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King of good oils

india Updated: Mar 26, 2009 19:14 IST
Vidhi Bhargava

Olive trees with their small shiny leaves and rows of vines dot the landscape in the Tuscan region in Italy. The trees, some with a queer, yellow fungus, stand tall on the red-tinged earth in backyards and in clusters in orchards.. they’re almost omnipresent.

Olive trees with their small shiny leaves and rows of vines dot the landscape in the Tuscan region in Italy. The trees, some with a queer yellow fungus, stand tall on the red-tinged earth in backyards, in clusters in orchards.. they’re almost omnipresent.

In the heart of Italy, Tuscany is the seat of high-grade extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) production in the country. “Other regions like Umbria, Apulia and Liguria also produce EVOO.. but there is a difference. Quite like the difference between a Ferrari and a Tata car,” says Massimo Neri, chairman of OL.MA, a cooperative of olive growers in the Maremman hills in Tuscany.

The history
Greek merchants brought the olive trees to the Tuscan region between 630 and 550 BC. The oil, pressed from the fruit, was used for medicinal and cosmetic purposes, besides being the main cooking medium. But it was only in the 15th century that Tuscan oil appeared in the Italian market.

Compared to grapevines, growing olives is an arduous process. Laws however encouraged olive cultivation and regulation. And today, Tuscan EVOO is known as the king of olive oils.

The olio
Tuscan oils have an intense flavour. Enter an olive oil factory and the heady, sweet aroma of the oil permeates. The green gold, as it is known, has an herbal, fruity taste, somewhat like artichokes. The oil has the power to colour and flavour even a plain piece of bread.

Tuscan olive oil is like Scotch, once you’ve tasted it, you can never appreciate a Royal Challenge. Similar to the spirit, only oil made from olives grown, processed and bottled in Tuscany, can be classified and accredited as Toscano olive oil. Marketing Tuscan olive oil without mentioning it on the label is breaking a law.

To make sure it is a certified Tuscan EVOO, check the label on the neck of the bottle, with the mark of the Extra-virgin Olive Oil Association and its capacity expressed in litres. Tuscan olive oils also come in dark bottles to protect from damage caused by light and heat.. which can make it turn red and finally rancid.

As compared to the coastal areas in southern Italy, where olive fields and wild olive trees are a common sight, growing olive trees in Tuscany is a tedious process. The temperature in the hilly, land-locked area dips below zero, which makes the trees prone to frost. Trees here produce fewer olives than in the coastal area where the weather is far more conducive to olives. That explains why Tuscan olive oil is more expensive than its southern counterparts.

Process conscious
Tuscan olive oils are cold pressed, which means that the temperature at which the oil is extracted from olives does not exceed 27ºC. By law, the acidity levels of the EVOO should not exceed 0.8 per cent.

Olive oil producers often use different types of olives but a single variety is used for high-grade oils. The most common olive varieties used in Tuscan EVOO are Frantoio (has a very fruity aroma), Leccino (delicate and sweet), Moraiolo (fruity, slightly bitter and pungent, with a taste like almonds) and Pendolino (delicate taste, heady aroma).

About consortiums
In Tuscany, most of the olive oil business is conducted through cooperatives that are formed by groups of olive growers. A couple of these include OLMA, a cooperative of olive growers in Maremman hills in Tuscany. It has 1500 olive growers in its folds, and Chianti Classico, an offshoot of the Chianti Classico Wine Consortium, it has around 800 growers.

These cooperatives produce and bottle the oil from olives harvested by independent farmers. The oils are then marketed the world over by the Opera Consortium that is now entering India.