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org/blog/2011/03/12/olive-oil-in-italy-an-overview/
Olive oil as well as the olive tree holds an important place within the lives of the people of the
Mediterranean. The olive tree is regarded as a symbol of peace closely connected to religious
practices; however, olive oil has also traditionally been used as medicine, makeup, an anointment,
and above all as food. Although olive cultivation first occurred in the Eastern part of the
Mediterranean, Italy has perfected its process and is well known for its production today. Olive oil
production in Italy is highly traditional and is one of the production processes that still closely
follow its original roots. Olive oil has recently gained popularity in regions outside the
Mediterranean due to the discovery of its health benefits; however, the Mediterranean and Italy
would not be the countries that they are today without their large dependence on the olive tree and
olive oil throughout the centuries. Olive oil has shaped Italy into the country that it is today.
The olive tree is a unique type of evergreen that grows in subtropical climates in both the northern
and southern hemispheres. It grows between 10 and 40 feet tall and produces small clusters of white
flowers in late spring which eventually grow into olives. Similar to grape vines, olive trees do not
start producing olives until the age of eight; however, even then these olives cannot be used. The
olive tree must mature until the age of at least fifteen for it to produce a worthwhile crop but once
this stage is hit the olive tree will produce olives for the next 65 years and continue to live for long
after that even for several hundred years. There are hundreds of varieties of olive trees, each
excelling in the production of different products. Italy is the second leading producer of olives
following Spain; however, Italy is considered the world leader in quality. Similarly, Italy is the leader
in the consumption of olive oil.
The cultivation of olives is believed to have been begun by the Minoans of Crete in Greece in 5000
BC. Certainly, remains of mortars and presses used for olive oil extraction were found within the
Minoan Palaces in Crete. Through the movements and expansion of the Greek diaspora olive trees
were introduced into Sicily, Southern France, and parts of Spain c. 800 BC. It is during this time that
the olive oil trade became a large business as evinced by the remains of oil jars found in Crete. The
Greeks sparked the beginning of the cultivation and trade of olive oil; however, the Romans further
developed this market. In the early Roman Empire, olive cultivation had not yet begun in Italy
though olive trees were present; instead the Romans relied on other well known producers in areas
such as Spain. This concept is important for further expansion of the Roman Empire resulted in a
greater increase in its olive oil trade. Nevertheless, once Greek power was eliminated and all of the
Mediterranean was under the Roman Empire olive oil production began properly in Italy. Italy,
however, surpassed Greece in its quality and taste as early as the first century AD. According to the

historian Pliny, Italy had excellent olive oil at reasonable prices by the first century AD, the best in
the Mediterranean, he maintained (Olive Oil History 1).
With the fall of the Roman Empire the olive oil industry was practically destroyed like many of the
other industries at the time. Olive cultivation greatly declined and due to the Barbarian invasions
butter became present in areas that were always heavily based in olive oil. Nevertheless, olive oil did
not disappear into history like garum. After all, olive tree as well as olive oil held a strong position
within Catholicism which represents the religious beliefs of the Mediterranean. Religious
communities helped olive oil to regain its important position and helped to maintain the cultivation
of olives in Italy. Remember that the olive leaf brought to Noah by the dove represents the end of the
flood. In the New Testament, the washing of Jesus feet by Mary Magdalene and anointed with oil
was similarly well known. Outside of the Bible, olive oil was used within every part of the Catholic
religion. Traces of olive oil were found soaked into the bones of saints and martyrs which were used
as a form of anointment. Olive oil was also used as the oil for the Oil of Catechumens, Oil of the Sick,
the Rites of Baptism, the Sacrament of Confirmation, and the Ordination of priests and bishops.
Since olive oil production dates back to 5000 BC its production is based on tradition. Unlike most
products these days olives are one of the few industries in which mechanization is not usually
present. This is due to the fact that olives are easily damaged resulting in a lower quality of oil.
Therefore it is believed that the quality of oil decreases with the increase of mechanization. Since
olives must be treated gently better olive oils are more expensive because they must be handpicked.
There are two different ways to handpick olives. The first way is considered to be best method
because it will result in the least damage to the olives which will produce the best quality of olive oil;
however this also means that it is the most expensive. This method involves hand picking the olives
and placing them directly into a basket, which is known as brucatura. The second method involves
handing picking the olives but letting them drop to the ground onto a net. This can damage the
olives and therefore resulting in an inferior olive oil. This method also allows for plastic rakes or
wooden sticks to be used to help beat down the mature olives; this is known as bacchiatura.
Olive harvesting takes place at different times depending on the area. In most of the Mediterranean
olive harvesting occurs in the months of November, December, and January; however, in the more
Northern areas such as Tuscany olive harvesting must be carried out earlier due to early frosts.
Indeed, in this region olive harvesting begins as early as September. The different times in which
olives are harvested results in the different tastes of each regions olive oil. The younger olives of
Tuscany result in a peppery taste. Similarly their young age produces less oil making their olive oil
scarcer. Since each olive contains about 20 percent oil it takes an average of around 200 olives to
produce one liter of olive oil. The weather can also affect the outcome of the harvest. Any form of
moisture during harvesting has the potential to damage the olives since they are more likely to spoil

