Extra Virgin Olive Oil in Italy and in the world
Extra Virgin Olive Oil and Italy are bonded together by 4000 years of history.
The Italian Extra Virgin Olive Oil stands out for its quality and limited production.
Our yearly production is of about 200 thousand tons of Olive Oil, compared to the 1.2 Million tons of Oil production in Spain, which accounts for almost 50% of the world production.
In this blog post, you are going to learn the 25 key aspects of Extra Virgin Olive Oil. All the information come from the knowledge and experience I collected and studied through my life in Italy as a family producer of olive oil.
At the end of the reading, you will have a better understanding of the production of Olive Oil and how to choose wisely when purchasing your next bottle of Extra Virgin Olive oil.
Enjoy the Read and Share your thoughts and questions with me!
1. What's is 'Extra Virgin' Olive oil
Extra Virgin Olive oil, usually abbreviated as ‘EVO’ oil can be considered ‘Extra Virgin’ if it has been extracted by using mechanical (modern technique) or physical methods (like they used to do before with the stone and press) without being treaded chemically or by altering its temperatures. Of course, the only ingredient to be used to make Extra Virgin Olive Oil, are the olives.
Extra Virgin Olive oil is the highest quality olive oil you can buy, obtained by the FIRST press/extraction of the olives.
For the experts, EVO oil needs to:
- Contain NO more than 0.8% of oleic acid
- Have 0 defects
- Have a fruitness level greater than 0
- Have less than 20% peroxide*
*Peroxide: the oxide of an element that contains an unusually large amount of oxygen.
2. Unrefined vs. Refined Olive oil
Olive oil can be defined as unrefined and refined.
Unrefined oils are natural and unfiltered like the EVO oils.
Refined olive oil instead is treated (chemically) to remove defects (give by bad quality olives) to adjust it to consumers’ taste.
3. How is EVO oil different from the others
EVO oil can be categorised as unrefined oil as is extracted naturally, and usually has a golden-green colour, with distinctive smells, flavours and a bitter and peppery finish.
EVO oils must be obtained by the FIRST press of the olives, which is the purest and richest in antioxidants, polyphenols, minerals and vitamins.
4. What is the difference between EVO oil and 'Virgin' olive oil
EVO oil is obtained by the first press or extraction of the olives, instead, Virgin olive oil is obtained by the second press or extraction of the olives.
I have to be honest, I’ve just discovered recently that a second and third press could be possible. Having grown up in the countryside and with my family producing olive oil, I’ve never thought the ‘oil’ could also be produced with many press and chemicals.
5. When are the olives harvested in Italy?
The weather is changing, the Italian olive harvest each year is brought forward. My Grandpa used to tell me that they use to collect the olives under the snow in December. This year in Italy, the 2019 olive harvest season has already started in September.
6. How are the olives harvested?
By hand with sticks
By hand with rakes
By hand with a pneumatic/electric shaker/rakes
By a mechanical tree shaker
Using the first 3 harvesting methods, the olives fall into ‘reti’ nets previously placed. Once all the olives are off the tree, the nets are taken and emptied in open crates or jute sacks so that the olives can breathe and prevent fermentations.
Inevitably, together with the olives, there are going to be leaves and twigs that must be removed before extracting the oil.
The process of removing the leaves was once all manual work, now most of the olive mills have an automatic leaves’ cleaner that blows the twigs and leaves away.
At my home, as we don’t have a lot of olive trees, the whole process is still the ones used centuries ago! We make sure each olive is healthy and not broken and we remove by hand all the dirt. It’s a long process but rewarding.
7. Which harvesting method is better for the olives?
Good question! There are different theories. If you’re collecting by hand, the best way is to use hand rakes as the damage less the olives than the pneumatic rakes. If the olives are damages, fermentation can start quicker and affect oil’s quality. Hence, you should never collect fallen olives from the ground!
The mechanical tree shaker can only be used with certain olive trees, the trees shouldn’t be too old, and they have to be used to that kind of stress since they are planted. This method is expensive, and can’t be used on ordinary family’s trees, which often are old and on steep slopes.
In large olive oil production, I believe the mechanical tree shaker is the best method, as allows the olives to be collected with no damages and brought directly and quickly to the mill.
8. Where are the olives taken?
Sometimes I’m asked if Italians have their own olive mill. This case is not possible and has never been the case.
In fact, families and/or companies take their olives to their favourite olive mill. At the olive mill, they have all the machinery needed to extract the olive oil from the olives.
9. How to extract the olive oil
The main extraction methods used nowadays are the traditional and the ‘continuous’ method.
The traditional way of olive oil production is the method used in the past and still used by very few old mills today.
