Word of the Day: Olio di Oliva

Olio di oliva (OH-lee-oh dee oh-LEE-vah): olive oil

Most of the day today was spent in front of a computer doing travel planning, but the big treat was olive oil tasting class with the students. Our wonderful teacher, Todd, gave us some background and history on olives and olive oil. I didn’t want to forget what he said, so I took notes. Here is pretty much our whole class on olive oil:

History of The Olive

The Olive is native to the area that is present day Turkey. It has been cultivated in the countries around the Mediterranean for at least 6,000 years. When Rome fell in 400-something A.D., cultivation of olives in Italy was all but lost. Benedictine monks continued to cultivate olives and saved the traditional methods from being lost. During the Renaissance, the Medici family gave land grants and tax breaks to olive farmers to help beautify the Tuscan countryside. This led to the resurgence of olive oil production in Italy.

The Olive in Mythology

In ancient Greek mythology, Athena and Poseidon both wanted to put their temple on the same piece of prime real estate. Zeus was called in to arbitrate the dispute. He devised a competition and whoever won the competition could have the prime land. The task was to create the most useful thing to humans. Athena created the olive tree and Poseidon created the horse. Zeus judged Athena’s creation to be the most useful and she won the competition. The olive tree gave the people wood, oil, and food, and was therefore considered most useful.


There are 750 million olive trees in production worldwide. 93% of those are in the Mediterranean region. About 7% of all olives harvested are cured and eaten, with the remaining 93% being pressed for olive oil. Italy and Spain are by far the biggest producers of olives in the world. There are 5 million olive trees in the greater Florence area alone. Those 5 million olive trees produce about 6.6 million liters of olive oil per year, or, just a little more than 1 liter of oil per tree. In this same region, there are only about 80 olive presses.

Sicilian olives at the street market in Ferrara.

Olive trees can live a very, very long time. Apparently there is one in the small Mediterranean country of Monte Negro that is 2,000 years old. We saw one on Brijuni Island in Croatia that is 1,600 years old. Most olive trees in production are heavily pruned which keeps their size small. These ancient olive trees, however are quite large. There are many, many species of olives in production in the world. In Italy there are well over 500 species. They range in color, shape, and size – from green, to red, to black, to brown – and from the size of a cherry to the size of crab apples. It is the species and ripeness that accounts for the color of olive oil, not the quality of the oil itself.

Olives can’t be eaten straight off the tree. They are tremendously bitter and slightly toxic to people. Somewhere along the line, people figured out how to cure them to make them edible. Olive trees are sexual and vegetative reproducers, meaning they are pollinated and produce seeds that can be planted and grown into new plants (sexual), and they can be cut down (or cut back) and new shoots will grow, which can be transplanted (vegetative.)

There are 4 primary species of olives used in Tuscan olive oil production: frontoio, moraiolo, leccino, and pendolino (the last is primarily for pollination.)


Olives are typically harvested in the first 2 weeks of November. If you wait later to harvest them, the olives will be more ripe, which will increase the quantity of oil you get from them, but not the quality. The best time for getting high quality olive oil is early November. Nets or parachutes are placed under the tree, and then long plastic combs or rakes are used to remove the olives from the tree. The harvested olives must be taken to press within 48 hours or quality begins to suffer.

There are basically two methods for pressing olives for oil (in Italy). The traditional method uses a large grinding stone to grind the olives into a pulp or paste. This paste is then spread on to large disks which are stacked on top of each other. The disks are then pressed with a large pressing mechanism and put into containers. In order to remove the water (which is very bitter) and any pulp from the oil, the liquid must be decanted. The oil floats to the top and is skimmed off and bottled. A slight modern variation on this method, is that decanters are rarely used these days, and instead the liquid is put through a centrifuge that sends the oil one direction, the water another direction, and the solids come out through the back of the machine. This discarded pulp material – called pumice – is used in a number of applications, including making it into pellets to burn for fuel.

The other more modern method involves putting the olives into a large stainless steel container, rinsing them in cold (or tepid) water, drying them briefly and then using a machine to grind them into a paste. The paste is then machine churned and put immediately into a centrifuge which separates the oil from everything else. This method can get the oil into the bottle more quickly and may make for a fresher tasting oil by the time it reaches the consumer.

