The Italian olive oil: an excellence to defend and promote

Gianluca Atzeni

Olive oil, grain and wine. For thousands of years, Mediterranean culture is based on these three elements, representing three pillars of agriculture and the Mediterranean diet, UNESCO's intangible heritage. Compared to the other two, the oil is, however, regarded as a younger brother. In fact, communication and mass media (from the web to television) They are rich in information on grain, flours, pasta, bread and pizza; They are even more rich in details and information about wine, on its fundamental role in the Italian economy (worth about one point of gross domestic product). The Italian olive oil, instead, It is discussed too little. And it is a mistake.

In the last and recent years, However, there has been a growing interest in olive oil. Both because the nutrition and diet have become a central issue in Italy and all over Europe, and because consumers are more careful than ever to the health properties of foods. Olive oil is one of the foods that are best suited to these features. Is, from now, the Sicilian site Creative wants to open a window on the oil of Italian olive oil, to make a contribution to communication on this Italian food excellence and southern European. Concrete support also to the file for candidacy “Mediterranean olive culture” as UNESCO intangible heritage.

Old olive trees in the Salento – photo credits Unaprol

From Asia Minor in the middle of the Mediterranean

From Asia Minor to Greece and, then, Italy. The history of olive oil is very old and we have to the Greek people and, Later, those Etruscan and Roman, the fact that today our supply can boast this exceptional product of the earth. In ancient times, The olive tree was probably not known by the people of the Assyrians and Babylonians, while it was already known to the Egyptians and Armenians. The olive tree (Olea europaea) that we know today is the result of a series of crosses and attempts at domestication operated sull'olivastro Wild. This plant does companionship to man for thousands of years. It could be, According to some sources, the first plant domesticates man, testimony of a close relationship and deep.

Historical sources say that it was on Syria to begin the actual cultivation of the olive taming the wild olive (6.000 years ago), but it was the Greeks the first to cultivate this tree on a large scale, following precise rules agricultural. For the Phoenicians about to have spread in North Africa and southern Spain. The Carthaginians performed the first implants. For it would be for Romans, instead, the merit of using processing methods that are close to modern: But it is likely that the Greeks were using similar techniques, as squeezing obtained with the screw presses.

Italian Olive Green

L'era Romanian

The Latin writers who have dealt with agriculture (Catone, Columella, Pliny) witnessed numerous olive preservation techniques. The black olives preserved, green olives salted, crushed olives and put in oil. The olives were a starter and a fine meal at the time of the Romans, as evidenced by the poet and historian, Marcus Valerius Martial, lived in the first century.

Columella describes in great detail the so-called "Roman crusher": a rigid masonry base with over a cylinder-shaped stone, crushing olives, thanks to the strength of a donkey that rotates. Examples of other types of presses, instead, such as those based on the use of the beam, They have been found in Crete and the Cyclades islands.

The fall of the Western Roman Empire, in the fifth century, It causes a strong decline in the oil trade and a progressive abandonment of crops. The oil business picks up again after the year one thousand thanks to trade the republics of Venice and Genoa in the Mediterranean. Its use in this period was mainly linked to the lighting and the production of soap. GRazie to Spanish settlers, the oil spreads also in the Americas, while the Dutch export it to South Africa.

In the Middle Ages, an important role in the olive spread (as well as of viticulture) I have played the monastic communities, who kicked off the remediation of numerous Everglades then transformed into vineyards and olive groves. During the Renaissance, olive growing lived one of its moments of decisive development, when the Medici dynasty, in Florence, decided to grant free hilly terrain to those who undertook to cultivate olive trees. The fruits of these forward-looking policies are still visible in the oil of great quality that produces the Tuscany region.

The olive tree (Olea Europaea)

From the botanical point of view, The olive tree belongs to the family Dicotiledonee, Oleaceae group and only grows in warm climate, temperate and warm (hates moisture and the cold), in preference in calcareous and rocky soils. The Mediterranean basin is his home. The tree can reach to almost 15 meters high, It has a twisted trunk and often hollow inside. The first fruits arrive after about 10 years of plant life, that reaches around the fortieth year period of increased productivity. The olive tree is a long-lived tree, often centennial and millennial in some cases. The olive tree is called 'the eternal tree', because it is capable of spontaneously regenerate diseased or damaged parts. Even when it looks dead, from the base of the trunk (ceppaia) the olive tree is able to flourish again.

Types of olive oil

The European Regulation (1989/2003) classifies the types of olive oil, that can be placed on the market:

  • EXTRA VIRGIN OLIVE OIL, obtained by pressing of the olives by mechanical or physical processes without chemical manipulation and with free oleic acidity not greater than 0,8%.
  • VIRGIN OLIVE OIL, such as extra virgin is obtained by crushing the olives by mechanical or physical processes without chemical manipulation and with a maximum free acidity oleic not more than 2%. Is’ a lower quality extra virgin olive oil.
  • OLIVE OIL , It is a mixture of virgin olive oil and refined olive oil. The maximum free oleic acid is 1%.
  • OLIVE POMACE OIL, It consists of oils obtained by processing olive pomace (the solid residues from the processing of olives: peel, pulp and core crushed) and oils obtained directly from olives. The maximum free oleic acid is 1%.
  • It can not however commercialize OIL LAMPANTE, an oil which presents organoleptic defects serious, an acidity greater than 2%. This oil, however,, subjected to chemical refining processes, Once a refined and mixed virgin olive oil, becomes OLIVE OIL, that can be marketed and consumed.

