the most unhealthy of condiments, only to be resurrected as an absolute benchmark in the most sought-after and imitated of diets, that of the Mediterranean, and of cuisines, that of Italy.

And it is precisely Italy, today, which is the world's leading producer of extra virgin olive oil (www.politicheagricole.it), which is the best type. With over 1.1 million hectares cultivated and a production of over 3 million tonnes, Italy is in fact the third largest producer of olives in the world, behind Turkey and Spain. But what makes the real difference between extra virgin oil and others is the processing techniques, and here Italy maintains a solid position of leadership. Production for the 2005-2006 season is estimated at no less than 750,000 tonnes of oil, for a market value of around €2 billion.

The quality of olive oil is guaranteed by strict European regulations, which reserve the qualification of "extra virgin" only for olive oils which present a total acidity of no higher than 8g per kilogram of oil. Achieving this result requires particular care in the phases of picking and processing of the olives and, especially, in those of crushing and pressing. The British Museum in London conserves an ancient Etruscan amphora from Vulci, dating back to the 6th century BC, which shows a scene of olive picking: two men, from below, beating the branches with poles; another, on the tree, beats the olives with a stick and a fourth man, kneeling, collect the olives from the ground and places them in a basket. Olives are still harvested in the same way, although, especially in Puglia, a region from which a third of Italian oil comes, instead of poles they use staffs moved by a slowly moving tractor. But tens of thousands of small producers prefer to pick the olives by hand from the branches rather than use the technique of beating.

But what guarantees maximum quality is above all the subsequent processing phases, which in Italy are performed by over 6000 production facilities of all sizes, spread from Sicily to Veneto. To produce extra virgin olive oil it is in fact necessary to proceed with crushing, which consists in reducing the olives into a uniform paste, through the use of large stone millstones or using systems of hammers and rotating disks. In the case of crushing with millstones, the so-called "cold" process, it is possible to pass on immediately afterwards to pressing with hydraulic machinery, which extracts a mixture of water and oil. By means of centrifugation, the oil is separated, and, according to commercial needs, may be placed on the market as it is, filtered, or left to decant and thus remove impurities. In the case of industrial crushing using hammers and disks, meanwhile, the next step is the so-called kneading, whereby the olive paste is heated to a suitable temperature (30 - 35 degrees) and then separated by means of centrifugation.

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