01 Mar

The Heart Of Italy’s Olive Tree Fields

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 in southeast Italy 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.

In the Bari area, the trees are allowed to grow to 9 to 15 feet high. Then the branches are hollowed out, 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.

We are fortunate to visit during one of the two annual harvest seasons. The farm’s owner 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 of 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.

The extra-virgin variety 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.

I then attend an olive oil tasting. We are served small glasses of olive oil, which we learn to slurp, covering our palates while swishing the oil around and then spitting it out. All great extra-virgin olive oil is judged by acidity and flavor.

Steve Petusevsky is the author of “The Whole Foods Market Cookbook” (Clarkson Potter, $25.95). If you have questions for him, write Vegetarian Today, Sun-Sentinel, 200 E. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale, FL 33301-2293. Or send an e-mail with your full name, address and telephone number to dhartz(@sun-sentinel.com with “Vegetarian Today” in the subject line. Personal replies are not possible.

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