Large millstones crush the pulp and the olive stones, then follow the slow and continuing stirring of the olive paste, called malaxing.
It is often misbelieved that the oil is in the seed, however, it is found in the microcells of the pulp.
During the malaxing which can last for 20/40m (depending on the olives’ type and ripeness), these cells are crushed, facilitating the release of oil from the vacuoles.
On the next step, where the olive paste is distributed onto filter mats which are stacked in high columns and then pressed considerably so that the oil is extracted.
Called modern, or continuous method, the olives are crushed with the use of stainless steel rolling hammers.
As the olives are made up of 50% water, and 20-25% oil, after the crushing, the oil, which is lighter than the water, is separated from the vegetation water through centrifugation.
Depending on the producer, the oil can be filtered to remove suspended microparticles or just sold like this.
Is important that using this method, the temperature does not exceed 25-27 degrees in order to guarantee and preserve the natural aromas of the olives.
10. Traditional VS Modern method of olive oil extraction
No doubts! The winner is the Continuos method!
The contact with air during the extractions process of the traditional method starts the oxidation process that will affect the durability of the oil. The phenols will start disappearing sooner and the hygiene isn’t the best.
Let’s make an example: you’ve worked so hard to keep the olive trees healthy and organic, the season was at your favour, you collected the olives quickly, removed the bad ones and now it’s time to make your EVO oil. You go to the ‘traditional’ olive mill, but you don’t know that before you there were many people who didn’t care about their olive and perhaps they even gave some pesticides to their plants. When the filter mats will press you healthy and beautiful olives, the quality of your oil will be affected by the olives that were extracted before, and ultimately you will have an EVO oil with defects. Capisc!?
11. How much olives does an olive tree produces in Italy?
In the intense cultivation, used for the industrial EVO Oil production, each plant produces about 200kg (441 pound, 31.5 stones) of olives per plant.
From my personal experience, on average the olive groves in Abruzzo, especially small producers and family owned groves, produce 10/20kg of olives per plant. 10 or 20 times lower production, which definitely affects quality.
12. How many olives do I need to make 1 litre of EVO oil?
On average to make 1 litre of Extra Virgin Olive Oil, are needed about 8kg of olives.
What does it mean? It means if the season was favourable and the average production of olive was 12kg, you would make 1 bottle and half each tree. On our last family harvest in 2018, we only collected 3kg of olives per plant, so we needed to harvest 3 plants to make 1 litre bottle of Extra Virgin Olive oil.
13. How is the olive harvest in Abruzzo compared to the other parts of Italy?
Being 64% mountainous terrain means that picking olives in the Abruzzo Region is not the easiest task, as the slopes make it harder for the collection, the harsh weather like hailstones and snow can break the plants and destroy the harvest. Tree shakers cannot be used as most of the olive trees are old, and not easily accessible. For most of the families in Abruzzo, but also other parts of Italy, it is very hard to still make their own EVO oil.
14. What are the main threats for the olive production?
Since many years productions have decreased, due to the new illnesses of the plants.
The Dacus Oleae or called ‘mosca’ is a fly that lay eggs in the olive and suck nutrients from it. Once the eggs open up, the small larvas (warms) start digging small tunnels inside the olives, eating and po…ing inside them. This affects hugely the quality of the olive oil, hence why producers decide not to harvest at all!
The xylella fastidiosa is one of the most dangerous bacteria in the world. It’s carried from tree to tree by a tiny bug. Oil from an infected tree is still safe to consume, but the tree soon dries up and is no longer able to produce olives.
The diseases affecting the olive trees are many more than these, and each year it gets worst, also due to climate change.
15. Are olive trees treated?
Until the recent years, the olive tree were the only plants not to be treated at all. The plant would just need some little care and pruning to produce great olives. Unfortunately due to weather changes and the proliferation of these diseases, olive plants are starting to be treated.
Some producers use organic treatments such as ‘copper’ (also used for the grapes), or some natural relief, like placing honey traps for the flies.
However, the intensive olive oil production pushed by the market needs, has started since many years spraying chemicals on the olive trees. Perhaps is something we might not taste, but definitely would affect our body and inclination to food allergies and intolerances.
16. How long should the olives wait until before extracting the oil?
To avoid the start of spontaneous fermentation, the olives should be pressed within a few hours from the harvest.
17. How long can I keep EVO oil? Does the olive oil expire?
EVO oil is best used within a year, it maintains its flavour and aromas for a few months. Unlike wine, the more it stays and the more it loses its flavours and aromas. It doesn’t mean it is not good, but it just tastes less intensely.
