While some dream of a white Christmas (could this year be the year?), at this time of year the Italians look to the heavens for other reasons. Since late October, the olive harvest has been in full swing. All over the countryside, olive trees are displaying signs of their own Christmas bauble.
Pregnant with promise, these seemingly insignificant fruit are the jewels in the crown of Italian culture.
In Italy, olive oil is what butter-be it from cow or yak-is elsewhere. An Italian family will go through litres of olive oil every month. The demand is so high that although the Italians produce 20 percent of the world’s olive oil, they consume an impressive 28 percent of it. Although the rest of the western world might use it as a base for frying or dressing salads, the Italians drizzle it on everything (a quick search of recipes in TF yields few without this ingredient). In the same way that the British are partial to dipping biscuits in tea and the Americans for dunking their doughnuts, the Italians would rather douse their bread with oil. (For some additional history, see TF 20.)
For Tuscany, olive oil is especially important. Considered the region’s most treasured asset, the oil produced here is unparalleled. From late October through January, the Tuscan landscape remains under a veil of olive nets. In direct contradiction to the Italian’s well-known distaste for planning, families gather to ensure that every olive is taken care of. Nonni and bambini alike scale treacherous landscapes and brave the elements on harvesting days (see TF 112 for an account of a harvest).
In much the same way that the harvest breaches the generation gap, it also remains classless. Most olive presses require a minimum of 250 kilos of olives for a pressing, which allows families with a few trees to line their store cupboards for the year. For those who cannot reach the minimum weight, there remains the option to contribute to the communal pot and partake in a collective pressing.
Prices are reasonable, approximately 80 euro for a pressing, and nets, baskets and sticks used year after year. Olive harvesting is such a collective passion for Italians that first-timers will usually be able to borrow the basic supplies from enthusiastic neighbours keen to impart their knowledge.
Even if you did not participate in a harvest, you can find great olive oil in town. To ensure the ‘liquid gold standard,’ observe the label carefully. The best olive oil is ‘extra virgin,’ an official classification that requires acidity below 2 percent. The very best Tuscan extra virgin olive oils have acidity of less than 0.01 percent. These superior oils will always be cold-pressed within the first 48 hours or, better still, 24 hours. As heat alters the property of the oil, cold pressing retains purity.
If presented with the opportunity to taste the oil, take it. Generally, Tuscan oils have a peppery finish. The most classic have a verdant flavour, often described as similar to that of sauvignon blanc with notes of green apple, artichoke and fresh grass. Other oils tend to be rounder and nuttier. The olio nuovo, or just-harvested and pressed olive oil, is notably green and cloudy. Though it is slightly bitter, the majority of Italians consider it to be of the most premium quality. This oil will retain its unique flavour for two to three months before mellowing out. However, oil can also last up to two years if kept sealed and stored in wine-cellar conditions.