Across Italy, farmers toil to yield small quantities of Italian extra virgin olive oil, a staple on tables across the country. It’s notoriously difficult to produce, but for many purveyors, it’s a labour of love, driven by the desire to preserve tradition.
“It takes a long time and there’s the work that goes into it,” says Vittorio Colacitti, Italian-Canadian chef/owner of Born and Raised and former Top Chef Canada competitor.
In Italy, extra virgin olive oil is more than just a tasty ingredient to drizzle atop bread or pasta – it’s a part of daily life. Glimpsing at the rigorous production processes, as well as the traditions and craftsmanship instilled into every bottle, it’s easy to appreciate why this “liquid gold” has been cherished for centuries.
Pruning and Protecting
The season starts in January with pruning to keep the trees healthy and flowering. It’s no easy feat: trees are trimmed so the foliage gets plenty of sunshine, while others get the “crew cut.”
“Basically, one patch every year is cut down,” says Chef Diana Lenzi, an Italian-American chef and olive oil producer in Tuscany. “This is all done manually.”
Afterwards, the trees snooze for the season; but the farmers stay busy, caring for the groves and warding off disease and pests.
At harvest time, the picking party begins! Every Italian olive farm has its own harvesting technique: some rake olives from the branches into nets, while others pick manually or even use the “spontaneous fall” method – allowing olives to naturally drop from branches.
“We break the olives by hand,” says Chef Vittorio, speaking about his family farm in Italy. “The work is very lengthy, whether you’re using a machine or not. You have to sort all the olives, picking out all the branches.”
Next, the olives are pressed almost immediately. High quality Italian extra virgin olive oils use a cold pressed method in order to keep the delicate aroma and flavours of the olives intact.
“We go to the press in the village [at] the old stone mill,” says Chef Vittorio. “Huge stones crush the olives [to] get the pulp. Then they put [the pulp] through very old metal disks. That process is very lengthy and old school – the original method. It’s like making wine stepping on the grapes.”
Bottling and Selling
After decantation, storing and bottling, selling the extra virgin olive oil is the last step – and sometimes, it’s a collective effort. “[In some instances] the farmers pool together and sell it from one entity, versus trying to sell it independently,” says Chef Vittorio.
Despite living almost 7,000 kilometres away in Canada, Chef Vittorio imports PDO Italian extra virgin olive oil to use in his Toronto and Hamilton restaurants, because “you can taste the difference.”
“We can create the same type of quality and taste [in flavours] here by using the right, authentic products,” he says. “It’s because of the standards that [Italy has] upheld.”
Likewise, other Italian producers, like Chef Diana, purposely make extra virgin olive oil in very small batches to maximize the quality of the product. It allows her to not only stock their home kitchen, but also sell a limited supply both locally and abroad.
“We have about 800 olive trees and put out 350 to 400 litres per year,” says Chef Diana. “That’s less than a bottle of olive oil per tree. But it allows me to cook using something so incredible. Even if it [costs] money, I will always protect the olive trees.”