Fifty Shades of Olive

November is here, and we’re all obsessed with olive oil. Whenever we see friends, neighbours, colleagues, strangers in the bar, it’s the number one conversation subject here in Sabina at this time of year.

“Did you make oil this year? How much? How is the quality? The quantity?”

Generally followed by “ah yes, the wet spring. It was so cold! And the hot summer, so dry! And the fly? Were you affected?”

Olio nuovo, the most delicious of extra virgin olive oils!

As we are all so obsessed, I thought that for this blog post, I would talk about olives, rather than think about the fact that we still have no windows, no doors, no electricity, and a swimming pool in what should be our living room…

So here it is: ten things I’ve learnt about olives in the last couple of years.

1. Italy has over 500 varieties of olive tree: all olives start off green, and eventually turn black.

2. It’s pretty hard to kill an olive tree, but if you prune it at the wrong time of year, or in the wrong weather, it’s easier than you might think.

3. You can’t grow an olive tree from an olive. I don’t know why, but you can’t. Therefore, in case you’ve done something terrible to your tree, or as insurance against a bad winter, you should allow your tree to have a couple of “sucker shoots” on its trunk going into winter. That way, if your daddy tree dies (trees are masculine in Italian, whilst fruits are feminine), a baby tree will pop up in its place.

4. Olive trees should be shaped like a wine glass, with three (a maximum of five) branches forming a goblet shape from the main trunk. The centre of the tree should be empty of branches. No vertical branches (chimneys) are allowed, no leaf should cast shade on another leaf. As our pruning teacher instilled in us, “no chimneys, no parasols”. Also, a swallow should be able to fly through the tree.

5. Different varieties of olive tree look different, feel different, and produce oil that tastes different. In our grove we have four varieties of olive: leccino (a lovely mauve when ripe), frantoio (a gorgeous, bright green, turning to red), pendolino (amazing taste, looks like a weeping willow), and carboncella, the “signature olive” of Sabina. Carboncella trees are rather scruffy, and the olives more difficult to remove than the other varieties, as they are very attached to their trees.

6. Olive oil is no longer normally “cold pressed”, in fact, it’s not normally pressed at all nowadays.  Cold pressed refers to the days when olives were taken to the mill and pressed into a sludge between enormous mill stones or mats.  Today, extra virgin olive oil is almost always “cold extracted” – centrifuged from the olives in quite noisy, stainless steel equipment. Less romantic, but much more hygienic, and also rather more tasty. The mats, stones or whatever that were used to squish the olives, were almost impossible to get properly clean, and therefore full of nasties …

7. Following on from the point above, the term “extra virgin” is used to describe oil that is literally olive juice: extracted from FRESH olives. This must be done without excessive heat, and without the use of solvents or additives. Legislation permits a maximum free fatty acidity of 0.8%, and the oil must have an aroma and flavour free of defects. If your oil is not called “extra virgin”, it has been processed, generally by the application of heat and chemicals to force the oil left behind in the olive sludge after the first extraction out of said sludge. Pomace oil is the result of heating the olive sludge, dissolving it in hexane, boiling the hexane off, then extracting the oil using acids, alkalis, steam or whatever. Yuk.

8. Given that olives are a fruit, they are best hand picked with care. Like many producers, we use little yellow rakes, on the ends of poles. This gentle style of harvesting prevents the fruit, and the trees from being damaged by the process of fruit removal. Clearly, quality fruit produces quality oil, so for the best oil, any damaged fruit should be removed before milling, and one’s precious harvest should be at the mill as soon as possible after leaving the trees.

9. To benefit from maximum taste and health giving properties, olives should be harvested young. This was quite controversial for us, as The Builder and all our neighbours felt that we harvested far too early. But oh my goodness me, the oil tastes amazing!Olives also have a “terroir”, just like grapes. Our neighbours grow broadly the same varieties of olive as us, hand pick, hand sort, and this year, theirs were milled in the same mill on the same day as our olives. However, theirs tasted entirely different to our oil. Not better or worse, but definitely different. Each batch of our oil also had its own unique taste.

10. Even after careful pruning, ripening, harvesting and milling, it’s still REALLY easy to ruin olive oil. Olive oil hates light, and it hates oxygen. These are further reasons why extracted, rather than pressed oil is actually superior, as the process is quicker, and involves less light and oxygen. So wherever, and whatever oil you buy, make sure that it’s either in a dark bottle or tin, and once you’ve opened it, use it fast! While we’re on the subject, extra virgin olive oil is perfect for frying with, adding to salad, seasoning your steaks, making vegan cakes, and simply dunking bread into. But don’t bother adding balsamic vinegar, good olive oil is utterly delicious on its own.

And finally.

Owning four hundred olive trees is fun.

But the olive harvest is The Best Fun.

Especially when you share the harvesting with friends.

And oil that has been hand picked in the sunshine, with a hand picked group of friends, and involves a long lazy lunch with said friends, tastes the best of all.