No other ingredient encapsulates the spirit of Italian cuisine like olive oil, the gold-green nectar sourced from the fruit of the olive tree. Throughout Italy, chefs and homemakers alike tap into the magic of olive oil to add a fragrant zest to soups and salads, in marinades, and to fry, sauté, baste and boil to create dishes aglow with that unique Italian flavour.
Far more than just a cooking element, olive oil is also a condiment that brings its own rich flavour to any meal. Part of a tradition that dates back millennia, it has a history as beguiling as the oil itself.
The rich history of olive oil
Olive oil is derived from the fruit of the evergreen Olea Europaea, one of the most ancient and venerable cultivated trees in the world. Originating in Asian Minor over 6000 years ago, these olive trees were later brought to the shores of the Mediterranean by the seafaring Phoenicians. Referred to as ‘liquid gold’ by the poet Homer, olive oil was soon tapped by the Greeks as a fuel, to make perfumes and for cooking. Historians believe the olive tree first arrived in Italy from Greece around 1000 BC. And over the centuries, olive oil assumed its key role in the Italian culinary world.
How Italy fell in love with olive oil
It was during the Renaissance that Italy emerged as the leading producer of olive oil, renowned for its rich and wholesome blends. To encourage production, the Medici Family offered land to anyone who wished to cultivate olive trees. Soon, olive groves covered the hills of Tuscany.
Olive trees thrive best in warm southern Italy, particularly in the coastal areas in Calabria, Campania, Puglia and Basilicata, and the islands of Sicily and Sardinia. However they are also cultivated in the north, where regions such as Marche, Tuscany, Umbria, Lazio and Veneto, and others have long olive oil producing traditions. It was the Italians who refined a process to best extract the precious oil from the olive fruit. These methods are used to this day in local mills known as frantoi.
How olive oil is produced
During late autumn, Italy’s farmers keep a keen eye on their olive trees, ready to spot the green fruit darkening as it ripens. Late October usually marks the start of the harvest season.
After collection, farmers press the olives to release the rich, aromatic oil. This cold pressing method ensures all the myriad fruity flavours of the olive are preserved. With traditional olive oil extraction, the ‘first press’ is especially prized. However, modern centrifugal pressing techniques only carry out just one press. Nonetheless, the ‘first press’ label still retains a definite cachet. Today, Italy is home to some 628 varieties of olive tree, the largest variety in the world. Each variety produces oil with its own special characteristics, so there’s a flavour to compliment every dish in the Italian recipe book.
Taggiasca olives grown on the Ligurian coast deliver a mild oil, Sicily’s Tonda Iblea renders a spicier flavour, Puglia’s Coratina olives produce oil redolent of peppers, for example.
Cooking with olive oil
Olive oil is truly the heart of Italian food preparation. Other than its ubiquitous use as a cooking oil, it’s also used as a salad dressing, poured on slices of crusty bread, and stirred into soups, sauces and stews to infuse them with that extra touch of rich flavour. Even desserts such as cardamom cake derive their crisp, juicy finish by virtue of the oil of the olive tree.
It can be truly said that olive oil touches every aspect of the Italian food world. So the next time you’re shopping for Italian foods, remember the significance of the fruit of those trees which flourish in the warm Italian sun.
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