03 Nov

Olives and Olive Oil… French and Italian Treasures

The climate of the Mediterranean is ideal for olive trees as the terrain is sunny and mostly dry. They have been propagating this section of the world for centuries. Two prime growing regions are Italy and France. Many recall the beautiful images of olive trees in Tuscany, Italy and Provence, France. Healthy olive trees olea europea upwards of 100 years can be found within both countries. They are easily identified by their height, as mature trees reach as high as 45 feet; the older trees are also noted for their artful looking trunks as the trunks become increasingly gnarled with age. Perhaps this is why artists such as Renoir incorporated the beauty of these trees into their landscapes.

Olive trees begin bearing fruit anywhere from 4-10 years in maturity and continue to do so plentifully until they reach around 75 years, then the amount of fruit produced falls off significantly. Harvesting within both Italy and France is similar. Olives are harvest just when they are beginning to turn purple. In Italy this period begins in November and continues into the spring depending upon the type of olive. In Provence the harvest begins in October, with the black olive harvest continuing into January. Within both countries olives are harvest either by hand, by an ‘olive picker’ or by knocking or shaking the olives from their branches into nets carefully laid upon the ground. Hand harvesting ensures the least amount of damage and bruising to the fruit. A good picker can manage up to eight pounds in a day, the equivalent of approximately 20,000 olives! The amount harvested varies by maturity of the olive tree but is generally in the range of 20-60 pounds which may then be turned into to 2-6 quarts of olive oil if they are to be pressed.

Olives are too bitter to be eaten straight from the branch. To best enjoy a raw olive, they are usually lightly crushed by hand or stones and then soaked in water rinses for a few days. The crushing helps to release the oil and the soaking washes away the bitter acidity. Next the olives are cured in brine or oil.

Olive oil has been a staple in Mediterranean diets since Roman days. It is easy to digest and known for coating the stomach, preventing gall stones, reducing the risk of heart and circulatory problems due to it high content of unsaturated fats, as well as reducing bad cholesterol and speeding the metabolism. It is also being reviewed for it potential cancer prevention benefits due to its high levels of antioxidants. These same antioxidants provide for olive oil’s stability when heated upwards of 395 degrees. It does not break down or emit unhealthy elements as other oils are known to do. For this reason it is a popular choice for cooking.

Fine olive oil is produced nearly immediately upon harvesting. Just as with fine wine, it is important to press the fruit shortly after being picked. The first day at the mill is spent washing and sorting through the olives. Remaining days are spent on the actual pressing. While the process is now industrialized to produce the greatest quantities in short time frames, the pressing process is still done according to traditional manners with a granite millstone. These large circular millstones are a sight to behold, crushing the olives to a paste in a pan grinder. The paste is then spread out and pressed further, the yield of which is mostly oil and water. During ancient times the yield was allowed to separate based on natural density over time. Now in modern days, the yield is put through a centrifuge to avoid the oil being exposed to unnecessary amounts of air prior to bottling.

The first pressing is the best quality. Connoisseurs often seek out unfiltered first-press varieties, which may be cloudy or containing minute remnants of the fruit. The first press is classified as “Extra-Virgin”. Due to its caliber and often higher price it is generally recommended for use in bread dipping, dressing and finishing dishes. The second and third presses product “Virgin” olive oil of “fine” and “medium fine”, both of which are excellent for daily cooking preparations and marinades.

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