Classifications of Olive Oil

There are four classifications of olive oil: extra virgin, virgin, olive oil, and pumice or SANSA oil. Both virgin and extra virgin olive oil are cold-processed, meaning no heat is used to extract the oil. Sometimes you will hear that virgin and extra virgin olive oil is the first pressing of the olives, which is true, but there is only one pressing of the olives. The difference between virgin and extra virgin has to do with the acidity of the oil. Extra virgin olive oil is less than .8% acid, and virgin is higher than .8%. The process is exactly the same. Pumice oil uses the pumice (or ground pulp) that is left over after the pressing process and uses heat and pasteurization to extract more oil from the pulp. This pumice oil is fine for consumption, it just isn’t very tasty. It is cheap and best used for cooking. Bottles labeled just “olive oil” are a blend of virgin olive oil and pumice oil. You can find all four kinds in stores in Italy, though in the U.S. you pretty much only find extra virgin and virgin.

One of the frustrating things about trying to find a good olive oil in the U.S. (or in Italy for that matter) is that the only way to tell if it is good quality is to taste it. There are lots of labeling “tricks” that are completely meaningless such as “Imported from Italy” which doesn’t tell you where the olives were grown, just that they were pressed in Italy and exported from Italy. “Pure olive oil” doesn’t tell you anything about quality. “Light olive oil” is similarly meaningless, unless they just mean light color. You can’t tell flavor and freshness by color. The best thing to look for on the bottle when trying to select a bottle of oil without tasting it is a harvest date or a sell by date. The fresher the oil, the better. If it is September, 2012 and you find a harvest date of November, 2011, that is the freshest you are going to find because the harvests are done in November. If the harvest date is November 2010, it is almost 2 years old and isn’t going to be as good. The sell-by date is stamped as 1 1/2 years from bottling. The oil doesn’t go bad – it will keep for a couple of years – it just won’t be as fresh and tasty as a newer batch. (You should store your olive oil in a dark bottle in a dark, cool location, by the way. If you want to have some handy for cooking, keep a small amount out at a time.)


This is the fun part. Todd poured us three different kinds of oil, in succession. He had us warm the oil by holding the bottom of the cup and swirling it around with our other hand over the top to keep the aroma from escaping. Then we were to smell, then take a good-sized sip. Enough to get the organic compounds and flavors swirling around on our taste buds. This is the best way to get the flavor of the oil itself without complicating it with other flavors, like bread. After you swallow, then you suck in air really fast toward the back of your throat. Really good olive oil will have a slightly peppery taste when you do that. It may have a slightly peppery taste without doing that.

The first one had almost no smell, and almost no taste. It was pumice oil. The second one had a smell like – well, olive oil. It was extra-virgin olive oil from the local supermarket. The third one smelled very green and herby – like cut grass or wheat grass. (It smelled really, really good.) It was also lighter viscosity, and it did have that characteristic peppery taste. It was from a small producer.


So what do you do with this wonderful olive oil, now that you’ve found it. In Tuscany, Italians don’t dip their bread in olive oil like we do. They do use it liberally on soups, salads, beans, roasted vegetables and as a vegetable dip. A platter of fresh vegetables in Italy won’t have ranch dressing in the middle, it will have good quality olive oil with a little salt and pepper on top for you to dip your veggies in. You can put olive oil directly on pasta or rice with a little parmesan cheese for a simple meal. This is especially good for kids if they have an upset stomach. You can gently heat up some olive oil and add a little garlic tiny dried red peppers (which you find everywhere here) to infuse the oil. Scoop out the garlic and peppers and put the infused oil on pasta.

Italians also cook with olive oil. When you use it for cooking, it loses a lot of its aroma and flavor and pretty much all its health benefits. You have to be careful not to get it too hot or it will burn. If you don’t get it hot enough and you’re using it to fry, it will absorb into the food too much and make it soggy or greasy. However, if you get the temperature right, it is just fine for cooking. Of course, you don’t want to use your very best olive oil for this.

Lots of stores now sell olive oil infused with garlic or peppers or herbs. There’s no reason to pay extra for that when you can do the same thing yourself at home. Keep your batches small and use them up frequently. Many Italian kitchens will have chili pepper infused olive oil to put on pizza.

That’s everything I can remember. If you have any other information about olive oil, by all means, post a comment and let us know. There are lots of health benefits of olive oil and I didn’t take good notes during that section of the class. If I got any of the details wrong, please help me get them right. Also, if you have any good sources for buying olive oil, either in Italy or in the United States, please let us know about that too.

Guess what these are

On one of our first evenings in Florence, we came across these beautiful, lighted objects near the Ponte San Trinità. They weren’t here last time we were in Florence and I was just delighted by them. Can you guess what they might be?

On closer inspection, we discovered that they were olive trees wrapped in some sort of white cloth and then lit from below. They were my favorite new addition to Florence, but then we went back to see them again a few days later and they were gone. We wondered if maybe they were holiday decorations. I guess I’ll have to come back to Florence again in the winter and see if they are here around the holidays.