The Magic of Olive Oil: Healthy Italian Ingredient

It is impossible to imagine Italian cuisine without olive oil. But few people realise just how many varieties of oil there are – not only are there different grades of oil, but also different flavours, colours and consistencies. Good olive oil is as varied and nuanced as wine.

Ancient Roman Ingredient

Fossilised olive leaves have been found on a Greek island dating back nearly 40,000 years – and olives were an important part of early Greek culture. In fact olives were probably introduced to Sicily by the Greeks, some time between the 8th and 5th centuries BC – and later taken to the Italian mainland. Olive oil soon became an integral part of the cuisine – and featured in many ancient Roman dishes. It was not only of culinary importance – it was also used for medicinal and cosmetic purposes.

Leonardo's Olive Press

The importance the Romans attached to this little green fruit is exemplified by the fact that Pliny the Elder (who died during the eruption of Vesuvius in 79AD) wrote extensively about the best methods of olive cultivation and storage, and how to produce the best quality oil. Years later, Renaissance man Leonardo da Vinci designed an improved olive press – you can see a working model at the Leonardo Museum in the town of Vinci.

Health Benefits of Olive Oil

The best quality olive oil is extra virgin, which has a low acidity and contains monounsaturated fats – considered excellent for lowering levels of bad cholesterol and are also considered as the best oil for scars. Virgin olive oil has a higher level of acidity, while plain olive oil is treated and considered less ‘pure’. Olives are generally harvested when they begin to turn a darker colour – in Italy this is usually around November. If you visit Italy during the olive harvest, you will see trucks piled high with olives being taken to the communal olive presses.

Immense Variety

Various factors affect the taste of the oil – the weather, the climate and the soil. Trees near the coast can produce more olive oil than those inland, while heavy rainfall can produce an oil that is slightly watery. The oil produced in the south of Italy is generally considered to be more yellow in colour than that of Tuscany, which is typically green – with a deliciously peppery aftertaste. The oils of Liguria, in the north west of Italy, are sweeter and more buttery to the taste, while those from Sardinia are lighter and rather fruity.

Olive Festivals

Olives are so important to Italian culture that there are olive oil festivals in towns and villages throughout the country. In some places, local people will arrange special tasting events based around the new season’s olive oil (a bit like the Beaujolais nouveau in France).

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