The olive prospers on a calcareous, stony terrain, exposed to the sun: such was the countryside around the city of Galilee which had hosted this plant four thousand years before the birth of Christ, although the Hebrews could only taste the olives and the oil and enjoy its richness after they became a sedentary population.
The beauty of the olive is praised in verse by the poets of the Old Testament age where the olive often symbolises holiness, and peace; the olive is part of the history of Christianity, unique protagonist in the life and death of Jesus, who was born in the shelter of an olive plant and was betrayed in a garden rich in olives, likewise, oil is used in baptising and for anointing those who become ministers of the religion, as so it is also used for anointing a Christian at the moment of passing into the silence of death.
The olive's divine charm is present in the Latin culture, which celebrated this plant as being a gift from Minerva, goddess of wisdom, born from the brain of Jupiter, while Cicero and Pliny attributed to the son of Apollo, Aristaeus, the discovery of the olive and the ability to extract oil from its fruit.
The olive tree and the olive also appear in many pictorial works: it is enough to think of the dish in Majolica of Luca della Robbia preserved in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, which depicts a boy on a ladder between the fronds of an olive tree with a basket in his hand, and also to think of Picasso’s dove that brings peace symbolised by an olive branch.
THE OLIVE IN ITALY
Many areas in Italy are rich in olive groves and produce a different oil from region to region and from zone to zone due to the different exposure and geographical composition of the terrain, but also due to the maintenance of the olives.
Tuscany is certainly one of the regions that is better qualified in the production of olive oil and for the quantity and for its high quality, at times very high: there is that of the Florentine hills, that of the Chianti hills produced from olive trees growing near to the vines, that of Lucca, that of the hills of Livorno - that today is claimed to be the best in Tuscany due to the terrain being at the correct altitude and at the correct distance from the sea - and those of the Maremma hills which look over the Tyrrhenian sea, there is the oil from the Siena areas which is also one of those most valued; every zone of Tuscany has its own oil which is fragrant, green, very rich in flavour and colour which, to ‘educated’ palates, however, presents significant differences and qualities which vary naturally, according to its production, to the terrain and to the geographical position, but also to different uses and customs according to ancient traditions that have been handed down through the centuries.
THE HARVESTING AND PRODUCTION PROCESSES OF THE OLIVES
The ripe olives are harvested in various ways; we shall refer to the most widely used methodologies in qualitative order:
by hand directly from the tree with special tools with which to avoid doing any damage to the olives and to the plant; this method is very costly because it is very time consuming;
by hand with a type of rake;
making them fall onto a canvas spread underneath the plant by use of a machine that detaches the olives by causing vibrations; this method may damage the branching of the roots of the olive trees, of which are many;
making them fall by hitting them with a pole that sometimes, however, may damage the olives which are delicate and, if marked, they rot very quickly.
After the harvest, the olives are placed in a number of layers onto reed mats (and in certain cases, unfortunately, on the ground) and are then taken to the olive mill for the pressing. This may be "cold", by means of a millstone or using industrial appliances in stainless steel to obtain the first (and naturally the best) oil called extra virgin, or by the "hot" method with an industrialised process which is quicker and so less expensive, but, however, gives inferior results; the residue is subjected to a grinding and a second pressing to extract the remaining oil. The solid residues called ‘sansa’ may be used further for the extraction of oil by chemical means.
THE DEFENCE OF EXTRA VIRGIN OLIVE OIL
As is easily understood, the value of olive oil varies very much in price and quality according to the method of production used in creating it. To this end, unions and associations have been created which are committed to the observation and the defence of the quality of the product.
Amongst these, there is the AIAB (associazione italiana agricoltori biologici – Italian Association of Biological Agriculturalists or Farmers) whose associates, apart from keeping the most rigorous observation of the best rules for the working of the olives (for the harvesting as well as the pressing), are distinguished for their cultivation and the maintenance of the olive.
Tuscany boasts of some associates of the AIAB from whom it is possible to buy an oil that, other than being full of flavour is also very pure, and has the quality of being able to preserve the original fragrance over time.
