Origins of Olive Oil
Olive oil has always been a pillar of the cultures of the Mediterranean basin.
Its origins and development have been possible through the many wars, conquests and trades across the Mediterranean.
In this article, we will trace its origins and the peoples who contributed to its commercial development.
The origins of Olive Oil started in the Middle East, Palestine to be precise, where have been found the oldest mills in the world from the 2000 BC. The cultivation of olive trees then spread throughout Egypt, Creates and all around the Mediterranean thanks to the Greeks and the Phoenicians. The Greeks brought olive trees to Italy and the Etruscians gave the name to its fruit: olive.
The Romans then spread the techniques of cultivation, pressing and storage throughout the Empire and imposed the payment of taxes in the form of olive oil, making it an extremely precious good of exchange. Olive oil has always been part of the day to day life with many different roles: besides food, it was used as a medicine, lamp fuel, religious and royal symbol, beauty and skin care.
All the good properties of Extra Virgin Olive Oil are now being rediscovered and the olive oil is coming back in our lives with a really strong presence.
Over 600 olive varieties just in Italy
Believe it or not, there are over 600 different varieties of olives planted all around Italy, and each one of them produces its own characteristic oil. Olive varieties are technically called ‘cultivar’ so if an Evoo is made only by one cultivar, then that oil will be a monocultivar oil.
When an oil is made by more than one cultivar, then we are in front of a blend. Monocultivar (monovarietal) of Evoo are becoming more common during the last few years as producers want to make extremely high quality Evoos, highlighting the properties of their own territory and promoting the different organoleptic properties of each cultivar.
The cultivar Frantoio, for example, is one of the most famous cultivar in Italy. Native of the region of Tuscany, where it produces a good fruity flavor, with scents of raw artichoke and fresh grass and a delectably peppery aftertaste, but it is also found in other regions even in australia. In these areas, the Frantoio would express different properties depending on the territory where it is cultivated.
The Tonda Iblea, on the other hand, is a native cultivar of the Monti Iblei in Sicily, more precisely in and around Chiaramonte Gulfi and Ragusa. This cultivar is not found anywhere else as needs the altitude to express at its best the aromatic components that makes its oil so unique. Tomato is the key word: fresh green tomato with a hint of tomato leaf. There is also a hint of artichoke and freshly cut grass, that balances the tomato and offers an elegant and yet full of flavour Evoo.
Not to forget the Coratina, which together with San Felice from Umbria, are the Evoos that present the highest level of polyphenols. They are therefore more intense and pungent but also retain all their properties for much longer than other oils and, if we can say it, even healthier than other Evoos.
Coratina olive trees are majestic, the yield is pretty high and the provinces of Bari and Foggia boast some of the oldest olive trees in the whole country. The Coratina variety is the most planted in Italy (8%) and the whole Puglia region produces over 50% of the total Italian production of Extra Virgin Olive Oil. These are the the origins of olive oil!
Denominations of Origins of Olive Oil in Italy
During the last decades many institutional associations have worked together with producers in order to promote and enhance the culture of high quality Evoo. One example is the ‘Consorzio Olio DOP Chianti Classico’. Founded in 2001, the Consortium is still using, after more than 30 years, the same qualitative criteria to decide whether an Evoo deserves the Chianti Classico label.
Obtaining the DOP certification (protected denomination of origin), requires binding commitment and technical severity as it has to strictly reflect the characteristics of the territory that is in. The main requirement asked from the DOP is that all the steps, from the agricultural side to the production, to the transformation, process, bottling and packing, has to be made inside the DOP area.
The IGP (PGI Protected Geographical Indication), on the other hand, requires that at least one of the steps of the production is made in the indicated area.
In order to obtain the PGI at least one phase of the production process must take place in a particular area.
Whoever produces PGI must follow the strict production rules established in the production disciplinary, and the respect of these rules is guaranteed by a specific control body.