Olive tree and its cultivation in Tuscany
The olive tree was cultivated in Tuscany by the Etruscans since the 4th Century BC and it is today the best known plant for the highly symbolic value attributed to it from earlier times. The olive characterizes the landscape of the Tuscan hills, it adorns houses, villages and towns. Growing olive trees is a hard and expensive work but the reward given by its exclusive product explains why so many people in Tuscany are dedicated to this cultivation, most of them as a hobby, few of them for business.
In the past the hills predominating the countryside in Tuscany and the roughness of the land had given no alternative but cultivating olive trees; this is the likely explanation for this plant being traditionally so diffuse in this part of Italy. However, this coercion has ended up to be a virtue: the massive presence of this plant is important for the preservation of the farming and landscape and most of all for the hydro-geologic stability of the territory.
Olive farming has turned out to be best at an altitude of between 250 and 500 metres above sea-level: at this level cultivation is periodically damaged by frost and some plants need to be regenerated periodically, causing heavy losses in production. On the other hand, the incidence of most diseases typical of the olive tree is minimal at these altitudes an the quality of oil produced in this area and at these altitudes has proved to be superb.
The productive structure is mostly made up of traditional systems characterized by uneven productivity, with very old plants regenerated from time to time, although from the 80’s there has been the introduction of more modern techniques.
The time for olive picking is quite early: it traditionally takes place between the 10th of November to the 20 of December.
Recent researches and trials have proved that anticipating the harvest probably reduces the amount of olive oil produced but highly increases its quality. For this reason olive growers have anticipated the harvest of 2-3 week with some of them starting as early as middle of October.
During the harvesting season it is easy to recognize the different varieties; the following are the most popular:
- The “Frantoio” is the main variety both for diffusion and for the oil quality. Its fruits, long and egg shaped, keep their distinctive yellow-green colour.
- The “Leccino” variety has ellipsoidal fruits, slightly asymmetrical with a bright raven-black colour.
- The “Moraiolo” has ellipsoidal dull-black fruits.
- The “Pendolino” variety has black, not too oblong asymmetrical fruits.
Each plant can have a production from 5 to 50 kilos, depending on variety, age, type of cultivation and, most of all, the season.
Extra Virgin olive oil
From 100 kilos of olives it is reasonable to expect from 12 to about 20 kilos of oil. Note that the oil is traditionally measured and commercialized in kilos and not in litres, probably only for a matter of practical convenience.
Two systems may be used to extract the oil from the olives:
- In the traditional system after milling and kneading, the paste is placed on large disks which are piled up and pressed. The liquid obtained by the pressing process is then centrifuged to separate the oil from the water and impurities.
- In the more modern continuos system the paste undergoes the action of a centrifugal extractor that makes the first separation between the solid part and the liquid. The liquid is then centrifuged again to separate the water and impurities from the oil.
The two systems give similar results in terms of quality. During the entire process the temperature should never exceed 28°C. This is most important as higher temperatures could spoil the quality of the oil.
Immediately after the extraction, the olive oil has a green-yellow dull colour, with different shades according to the type of olives, the type of extraction and its temperature. The taste is usually slightly spicy and it will continue to be like this for about 20 days. After this time the spiciness will start decreasing and will be imperceptible within about 60 days. Even the colour will become more transparent due to the decantation of some more solid parts.
The evaluation of the quality of the olive oil is based on certain parameters (acidity, number of peroxides, absorption of ultraviolet light). Since these are insufficient to judge the quality of the product, the organoleptic qualities have to examined as well, for which a method of sensory evaluation has been developed after years of trials.
The extra virgin olive oil is made from the fruit of the olive by by mechanical or other physical process only, under conditions that it causes no alteration to the oil itself. The olives must not be subject to any treatment other than washing, decanting, centrifuging and filtration. The use of solvents or the re-extraction or mixture with oil of different nature are not allowed. The acidity expressed in oleic acid must be at the most 0.8 g per 100 g.
Olive oil in the kitchen
It is quite common to think about olive oil a dressing but it should be rather considered a type of food. In reasonably small quantities it nourishes our body as it one of the most efficient antioxidants but if eaten over certain limits it starts adding fat layers to it.
The benefits of the olive oil have been known since antiquity; in the 70’s it was pointed out that the Mediterranean diet, which includes large quantities of olive oil in place of animal fats, was a good antidote in the prevention of the cardiovascular diseases.
Olive oil is even considered one of the best oils to fry food, with an ideal temperature of 170°C. In any case it should never be taken over 200°C.
There is no doubt however that the best way to appreciate the taste of the olive oil is to have it with toasted Tuscan bread or with vegetables like tomatoes, salad, cabbage, cauliflower and so on. It is a absolutely essential for most sauces and in the Tuscan cuisine in general.
Bruschetta (also known as Fettunta)
The very first thing to do right after having made the oil, is to toast a slice of Tuscan bread, pour some oil and taste it. If the bread is not warm enough it will not combine with the oil and will be difficult to taste it properly, so make sure the bread is well toasted and warm. Most oil mills have a stove or a fireplace with bread on hand ready for toasting. That is probably the origin of the bruschetta. For most flavour it is recommended to rub a clove of garlic and to add a pinch of salt.
Good variations can be made adding slices of tomato, cabbage or beans.