in their crates. Therefore, olive harvesting must be carried out before the rainy season hits Italy
resulting in an earlier harvest season than other areas.
Immediately after harvesting is completed the olives are taken to a frantoio, which is the communal
mill. The frantoio is a large part of the production process of olive oil in Italy and truly maintains the
traditional roots of olive oil production. Since the frantoio is a communal mill each farmer must make
an appointment for his pressing. It is important that the olives do not stay in the baskets for too long
since the risk of spoiling is very high. Usually the olives will only be stored within their baskets for
no longer than a day. This makes it very important to make an appointment at the frantoio at a proper
time. Each farmer holds great pride for his olives and his olive oil. Therefore, it is very common for
the farmer to accompany his own olives through the production process to ensure that only his
olives go into his pressing. A farmers main concerns when going to the frantoio is the yield of oil
obtained per olive and the percent of acidity. For olive to be considered extra virgin it must have an
acidity level lower than 8 percent and must be the result of the first pressing of the olives.
All the production done at the frantoio is mechanical, unlike the harvesting process. Before any
change to the olive occurs the olives must first be washed to remove extra leaves and stems that are
unwanted. The first change to occur is the grinding of the olives. This grinding process involves the
crushing of the entire olive including the skin and the pit by a large granite wheel. This process
results in a sort of olive paste which is then put through the mixing stage. This stage is the most
important since it has the most affect on how the olive oil will come out. Therefore, this process is
done very slowly to ensure the consistency of the oil. Next the liquid must be extracted from the
remaining paste through the process of pressing. Pressing results in a liquid that must be separated
into water and oil. This is done by a centrifuge which removes the water from the oil leaving us with
the unfiltered extra-virgin olive oil. Once this process in complete the olive oil will be stored in steel
tanks and stored in a cool place before bottling.
Today olive oil has gained importance for the health benefits it provides, but to the people of the
Mediterranean olive oil has always played a leading role in their diet and way of life. The
Mediterranean Diet is based on the use of olive oil which is believed to be the reason for their lack of
health problems. It is considered one of the few truly healthy oils because it is a mono-unsaturated
fat with high amounts of potent anti-oxidants, and a low content of cholesterol (Piergiorgio 4). The
consumption of olive oil is now believed to reduce the risk of heart disease and is associated to the
lower incidences of heart disease in the areas where the Mediterranean Diet is present. However, this
is not the reason that olive oil plays such a large role in the Mediterranean and Italy. Olive oil is what
gives such a distinct taste to the Italian cuisine and even within the different regions in Italy. Olive oil
is the basis for ever Italian dish as well as their religious practices.

Homer called it liquid gold and to Italians that is exactly what olive oil is. Olive oil dates back to the
5000 BC and is brought to Italy by the Greeks; however, it was Italy who perfected the production
process and increased the quality. Olive oil has remained a large part of Italians lives due to its use
in religious sacraments as well as the basis for their diets. Each region produces different styles of
olive oil each based on the traditional production within the region. Olive oil production remains
true to its traditions which can be seen in the large use of hand picking over machinery, as well as in
the use of the frantoio. While Italy is not the largest producer of olive oil it is certainly known to be
the best. Each individual farmer takes pride in the production of olive oil and the lack of large
producers allows for the olive oil industry to maintain the character that can be tasted in Italian olive
oil. While recent popularity of olive oil is based on the newly discovered health benefits, olive oil is
valued in Italy for its taste above everything else. The Italian diet is heavily based on the use of olive
oil and would not be the same without it. The ability for Italy to produce its own olive oil in the
traditional way allows for Italy to stay connected to its roots through the most important and valued
product in Italian life.
History of Olive Oil, Explore Crete, Guide for Real Crete Web. 6 Dec. 2010
How Olives Are Made Material, Manufacture, Making, History, Used, Processing, Steps, Product,
Machine, History, Raw Materials, Design, The Manufacturing Process of Olives, Quality
Control. How Products Are Made. Web. 4 Dec. 2010.
Margaritis, Evi, and Martin Jones Olive Oil Production in Hellenistic Greece: the Interpretation of
Charred Olive Remains from the Site of Tria Platania, Macedonia, Greece (fourthsecond Century
B.c.). Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 17.4 (2008): 393-401. Print.
Mazzotti, Massimo. Enlightened Mills: Mechanizing Olive Oil Production in Mediterranean
Europe. Technology and Culture 45.2 (2004): 277-304. Print.
Olive Oil History The Global Gourmet . Web. 2 Dec. 2010.
Piergiorgio, By. How Olive Oil Is Made: Olive Trees, Harvesting & Cold Pressed Olive
Oil.Authentic Italian Food Italian Cooking, Recipes & More | DeLallo. Web. 5 Dec. 2010.
Stefanoudaki, Evangelia The Olive Pit and Roman Oil Making JSTOR 3rd ser. 59 (1996): 171-78. The
American Schools of Oriental Research. Web. 1 Dec. 2010.
For a discussion of the vicissitudes of olive tree cultivation in Italy, see our review of Allen Griecos essay on
the subject.
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