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An insider's view of Tuscany

Raymond Lamothe Facebook



A short explanation of the different denominations.

Italy is one of the major producers of olive oils, but it is rather easy to get lost in the complicated distinctions and meanings of the denominations and qualifications that these oils are given. The ones I am most familiar with are the Tuscan Olive Oils, so I will be more precise in describing these for you. My aim is to give you a good general grasp of what the world of olive oil is all about.

Let’s consider two separate aspects of this wonderful product: the plants that produce olives, and the actual olive oil. One of the things of interest that many people aren’t aware of is that there are several thousand cultivar varieties of olive trees in the world. They generally vary quite a lot from region to region and country to country. The cultivation of the olive tree has always been centered on the Mediterranean countries, with Italy, Spain, Greece, and now some of the Arab countries such as Tunisia, representing the major productions.

Italy itself uses nearly one thousand different olive varieties. They run from the smaller trees that line the lakes in northern Italy and produce a few kilograms of olives per plant to the huge olive trees in the Puglia region that yield hundreds of kilograms each. The olive tree is cultivated from sea level up to a maximum altitude of 700 meters. Above that, it gets too cold in winter for it to survive.

In Tuscany the major cultivars that are used (and specified by the various consortiums that control and regulate the individual denominations) are: Frantoio, Correggiolo, Moraiolo, and Leccino, with smaller quantities (usually up to a total of 20%) of Maurino and Pendolino (these are called “pollinators” because they serve to pollinate the flowers of the other plants, although they also produce olives – they are not really male and female plants, the distinction is exquisitely botanical and I will not dwell on it as it would take pages to explain).

The olive is an evergreen plant. It spends the winter resting, but alive, with its leaves green and continuing to photosynthesize, but with most of the plant’s lymph pulled down into the roots to protect it from freezing temperatures. Freezing rain that can stick to the tree are its worse enemies. Parasites instead, rarely affect the tree, but either attack its leaves or the olives once they are developing.

At the end of winter, the olive tree begins to vegetate on a larger scale, filling in with new branches and leaves. Then, in an arc of time - depending on the area and the outside temperatures - that runs from early may to mid June, it first produces buds that look like tiny olives, which then turn into small not very significant flowers (see the pictures at the bottom of the page). Once pollinated, the wind and the rain clean the flowers off the trees, and after a short time the tiny olives will appear.

The olives will continue to grow and mature through to late November, but are generally harvested when still not totally ripe, from late September to early November. The reason for this early harvest is to preserve the “spiciness” in the olives that will then be carried into the oil, and also to avoid having them fall to the ground. A ripe olive drops immediately from the tree, but olives on the ground immediately start to oxidize and are not usable.

The Denominations: there are an incredible number of subdivisions of olive oil. The ones you really should consider are the DOP Olive Oils (Protected Denomination of Origin, which means that they are from a specific set of varietals, and from a certain region, and picked and pressed according to standard protocols), the IGP oils (Protected Geographical Indication, which means they are from a specific area, for example Tuscan IGP), and then the vast line of Extra Virgin Olive Oils.

To detail this with more precision, let us take the Chianti Classico DOP Olive Oil. It is produced from the varietals I mentioned earlier; the olive must be pressed within three days of harvest to ensure that there is no oxidation in progress; the maximum temperature at pressing is of 28° centigrade; the total acidity, expressed in oleic acid, is a at a maximum of 0,5%; the olive oil produced is sampled, analyzed and presented to a special tasting panel in order to be awarded the DOP classification. The same goes for the DOP Colli Senesi Olive Oil, while most of the IGP Olive Oils have a total acidity that may run up to a maximum of 0,6%. Extra Virgin first press olive oil, which is the most common you will find, and still of very high quality, can reach a maximum of 1% acidity.

Now, to confuse you a little more, lesser quality productions run under the qualification of generic olive oil, and this can also be a blend of different kinds of oil and it can be a) from different countries, b) from different years, c) reach up to 1.5% acidity. It is fine to use to fry with, but you will be hard-put to find an Italian who uses this lower quality oil to put on his salad or on his steak. And, last but not least, the denominations encompass one another, in the sense that a DOP olive oil is also an IGP oil and it is also an extra virgin olive oil – all at the same time. The reverse is not true.

Many producers will obtain the DOP denomination for their oil, then bottle part of it as DOP, and part of it as Extra Virgin Olive Oil, so that they can satisfy all their clients. It is interesting to note, for those of you who also follow some of the cooking programs on Television, that many chefs still do not understand the difference between an Extra Virgin Olive Oil and DOP Olive Oil. It will take a few more years for it to be clear to everyone. One last note, if an oil of any of the denominations has the added classification of "Biologico" on it, this means that it is produced from olive groves that have not been chemically treated - the equivalent of "Organic".



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