In this region, in 1990, the Union of the Olive Growers of Tuscany was founded - known as The Union of Laudemio - whose members gave themselves the name of ‘olivanti’. The term ‘laudemio’, in the Middle Ages, was appointed to the tribute given by the vassal to the lord, which was made up from the best part of his produce; today the name ‘laudemio’ is given to the best extra virgin olive Oil produced in the zone of the central Tuscan hills. To become part of this Union the principal rules to be followed are:
choice of the period of harvesting to be completed before the 15th December of the year of production;
harvest by direct separation of the fruit from the plant;
limitation of the time of preserving the olives before being pressed, according to precise indications;
the pressing and cold extraction of the oil.
The Tuscans have demonstrated for oil a true cult over many centuries and, still today, they regard olive oil as the only condiment possible: it continues to be tied in to all recipes of which this nectar is an indispensable element.
Through the centuries it has preserved magical virtues as an element used in the rites of magicians and sorcerers. In our times - if used uncooked – it has obtained much recognition in the area of medicine thanks to the elements of which it is composed. First, above all, present in a high percentage, is vitamin E, which has an anti-ageing action; it combats the free radicals caused by the ageing process. It should, therefore, be considered as one of the best remedies indicated in preserving health, youth and a type of skin that Garcia Lorca describes as being like a paste made from olive oil and jasmine.
But the great Spanish poet is not the only one to exalt the olive; many have written about the value of having extra virgin olive oil on the table, from Alberto Arbasino to Indro Montanelli, from Paolo Poli to Gregor von Rezzori, and again many others who, in their pages, have recommended old, simple recipes. But first amongst all is the beautiful verse of the ancient Greek, Miletus: «pour the holy oil onto my palms / so that I can pass it through my hair / which will shine like snow under the sun. / Pour the oil onto the bread which I offer you / offer me black olives to taste / with salt and flat bread grilled on the fire. / Pour oil over the light-coloured quail / which the spit suspends over the fire / and drink wine until your head / rests, heavy, on your shoulder.»
There are many types of Tuscan olive trees: the ‘Leccino’, the ‘Correggiolo’, the ‘Frantoio’, the ‘Maurino’, the ‘Pendolino’, the ‘Moraiolo’, the ‘Lantesco’ and the ‘Olivastro’; many varieties which are not attributed to any particular zone since they frequently grow together on the same terrain; the qualitative differences that vary from one oil to another depend less on the plant and more on the climate, on the terrain and, above all, on how it is produced. The fundamental characteristics of oil are its taste and its acidity. Every producer is convinced of having "the best" oil, but the element that objectively may judge the oil is the grade of acidity. When this exceeds the 1% laid down by the law as the maximum limit for the title of extra virgin olive oil, the oil becomes heavy and loses the acute and delicate taste typical of Tuscan oil. The acidity of an oil depends on the quality of the olives and, still more, on their maintenance and the pressing. In the artisan oil mills, where the oil is followed through its phases, from the harvesting of the olives to its bottling. The cold pressing of olives ensures that the oil does not exceed 0.6% of acidity. The Florentine hills are rich in small artisan oil mills, where it is possible to exert good control over the various phases of the operation; for example the cleaning of the millstone to obtain an oil which, due to the exposure of the terrain, may be considered amongst the best in Italy. But the closeness to the sea and the hilly position of the olive groves, the mild climate throughout the year that permits a slow maturation of the olive, the well-rooted traditions in a DOC (Controlled Denomination of Origin) production, all these elements affirm that the best oils can be found in the high Maremma area, on that strip of hinterland that skirts the Tyrrhenian coast from Bolgheri to Grosseto.
A very precious oil, indeed rare, which, to give its just appreciation must always be used uncooked, and preserved a long way away from heat or light; it is a "royal" oil (also for its cost) and deserves to be treated like a king.
AN AGE-OLD CUSTOM
More or less throughout Tuscany, but above all in Maremma until the middle of this century (until, that is, the arrival of pesticides), there was a custom of making a ‘caterpillar procession’, an outing between the olive groves which took place straight after Easter and was headed by a priest who scattered holy water to the left and to the right, reciting prayers in an atmosphere of great gaiety. A "good" ritual to chase away the arrival of the grubs that would eat the flowers of the olives destroying the harvest, being in many zones the only economy.