For many visitors to Rome, and Italy at large, a big part of their vacation is food and wine. Taking home a taste of Italy to evoke good memories or share your experiences with friends is the natural upshot of all those hours spent “a tavola”. Unfortunately, importing food into many countries outside of the EU single market, notably the US and UK, is administratively problematic, especially when it comes to any form of meat or alcohol. However, one truly Italian product that has a slick passage of entry is olive oil. The following article is a beginner’s guide to olive oil so you know what you are buying.
The pressing question
Olive oil classification varies across the world but all classes of oil are based on the extraction phase and method. The easiest way to picture this is how you prepare a glass of fresh orange juice. When you first squeeze your orange, juice readily fills the jug and moreover it’s the most intense juice. If you squeeze by hand there is a strong possibility that you will miss a section or two. Now, put the orange halves into a mechanical squeezer and the machine will extract more liquid, which is less intense and adulterated with pith etc. If you wanted to make orange liquor you’d take the orange husks and place them in pure alcohol with sugar to extract residual flavour. Pressing olives is similarly done in these three phases, first press, second press and third phase solvent extraction.
Who you calling a virgin?
Before olives go into a press they are mashed, pits and all, but only after being washed and separated from any leaves or wood. Be warned, oil that is very green is often the result of inefficient separation of olives from leaves and modern machine harvesting causes trees to lose more leaves as the fruit is shaken off. However, mechanical harvesting allows olives to be harvested in a shorter period when the fruit has optimal maturity - more oil without the acidity. Extra-virgin is in fact a label that only oils with less than 1% acidity can sport. Virgin olive oil has between 1 – 1.5% acidity and, to be blunt, is the oil that didn’t make the cut for extra-virgin.
Technology vs. tradition
Next how much oil you extract per pressing largely depends the efficiency of the press and, as far as the consumer is concerned, traditions wins over technology as inefficiency in the first pressing means more intense crude oil; a bit like hand squeezing our oranges. Still be warned, older presses do not have a rinse cycle between batches. In other words bad olive mash stays in the pressing cycle. Imagine how your orange juice would taste if one orange was part mouldy. The second glass would not taste a lot better too unless you washed your squeezer. On the other hand, modern presses can extract all but a minimal residual of oil and avoiding a second pressing is a big cost saving for the mill.
Turn down the heat
Pressing at higher temperatures increases the amount of oil extracted. Whenever I press my own olives, I always ask for a semi-fredo setting. This half-way house gives 20% + more oil than on the premium cold pressing. Hot pressing is typically used for a second pressing for olives that have had a first cold pressing. The two oils are a totally different colour, density and naturally price. In fact, if the oil costs less than 6 Euro / $7 a litre / 2.1 pints alarm bells should start ringing as it’s too cheap to be top grade.
The beauty of youth
Olives are a fruit and oil from a freshly pressed olive tastes better than oil that has been stored so buy and consume your oil young. The cloudier the oil the better as it indicates that the sediment in it has not had time to settle. Oil typically has a two year shelf life but you ideally need to consume it 12 months after pressing, which is Italy is always in November. It is by no chance that you find a lot of bargains around in September and October as producers push to clear out their stock.
As mentioned oil price is influenced by extraction method/phase and age, whilst the last variable is where it’s made. Italy is in fact second to Spain on quantity of oil produced as it was incidentally in ancient Roman times. However, quantity does not necessarily mean quality. Big brand olive oil blends oils from different countries and from different extraction methods but the brand name is always strangely Italian. The easiest analogy here is the difference between a malt whisky and a big brand blended whisky. The way to check to see if you are being hoodwinked is on the back of the bottle it must state the country of origin and when several country’s’ oils are involved it will say, “Oils from within the EU” or oil “predominantly from …”
D.O.P stands for Denominazione di Origine Protetta (Protected Destination of Origin). It is the official Italian classification awarded only to oil producers who rigorously respect the science of oil production and are located in specific areas that have an established olive oil tradition. The classification is also applied to other Italian foods so look out for the symbol. Else, your key words on the bottle label are “Extra-Virgin Olive Oil, produced by mechanical means only, first press, cold press”. A bottle of oil with these characteristics will set you back 8.00-9.00 Euro / $9.50 - $11.00 a litre depending on packaging. I recommend 0.5 litre metal cans for your suitcase and 5.00 cans for shipping. You can always find yourself a fancy bottle back home from which to pour the good stuff on your salads, bruchetta or grilled meat and fish.