Olive oil is an Italian excellence recognized throughout the world,
thanks to its Mediterranean climate, a product that has many beneficial
properties that make it a fundamental element for a healthy and balanced
diet. But, given the many qualities and brands that can be found in any
Italian supermarket, it is good to have some more information, to make a
conscious choice and know what you are eating.
The origins of olive oil
Since ancient times man and the olive tree have had very close ties: there are many testimonies that we can find in more or less ancient manuscripts. The origin of the olive tree plant can be traced back to the Eastern Mediterranean area. The oldest traces have been found in Israel, and more precisely in Haifa, and are dated back to the fifth millennium BC. The first techniques for the production and preservation of olive oil - strictly extra virgin - are the work of the Greeks and Romans: techniques that remained unchanged for centuries. The same diffusion of the plant is mainly due to these two peoples who, during the expansions of their empires, exported the much loved plant. In this way the olive tree arrived in many European countries, France and Spain in the lead. In regions with a more Mediterranean climate the plant found fertile soil, so much so that it became an integral part of the landscape and production typical of the territory, up to the present day.
Olive oil, from harvest to finished product
During the ripening phase the olives tend to gradually increase their oil content, while reducing their water content. The harvest season begins in mid-October, although each region follows its own calendar, which changes according to the variety present on the tree (the harvest of slow-ripening varieties only ends in mid-January). The techniques used for harvesting are different: some growers pick the olives by hand, others strike the branches, dropping the fruit on sheets laid out on the ground. Once harvested, the olives must be sifted, washed, crushed and finally pressed (preferably cold, so that the oil does not overheat, thus losing nutrients and changing taste).
Getting to know olive oil: the classification
Nowadays on the shelves of all supermarkets you can find dozens of extra virgin olive oil, of various brands and from oil mills throughout Italy (and beyond). But when is an oil really extra virgin? First of all, it must be specified that an oil is "virgin" when it is obtained from a single crushing of the olive and the consequent extraction of the oil contained through a mechanical action, so as not to cause alterations of the product. The next step is represented by extra virgin oil, which has other specific, very technical characteristics, including the degree of "free acidity" - expressed as oleic acid - not exceeding 0.8 grams per 100 grams. But above all it must be cold pressed! Any other pressing technique alters the values - both organoleptic and beneficial properties - of the oil, so be careful!
Olive oil is good for you!
Theories about the health benefits of olive oil have been wasted since ancient times, but it is only in the last century that science has confirmed these theories. First of all, it is rich in unsaturated fats, which promote the elimination of cholesterol, decreasing the chances of stroke, heart attack and atherosclerosis. In addition, thanks to the high quantity of vitamin E, polyphenols, phytosterols, chlorophylls and carotenoids, the oil is able to slow down the action of free radicals, making it a real "Elixir of eternal youth"! Recent research has even shown that regular consumption of olive oil prevents the formation of colon and breast cancer.
How best to preserve it
Just as with wine, oil must also be stored with care: dark glass bottles are ideal, protecting it from sunlight. Since once opened the bottle starts the oxidation process, it is good to consume it as quickly as possible (always keeping it in a dry, dark and cool place).