Oil can be classified with the DOP designation. Some regions also have their own system of classification and accreditation. Extra-virgin olive oil is produced in all regions of Italy except Piedmont and Aosta. The leading regions in terms of production are Liguria, Tuscany (which has many different varieties), Umbria, and Apulia (where one third of the total production is found).
Italy produces over half a million tonnes of oil per year; this amounts to about 20% of the world's production making it the second biggest producer after Spain (which makes about 40%). Whilst northern European countries consume about half a kilo of oil per person per year, in Italy this figure is over 12 kg per person per year (behind only Spain which consumes just a little more and Greece which consumes over twice as much).
The pressing of oil dates back to about 3000 BCE. It's generally believed that the olive tree originated in Greece (it's one of the earliest cultivated trees) and then spread to Italy as the Greeks moved into the south of the country.
In Rome the oil was infused with aromatic flowers and grasses and used not only as food but as medicine and cosmetics. It was also used in shaving
Once the olives have been picked they are taken to the processing plant. These are often quite small and situatted close to where the olives are grown. Olives have to be processed soon after picking since they are prone to mould if left too long; if the pressing isn't going to happen for a few days then they're turned regularly so the skin does not spoil.
First twigs and other debris is removed from the olives. In the most traditional method the olives are washed then crushed and pitted between two large rolling stones. What results is a kind of mush which is gently spun so the water drains off. This leaves a pulp which is layered between sheets of cotton and pressed slowly (to avoid friction heat) so the oil drips off.
The oil that drips off is classed as "cold pressed" (spremitura a freddo). This oil is usually the most expensive. "Cold pressed" simply means that no heat was used above about 60 degrees; this is important as greater temperatures destroy the healthy and useful antioxidants in oil.
Cold pressed oil which has no more than 2% - 4% acidity is also known as "virgin" since it has not been modified in any way. If it contains no more than 1% acidity then it's classed as "extra virgin" and this is the most desirable kind of oil.
Fine Virgin Oil, Superfine Oil, Olive Oil, and Pure Olive Oil are lesser grades. These are often produced using a chemical method which extracts much more oil but of lower quality. It is known as olio di sansa and used for caning fish and suchlike.
Some fine oils are unfiltered which leaves the oil cloudy. This indicates the freshness of the oil since the sediment will fall to the bottom of the container over time and leave the oil clear.
Extremely high quality oils - which may have an acidity of as little as 0.3% - are very expensive and difficult to find. This is because very high quality oil can only be produced in small quantities; this is then blended with good, although lower quality oil and as long as the resulting acidity is no more than 1% it is all classed as extra virgin.
Origin & Issues
Most Italian oil is not from Italy. EU law allows that olive oil can be bought from anywhere and as long as it is blended with Italian extra virgin oil then it can be labelled as a "product of Italy". Most of the oil comes from Spain and North Africa; the majority of Greek olive oil is exported to Italy for blending and relabelling.
Following scandals involving mis-labelled oil, the government introduced legislation whereby bottles should list all the oils present and where they came from. However the EU overruled the law saying that it could only be done voluntarily by the producers and was not mandatory.
Olive oil lasts about 18 months to two years if it is stored correctly, that is in a cool, dark place. If it is stored in sunlight then it will go off much sooner (less than 12 months). Containers should always be sealed well as exposure to air destroys the antioxidants.
Oil can be frozen but this is not recommended.
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