18. How Extra virgin olive oil is best stored?
The best way to store the EVO oil or any other oils is to store it in bottles and keep it at room temperature (not above 27 degrees celsius) and dark place.
19. Are there different olive types?
Indeed, Italy is the country with most olive trees’ varieties (called cultivars) in the world.
Italy has more than 500 variates of olive trees, follows Spain with more than 300 cultivars.
20. Do all the Italian EVO 'olive oils' come from Italy?
We wish! When you buy a bottle of EVO oil, especially in supermarkets, make sure in the label says, ‘100% Italian’ olives. Some labels might say ‘Olives coming from the EU countries’ and you know that you should avoid them as the source is uncertain.
21. How much a good Italian Extra Virgin Olive Oil should cost?
When in Italy at least spend 13€ for a decent litre of Extra Virgin olive oil if you buy directly from the produces. The price fluctuates between 12 and 15€ depending on the season. Again, this is the price directly from the producer, and I’m referring to the Abruzzo region. Price might be higher in other parts of Italy.
Most commonly, if you want to be sure to get a great olive oil made professionally, at least expect to spend 10€ for a half-litre (50cl) bottle.
22. How can I recognise a good Italian Extra Virgin Olive Oil?
Certainly colour is not a sign to recognise a good quality EVO oil. The reason is that there are more than 500 varieties of olives in Italy, and they all have different colour, some greener and some toward yellow. The best way to ultimately recognise a good Italian Extra Virgin Olive oil, is to taste it!
23. Does EVO Oil makes you FAT?
The answer is no! Have you ever seen Italians, Spanish or Greeks? Are most of us fat?
Even though on average an Italian uses 13kg (28.6 pounds, 2 stones) of EVO Oil per year, we are generally not fat, and definitely if we are isn’t for the olive oil.
For any south Italian family, having quality olive oil at home is essential and vital. It’s the secret of our Mediterranean diet, and for making delicious food, tasty & healthy.
24. How do I taste the EVO olive oil?
First of all, oil is tasted plain, without bread. Bread or anything else affects aroma and flavours. Would you do a wine tasting by mixing your wine with lemonade or just even ice? No!
The way to start is by pouring some EVO oil in a glass. Next step is to cove the glass with one hand and rotate the glass back and forth on the other hand. The aim is to heat the oil at our body temperature. In this way, the olive releases stronger aromas. Do this for 30/40 seconds, then put your nouse in, and you should smell some aromas, like tomatoes leaves, almonds, fresh grass, etc. depending on the olive variety you have in front.
Next step is to drink some oil and let it drop on your thong. At this point, you should close your teeth and make two deep inhale through your closed teeth.
It sounds weird, and the first times it is! By doing this, you allow oxygen to come in and you will better feel and taste the aroma and flavours. You might cough, that’s completely normal, and hopefully if it is a good EVO olive oil, you should feel some spiciness/peppery feel in your throat. (I’ll upload a video as soon I can)
I suggest attending a professional olive oil tasting when in Italy. I usually run the tasting during the culinary tours I organise in Abruzzo. In some special occasion, we organise Extra Virgin Olive oil tasting day with professional Oil’s sommelier. Yes, there are even sommeliers for the olive oil.
Understand the terms of the olive oil and harvest of the olives. Download a summary of the most important used terms
25. Where can I find a good Italian extra virgin olive oil?
This is a hard question! I advise not to look in the supermarket, perhaps look for small Italian stores that import EVO oil and other products directly from Italy. I think the best way for you, is when you come to Italy and taste good olive oil from someone you trust, you should take the opportunity and bring some bottles back and ask them to ship Italian Extra Virgin Olive oil bottles at your home.
Is there a way to partecipare in the olive harvest in Italy?
The Olive picking season in Italy is limited to a few weeks between the end of September and beginning of October, though each year is uncertain when the harvest will start, so it’s hard to make plans. In Abruzzo, we are luckier as with both mountains and seaside, our olive harvest lasts longer and the olive in the mountains tend to ripe later than the coast.
If you are thinking to join the olive harvest in Italy, get quickly in contact with us at Experience BellaVita and we will try to organise an authentic olive harvest experience with locals and with professional olive oil tastings.
Watch the Italian Olive Harvest in Action
I hope you’ve enjoyed this blog post and now you can say what is an extra virgin olive oil, how is made and all the process and tips around the life of the olive oil. You’ve seen the big amount of work behind a simple bottle of pure Extra Virgin Olive oil.
We are what we eat, and that’s definitely right.
Quality Olive oil for us Italians and Mediterranean people is LIFE and vital part of our life. Share this post to Inform your friends and loved ones. Make your life healthier, and choose wisely your next bottle of EVO olive oil.