The olive growing numbers in Italy

In the Italian peninsula, areas that in ancient times have been indicated among the most important for the cultivation of olive are Taranto (in Puglia), Sibari (In Calabria), Venafro (in Molise, very famous in Roman times), the territories of Sabina (Lazio), Piceno (Brands) and Liguria. Today, The olive tree is cultivated almost throughout Italy and the world of olive it consists of over 820,000 farms, 4,500 active oil mills and more than one million hectares of cultivated land.

Largely (about 60%), Italian companies that produce olive oil are medium to small and family-run. Another part, about 40%, It consists of companies organized, structured, more specialized and market-oriented. Puglia, Calabria, Sicily, Lazio and Tuscany are the most important regions from the production point of view. The high number of mills on the Italian territory (in Spain are around 1,600) guarantees of milling operations of very rapid olives, often within 24 hours of collection (pressing). And this is a fundamental requirement for the quality of olive oil.

an age-old olive tree in Brancati Masseria in Ostuni in Puglia

Ostuni, Puglia – millennial olive farm in Brancati

Italy's second largest producer and biggest consumer

World production of olive oil is concentrated in the Mediterranean Sea basin. Italy, however, can claim the distinction of the first country in the world for the consumption of olive oil. And it is the second manufacturer (15% of the oil produced) after Spain (45%), before Greece, Turkey and Tunisia. together, These five countries account for about 60% of world production, that is 3 on average.000 tons. In the last ten years, However, Italy has seen dramatically reduce the quantities of oil, by over 40 percent.

The Italian production of olive oil, though, It does not meet the national demand. We do not produce enough of Italian olive oil for our needs and, then, our country has to buy oil outside its borders. Keep in mind that, compared with world consumption of fats, olive oil accounts for about 5%. And this is an indication of how the market will grow in quantity.

Olives in Abruzzo, a Notaresco (Teramo)

Olive oil quality Italian

Italy also has another European record. What quality. In fact, regarding the most valuable oil, the extra virgin olive oil, Italy can boast the highest number of awards in the world. With 46 brands recognized denomination (42 Dop and Igp 4), Italy covers 40% of approved oils throughout the European Union. Greece and Spain each have 29 brands. The oil DOP and IGP, However, It represents a very small part of the whole market: It does not exceed 3% of the total amount and 6% in value (according to the data Ismea).

Among the 46 Italian names, the top five account for 75% of national production: Terra di Bari, Toscano IGP, Val di Mazara, Umbria, Sicilia IGP. But equally important are the Riviera Ligure districts, Hyblaean Mountains, Garda, Valli Trapanesi, Sardinia, Dauno and Salernitane Hills.

Meleto Castle – Tuscany – olive oil

A heritage of cultivating 650

The cultivar is a variety of agrarian a botanical species. The Italian olive oil is very rich heritage. Italy has a National Register of olive varieties, which has about 650 different types, including those for oil and those for the canteen (olives are eaten whole or processed), from the most ancient to modern experimental crosses. A biodiversity that is unparalleled and represents the richness of the heritage Italian olive.

David behling, President of Unaprol (Italian olive consortium), He explained that "the model of Italian olive growing is the most sustainable in the world: small productions, very different from area to area, even within one and the same areal, around which Italy must build a production model, in diversity, accentuate the value ". In essence, the Italian olive oil "represents the territory and it is the sentinel". Crusher, leccino, moraiolo, Nocellara of the Belice, coratina, sweet, taggiasca. They are some of the main types of Italian olives, that give rise to extra virgin olive oils of high quality and among the most diverse and varied.

Puglia – olive trees – photo credits Unaprol

The Italian olive oil figures

  • in 2019 it was produced in Italy about 230.000 tons of olive oil (Confagricoltura estimates on Istat and ISMEA)
  • in Italy there are 820.000 farms, 4,500 active oil mills, and over 1 million hectares of cultivated land
  • are 538 cultivars of olive oil in Italy to be surveyed, of which about 300 are actually in production
  • in Italy there are 42 Dop, 4 IGP, 76 presidi Slow Food

World production of oil in 2018

  • in the Mediterranean basin it produces 95% of global oil
  • Italy has produced 175.000 tons of olive oil (-59% on 2017)
  • Spain has produced 1,8 million tons of olive oil (+42,5% on 2017)
  • Greece 185.000 tons (-47% on 2017)
  • Turkey 165.000 tons (-37% on 2017)
  • Tunisia 120.000 tons (-50% on 2017)

(sources ISMEA, Watch, Unaprol, Mibac, Confagricoltura, Georgofili Academy)

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