Extra virgin olive oil is the name usually given to the first oil extracted from fresh olives by a mechanical process. In Italy there is also a law that says that to be considered “extra virgin” olive oil the product can’t have more then 1% acidity. So, anyway, it must be still manufactured and not be produced with industrial systems – and that’s why the best quality olive oil is produced in a small quantity.
Tuscan extra virgin olive oil is well-known all around the world for its quality and for its unique taste, which is given for its low acidity, much less than 1% (0,4% - 0,6%). Actually, most of olive oil producers in Tuscany are small or medium sized companies, many times family based, and keep the traditional method to produce extra virgin olive oil, even if nowadays it is combined with modern technology.
In Tuscany there are 3 main species of olive trees: Frantoiano, Moraiolo and Leccino, that usually don’t get so tall as southern species; moreover the producers don’t want them to grow too much, because they prefer to pick olives by hand or maybe using some manual instrument to help.
The reason for that is why they don’t want to wait the olives to get mature and fall on the ground – like they do in South Italy, leaving nets on the ground and waiting them to fall – but they want to pick them when they are still green, otherwise they become too acid. That is the main reason why Tuscan olive oil is smoother than others.
In Tuscany, the harvest starts on the first days of November, so its an early harvest, and can last till the first days of December. This is when all olive oil production for the year will happen, because it is important to crush the olives in the same day as they have been harvested, otherwise they will ferment and give a more acid and less quality olive oil. This is very important and explains why it is very hard to have a big production.
Olive crushing is a very ancient method, that normally is made using 3 or more wheels of granite that turn over a disc of granite there is put on the bottom. Once upon a time, the wheels where moved by the force of animals, but nowadays it mechanic and turns very fast. The granite stone is so hard and rough that is able to crush the olives with pits. There exist also stainless steel olive mills nowadays, but many Tuscan producers still have the granite stone wheels.
Immediately after the olives are crushed, this pulp of olives will pass through the extraction process. There are many ways to extract pure olive oil from the pulp, the most known is the olive press. So, the pulp will be pressed at environment temperature (cold press) – nowadays only stainless steel is used – releasing the olive oil through some wholes. This is the extra virgin olive oil.
Many companies can produce virgin olive oil (acidity from 1 to 2 %) or “sansa” (normal olive oil, with more than 2% acidity, in Italy used only to fry) by pressing the remaining pulp the second or third time, adding hot water, that helps to release more quantity of oil. Its like when you wash your dishes, the fat comes out easily if you use hot water.
But the problem is that the heating will impact on the quality of the olive oil obtained, and it will not be so pure anymore, because only the first press gives you the purest olive oil.
There are other two methods to extract the olive oil: a centrifuge or the “sinolea” system. The Sinolea system is the most modern way to extract extra virgin olive oil. In this case there is only one passage, so only extra virgin will be extracted.
It works with many small stainless steel blades that turn slowly and continuously passing through the pulp and attract the olive oil to it while the remaining pulp leaves through the back of this machine. The olive oil little by little will drop down a stainless steel vat, so it is not even pressed. The rest of the pulp can be used or sold to extract the virgin olive oil.
The last step is the filtration but it is not necessary. Actually Italians prefer to consume not filtered olive oil, because it remains always some particles in the oil, and they say that the oil is more flavoured. But in time this will sediment and also ferment, changing the characteristics of the olive oil, so the fresher the better.
In Tuscany, as many people produce olive oil also for their own consumption, they prefer to use the new oil on salads, soups, meat and the last-year-olive-oil to cook. The companies that sell and export extra virgin olive oil usually filters it, to avoid that its taste and colour change in a short time. It will change anyway, but will take more time instead if it was not filtered.
Olive oil doesn’t really get bad after a certain time, but surely it changes colour and gets a little less taste. But a curiosity is that olive oil helps to preserve food in time, that where comes from the Italian typical “sottolio” – which means under oil. This is cooked vegetables kept in a mixture of extra virgin olive oil, salt, pepper and vinegar that can stay outside the refrigerator for a certain time. It was one of the ancient methods to preserve food.
Tuscan extra virgin olive oil is usually very green and tastes very spicy, you can feel a light burning in your throat while swallowing, because of the kinds of olive trees cultivated in Tuscany and because they are picked very early. Besides, for this reason, it’s very different from any kind of olive oil produced in Italy or any other country.
Many of our villas are located inside or close to estates which produce both wine and extra virgin olive oil; come and enjoy it!
Adriana Lucchesi for Tuscany - villas .com
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