There are few things more quintessentially Tuscan than olive oil. A staple part of the culture and one of the region’s most famous exports, no visits or tours of Tuscany would be complete without sampling its golden flavours. The Tuscans have been farming olives since the days of the Etruscans, relying on oil in place of butter, due to the local breed of cattle producing little milk. It’s been a key ingredient of Tuscan cooking for centuries, and carries the bonus of having incredible health benefits, being great for the heart and circulation. |
If you’re looking to impress the locals with your olive oil knowledge, here’s our guide to knowing your pendolino from your leccino, and how best to get your oil from the source to the table.
That famed flavour is the harmonious combination of many different factors. Firstly, the soil: olives grow best in clay or loamy soil, with good drainage. Secondly, there’s the sunshine – something which this part of the world has in abundance – which helps ripen the olives, as well as good rainfall. Lastly, the time when the olives are picked has a huge impact on the taste of the oil; this is usually just before the olives have ripened, when they are green to purple-green in colour.
The are several types of Tuscan olive, Frantoio being the most famous. This cultivar is native to the region, though now grown all over Italy as well as in North Africa, Australia and California due to its overwhelming popularity. It has a vibrant green colour and fruity flavours, and traditional olive presses are also called “frantoios” after them. Other types of olive include: Moriaolo, favoured by farmers for its ability to stand up against cold weather; Leccino, one of the oldest cultivars of olive in Italy and now grown widely across the globe; and Pendolino, fairly small olives which produce viscous oils.
The harvesting process of the olives is traditionally done by hand, with pickers climbing the trees with baskets, and large nets laid out underneath. Those that are hand-picked are considered best, whilst those that have fallen into the nets are kept for producing lower-quality oil. Some farms also use machines to speed up the process. Taking tours of Tuscany during the harvest season in late October to late November is a truly sensational time of year to visit, with the olive groves bustling with activity and heavenly aromas.
Once picked, the olives are immediately taken for pressing. Traditionally, the cold press method is used, in which the olives are washed in cold water, then slowly and carefully pulped into a paste by traditional stone grinders. After that, they are pressed to release the oils, then quickly bottled and stored under 18 degrees Fahrenheit to maintain their freshness.
However, olive oil can also be produced through the hot press method, which is a quicker, more continuous cycle, operating at around 27 degrees Celsius, with less care and time taken over the crushing and pressing of the olives.
Tuscan “extra virgin olive oil”
This is the quite literally gold standard for top-quality oil, but what does it actually mean? Quite simply, this refers to the oils which have been produced from the very first pressing, without any heat or other chemicals added. This means it has very low acidity and retains better flavour and colour.
It goes without saying that the best way to try Tuscan olive oil is to visit and taste in person. For something a little different from the usual tours of Tuscany, why not look to book with ArtViva to go on an olive oil tasting or visit the groves during the harvest? We know all the best spots for sampling the green gold, and our tours are easy to book on the day. Learn more about the secrets behind olive oil and what to really look for when buying that authentic bottle to take back home!
Rose Magers is an Australian-born Italophile and the founder of ArtViva. With an international reputation for excellence and creativity, ArtViva are at the forefront of escorted day tours in Italy. Rose has indulged her own passion for history and the arts by designing an innovative range of exceptional experiences and tours of Tuscany, from hiking and biking through the Tuscan countryside to unforgettable villa visits.
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