Olive oil as well as the olive tree holds an important place within the lives of the people of the Mediterranean. The olive tree is regarded as a symbol of peace closely connected to religious practices; however, olive oil has also traditionally been used as medicine, makeup, an anointment, and above all as food. Although olive cultivation first occurred in the Eastern part of the Mediterranean, Italy has perfected its process and is well known for its production today. Olive oil production in Italy is highly traditional and is one of the production processes that still closely follow its original roots. Olive oil has recently gained popularity in regions outside the Mediterranean due to the discovery of its health benefits; however, the Mediterranean and Italy would not be the countries that they are today without their large dependence on the olive tree and olive oil throughout the centuries. Olive oil has shaped Italy into the country that it is today.
The olive tree is a unique type of evergreen that grows in subtropical climates in both the northern and southern hemispheres. It grows between 10 and 40 feet tall and produces small clusters of white flowers in late spring which eventually grow into olives. Similar to grape vines, olive trees do not start producing olives until the age of eight; however, even then these olives cannot be used. The olive tree must mature until the age of at least fifteen for it to produce a worthwhile crop but once this stage is hit the olive tree will produce olives for the next 65 years and continue to live for long after that even for several hundred years. There are hundreds of varieties of olive trees, each excelling in the production of different products. Italy is the second leading producer of olives following Spain; however, Italy is considered the world leader in quality. Similarly, Italy is the leader in the consumption of olive oil.
The cultivation of olives is believed to have been begun by the Minoans of Crete in Greece in 5000 BC. Certainly, remains of mortars and presses used for olive oil extraction were found within the Minoan Palaces in Crete. Through the movements and expansion of the Greek diaspora olive trees were introduced into Sicily, Southern France, and parts of Spain c. 800 BC. It is during this time that the olive oil trade became a large business as evinced by the remains of oil jars found in Crete. The Greeks sparked the beginning of the cultivation and trade of olive oil; however, the Romans further developed this market. In the early Roman Empire, olive cultivation had not yet begun in Italy though olive trees were present; instead the Romans relied on other well known producers in areas such as Spain. This concept is important for further expansion of the Roman Empire resulted in a greater increase in its olive oil trade. Nevertheless, once Greek power was eliminated and all of the Mediterranean was under the Roman Empire olive oil production began properly in Italy. Italy, however, surpassed Greece in its quality and taste as early as the first century AD. ‘According to the historian Pliny, Italy had ‘excellent olive oil at reasonable prices’ by the first century AD, ‘the best in the Mediterranean,’ he maintained’ (Olive Oil History 1).
With the fall of the Roman Empire the olive oil industry was practically destroyed like many of the other industries at the time. Olive cultivation greatly declined and due to the Barbarian invasions butter became present in areas that were always heavily based in olive oil. Nevertheless, olive oil did not disappear into history like garum. After all, olive tree as well as olive oil held a strong position within Catholicism which represents the religious beliefs of the Mediterranean. Religious communities helped olive oil to regain its important position and helped to maintain the cultivation of olives in Italy. Remember that the olive leaf brought to Noah by the dove represents the end of the flood. In the New Testament, the washing of Jesus’ feet by Mary Magdalene and anointed with oil was similarly well known. Outside of the Bible, olive oil was used within every part of the Catholic religion. Traces of olive oil were found soaked into the bones of saints and martyrs which were used as a form of anointment. Olive oil was also used as the oil for the Oil of Catechumens, Oil of the Sick, the Rites of Baptism, the Sacrament of Confirmation, and the Ordination of priests and bishops.
Since olive oil production dates back to 5000 BC its production is based on tradition. Unlike most products these days olives are one of the few industries in which mechanization is not usually present. This is due to the fact that olives are easily damaged resulting in a lower quality of oil. Therefore it is believed that the quality of oil decreases with the increase of mechanization. Since olives must be treated gently better olive oils are more expensive because they must be handpicked. There are two different ways to handpick olives. The first way is considered to be best method because it will result in the least damage to the olives which will produce the best quality of olive oil; however this also means that it is the most expensive. This method involves hand picking the olives and placing them directly into a basket, which is known as brucatura. The second method involves handing picking the olives but letting them drop to the ground onto a net. This can damage the olives and therefore resulting in an inferior olive oil. This method also allows for plastic rakes or wooden sticks to be used to help beat down the mature olives; this is known as bacchiatura.
