By Steve Petusevsky,
I’ve been cooking with olive oil for more than three decades. But I never thought about what goes into producing it. This past week, I got to see where olive oil comes from and follow its production from tree to press. I was in Puglia, Italy, learning about olive oil from the locals through a consortium known as Olivita. Some of the growers I met are fifth-generation producers.
The quality of olive oil begins in the field. The Apulian region is almost solely devoted to olive oil production. The entire region, more than 500 miles across, is covered with olive trees. Their distinct silver-green leaves can be found nowhere else in nature but on this type tree.
In the Bari area, the trees are allowed to grow to 9 to 15 feet high. Then all the branches are hollowed out in the center of these trees allowing the sun to fully penetrate and enrich the flavor of the olives. This is a centuries-old method of farming called the Barese chalice.
Of the hundreds of olive varieties, the two most common in this region are the Coratina and Cima di Bitonto, prized for their flavor, fragrance and color. They are also some of the healthiest olive varieties because they contain high levels of antioxidants.
We are fortunate to visit during one of the two annual harvest seasons. The olives are heavy in the trees, shades of black, green, purple and rich blue.
The owner of this farm explains that the olives need to be picked in various stages of ripeness and then their oils combined for best flavor.
In the groves, men with bright orange rakes pull the olives from their branches onto large nets spread at the base of the trees. With each pull of the rake, dozens of olives fall to the nets never touching the ground. From here they are scooped into barrels.
This is painstaking work and mechanical assistance is used along with traditional methods. A large mechanical arm is sometimes attached to the tree trunk, which vibrates the tree, releasing the olives into the net. Then the remainder of olives are hand harvested.
It takes 100 kilograms olives to produce 20 kilograms olive oil. A good crop yields about 300,000 tons of olives. Once harvested, the olives must be sent to the press within 24 hours. The modern press features very large stones that grind the olive pulp and mechanical equipment that separates the pits.
The extra-virgin olive oil is extracted without heat and is collected in large tanks protected from both light and heat. It then undergoes a process of natural decontamination yielding an oil that is a stunning green-gold color.
Extra-virgin olive oil comes only from the first pressing of the olives and can contain no more than 0.8 percent acidity.
Any extra-virgin olive oil that bears the D.O.P. (Protected Denomination of Origin) certification guarantees that it is cultivated, processed and bottled in the region that is included on the label. In this case, Bari or Terra di Bari. And I learn that the taste of olive oils are determined by the region where they are produced.
Here’s a version of a simple recipe that I enjoyed in Puglia.