Good quality oil
In recent years we hear more and more often to talk about good quality extra virgin olive oil. However, aside from the various and at times extravagant publicity, what does “good quality oil” really means and how is it possible to obtain it? Lots of studies have been made at university level and otherwise, which furnish practical indications on how olive should be cultivated and successively pressed so as to obtain the best quality of extra virgin olive oil. Before entering into specific criteria and methods to put into practice to get that result, it is probably quite important to underline one primary aspect which guarantees to get the best results.
It is the passion and dedication
which is typical of many Italian agricultural farms! A passion which also means tradition, respect for the environment and quite an amount of patience! Yes, patience, because olives get ripe only once a year and if anything goes wrong during the cultivation ( insect attacks, drought, etc.), one full year must go by before another harvesting with the hope to get a better quality. And if some innovations must be experimented cultivation, pruning, cultivar type wise, one may even have to wait some years before getting the hoped for results.
This is why to produce good quality oil it’s possible, but definitely not easy! And this explains why it is a lot easier to find good quality extra virgin olive oil in small producing companies, rather than large scale oil producing companies.
In the extra virgin olive oil world the word “quality” very seldom gets along with the word “quantity”!
In the olive tree grove starts the difference...
Perhaps you never came to think about it and nobody ever told you; olives are somehow like people: they are not all the same ... thank God!
There are hundreds of varieties all over the world and, among all countries, the greatest number of olive variety belongs to Italy . Every cultivar produces oil with its typical taste and personality. There are cultivars intended to produce olives to be consumed during meals, as pickles and appetizers, whereas most of them are destined to the oil production. Some will yield a type of oil which recalls the tomato taste, other more close to the artichoke taste. The environment will have a lot of influence on the outcome of the oil quality, such as the soil, exposition to the sun, humidity, temperature range between day and night, these are all most important factors. The olive tree must also interface at its best with the environment; therefore, thanks to a wise pruning, there will be trees acquiring the shape most suitable to the sun exposure and easily accessible to be harvested. Pruning, fertilizing and care of the soil carpet underneath the trees are also very important element.
Also the ambition and the objectives which are at the bases of the farm policies are quite important too. If a fairly good quality oil should be the product with a competitive market price the cultivar will be exploited at its best with a density of more than 400 trees per hectare, while the shape of trees will be the most suitable to allow a mechanized harvest. However, if the result of the final product must be excellence, then there will be only half the number of trees and the shape will be studied according to sun exposure and for a manual harvest.
Harvest and storage
As soon as olives are harvested the decay process start with the risk of seriously endangering the oil quality. If olives will be somehow damaged, the decay will be more serious and faster. This points out the importance of the great care which must be used in the harvesting process and why the olives must be rushed to the oil mill. Here are some points of explanation on these factors:
Harvest methods: hand picking is definitely the best method, for it guarantees the greatest protection for the olives.
The old “beating system” where the branches were actually beaten allowing the olives to fall in the nets was definitely a more traumatic system of harvesting. When manual picking becomes too demanding and also too expensive it is possible to make use of facilitators such as comes or shakers which can help in saving time.
Big olive farms make use of gig machineries which allow he harvest in a totally mechanized way.
The time element: towards the end of their vital cycle olives quickly change color, passing from green to black. With the changing of color the nutrition principles which were in constant growth drop dramatically up to 80%.
It becomes evident that the harvest must occur at the very last moment and in the fastest possible way.
Olives must be stored in such a way that they must be exposed to air in order to avoid that the rising temperature may hasten the decay process and damage them; olives must be taken to the olive mill as quickly as possible.
...and it continues in the Olive Mill
Olive Mills also are of different types, each with its specific characteristics, advantages and disadvantages quality and cost wise.
The main common characteristic, however, must be a scrupulous cleanliness and hygiene.
Oil is such and absorber and collector of taste and smell to the point that it is used in the perfume industry to get the most out of flower perfume. It is easy to figure out what could happen if the newly produced oil gets in contact with leftovers of previous pressings which have become rancid! Oil is a very complex and most delicate food which needs to be stored into a dark place and very well sealed so as not to compromise its qualities. It becomes obvious that remains from previous pressings, if not carefully removed and left in the machinery will badly contaminate the fresh oil production.
Oil production takes place in three phases: crushing
, in which the mass of olives is broken; kneading
, in which the more than 200 components contained in olives, helped by the enzymes, react and generate microscopic oil drops and, finally, separation
of oil from the vegetation water and solid elements (seed).
Amazingly, in order to call an oil extra virgin, all these operations must necessarily take place exclusively through mechanical procedures and cold working process. And what does this mean? It means that the use of solvent in order to extract a bigger quantity of oil from the grinded mass, although it’s legal, prevents from calling the oil “extra virgin”! It also means that if in the phase of separation hot water is being used there will be a greater yield of oil but it cannot be called extra virgin. If you take a slice of hot toasted bred and you pour some olive oil on it, you can smell a most intense and delicious oil perfume. This means that the heat has extracted some of the best components of the olive oil. If in the separation process the temperature will exceed the 25 – 27 Celsius degrees, the best components of oil will get lost in the air.
Olive oil does not improve by aging, but it can last a very long time if properly stored.
One of olive oil’s worst enemies is exposure to light, both direct as well as indirect. Olives contain chlorophyll, a substance utilized in the photosynthesis to transform absorbed luminous energy into oxygen and sugars. Chlorophyll is responsible for the green color which is typical of fresh new oil. It is also a good preserving component, for it is antioxidant, but only in dark places. Should the oil be exposed to the sun, chlorophyll causes oxidation which triggers a progressive impoverishment of its best qualities and in the long run it will turn rancid. For this reason olive oil must always be kept in containers which are not penetrable by light. Dark and opaque glass are the most suitable materials. Stainless steel is the most suitable material for storage of large quantities of oil, since it has the same properties of dark glass and protects from light in an integral way.
Extra virgin olive oil must be kept in cool and dry places, away from sources of heat, in storerooms where sharp changes of temperature will not happen ( always between 14 and 20 Celsius degrees) and it must definitely be protected from exposure to direct light and air. If kept in these optimal conditions extra virgin olive oil qualities can last up to 36 months. With too low temperatures olive oil may get frozen; in such cases it is necessary to bring the temperature back to normal, shake the container for a few minutes before using it so as to get the product back to its natural characteristics.