Olive harvesting takes place at different times depending on the area. In most of the Mediterranean olive harvesting occurs in the months of November, December, and January; however, in the more Northern areas such as Tuscany olive harvesting must be carried out earlier due to early frosts. Indeed, in this region olive harvesting begins as early as September. The different times in which olives are harvested results in the different tastes of each region’s olive oil. The younger olives of Tuscany result in a peppery taste. Similarly their young age produces less oil making their olive oil scarcer. Since each olive contains about 20 percent oil it takes an average of around 200 olives to produce one liter of olive oil. The weather can also affect the outcome of the harvest. Any form of moisture during harvesting has the potential to damage the olives since they are more likely to spoil in their crates. Therefore, olive harvesting must be carried out before the rainy season hits Italy resulting in an earlier harvest season than other areas.
Immediately after harvesting is completed the olives are taken to a frantoio, which is the communal mill. The frantoio is a large part of the production process of olive oil in Italy and truly maintains the traditional roots of olive oil production. Since the frantoio is a communal mill each farmer must make an appointment for his pressing. It is important that the olives do not stay in the baskets for too long since the risk of spoiling is very high. Usually the olives will only be stored within their baskets for no longer than a day. This makes it very important to make an appointment at the frantoio at a proper time. Each farmer holds great pride for his olives and his olive oil. Therefore, it is very common for the farmer to accompany his own olives through the production process to ensure that only his olives go into his pressing. A farmer’s main concerns when going to the frantoio is the yield of oil obtained per olive and the percent of acidity. For olive to be considered extra virgin it must have an acidity level lower than 8 percent and must be the result of the first pressing of the olives.
All the production done at the frantoio is mechanical, unlike the harvesting process. Before any change to the olive occurs the olives must first be washed to remove extra leaves and stems that are unwanted. The first change to occur is the grinding of the olives. This grinding process involves the crushing of the entire olive including the skin and the pit by a large granite wheel. This process results in a sort of olive paste which is then put through the mixing stage. This stage is the most important since it has the most affect on how the olive oil will come out. Therefore, this process is done very slowly to ensure the consistency of the oil. Next the liquid must be extracted from the remaining paste through the process of pressing. Pressing results in a liquid that must be separated into water and oil. This is done by a centrifuge which removes the water from the oil leaving us with the unfiltered extra-virgin olive oil. Once this process in complete the olive oil will be stored in steel tanks and stored in a cool place before bottling.
Today olive oil has gained importance for the health benefits it provides, but to the people of the Mediterranean olive oil has always played a leading role in their diet and way of life. The Mediterranean Diet is based on the use of olive oil which is believed to be the reason for their lack of health problems. ‘It is considered one of the few truly healthy oils because it is a mono-unsaturated fat with high amounts of potent anti-oxidants, and a low content of cholesterol’ (Piergiorgio 4). The consumption of olive oil is now believed to reduce the risk of heart disease and is associated to the lower incidences of heart disease in the areas where the Mediterranean Diet is present. However, this is not the reason that olive oil plays such a large role in the Mediterranean and Italy. Olive oil is what gives such a distinct taste to the Italian cuisine and even within the different regions in Italy. Olive oil is the basis for ever Italian dish as well as their religious practices.
Homer called it ‘liquid gold’ and to Italians that is exactly what olive oil is. Olive oil dates back to the 5000 BC and is brought to Italy by the Greeks; however, it was Italy who perfected the production process and increased the quality. Olive oil has remained a large part of Italians’ lives due to its use in religious sacraments as well as the basis for their diets. Each region produces different styles of olive oil each based on the traditional production within the region. Olive oil production remains true to its traditions which can be seen in the large use of hand picking over machinery, as well as in the use of the frantoio. While Italy is not the largest producer of olive oil it is certainly known to be the best. Each individual farmer takes pride in the production of olive oil and the lack of large producers allows for the olive oil industry to maintain the character that can be tasted in Italian olive oil. While recent popularity of olive oil is based on the newly discovered health benefits, olive oil is valued in Italy for its taste above everything else. The Italian diet is heavily based on the use of olive oil and would not be the same without it. The ability for Italy to produce its own olive oil in the traditional way allows for Italy to stay connected to its roots through the most important and valued product in Italian life.
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Piergiorgio, By. ‘How Olive Oil Is Made: Olive Trees, Harvesting & Cold Pressed Olive Oil.’ Authentic Italian Food Italian Cooking, Recipes & More | DeLallo. Web. 5 Dec. 2010.
Stefanoudaki, Evangelia ‘The Olive Pit and Roman Oil Making’ JSTOR 3rd ser. 59 (1996): 171-78. The American Schools of Oriental Research. Web. 1 Dec. 2010.
For a discussion of the vicissitudes of olive tree cultivation in Italy, see our review of Allen Grieco’s essay on the subject.Tags: Ancient, Olives and Olive Oil