Simona Piccinelli’s interview with Marco Antonucci, the renowned extra virgin olive oil communicator
Olive Oil has been used for over 6,000 years! In the Copper Age, farmers who occupied the present Syrian- Palestinian coast began to select and graft varieties of olive trees producing great fruits, to obtain a greasy, dense liquid, useful for the skin, which tasted pretty good and burned quite easily.
From the Ancient Greeks who first exported a large amount of olive oil and introduced the concept of “brand” and “mark of origin”, and the Ancient Romans to modern-day, olive trees cultivation, oil production and consumption have been spreading throughout the Mediterranean basin to the entire world. Today, you can see olive groves in South Africa, China, South Oceania, North, Central, and South America. The total production of olive oil has been growing steadily since the early 1900s and now it exceeds 3 million tons per year.
But do we really know how to choose it, how to store it and to use it?
We spoke with Marco Antonucci – extra virgin olive oil Italian teacher and lecturer, sensory analysis trainer and tasting panel leader – and asked him the most commonly asked questions about extra virgin olive oil.
What are the differences between Extra Virgin Olive Oil and other types of Olive Oil?
There are several kinds of oils you can obtain from olives:
- Extra virgin olive oil (EVO): It is a natural juice, obtained from healthy and fresh olives, at the right level of ripening, an oil without defects; Italian law defines it “superior category olive oil obtained directly from olives and solely by mechanical means”. This definition must appear on the label.
- Virgin olive oil: It is a natural juice of olives, made solely by mechanical means, but with some slight organoleptic flaws or chemical characteristics which are less favorable than EVO. On a scale of 1 to 10, the flaw does not exceed 3 ½. Italian law defines it “olive oil obtained directly from olives and solely by mechanical means”. This definition must appear on the label.
- Lampante: It’s a severely defective non-marketable and non-edible oil; you will not find it in shops. All olive oil eventually becomes lampante; oil is an olive juice but it cannot contain preservatives by law and with time it becomes rancid and not edible, it can’t remain virgin forever.
- Olive oil: A blend of lampanti oils that have undergone an industrial refining process (degumming with phosphoric or citric acid, deacidification with caustic soda, discoloration then treated with hexane, deodorisation., etc) and a small proportion of virgin oils. Italian labels must state “a blend of refined olive oils and virgin olives oils”. Be careful, because refined in this case doesn’t mean that they are elegant, but that they come from refineries.
- Pomace oil: In the pomace there is still some oil (about 3 – 10%) that cannot be extracted mechanically. With the process of refining, rectified pomace oil is obtained and once mixed with virgin oil is marketed as pomace olive oil
What Is the “first cold pressing” and is it better?
Italian law says that, in order to write “first cold pressing” on the label, the maximum temperature of 27°C (80,6F) should be maintained during processing olives in the mill. In order to be able to write it on the label, the oil miller must provide a declaration indicating the technological means installed to ensure the truthfulness of the declarations, otherwise, it is commercial fraud.
It goes without saying that if you take poor olives to the mill, you’ll have an extra virgin olive oil obtained with “cold pressing” but of poor quality. Also speaking of first pressing would make sense if there was a second pressing. That obviously doesn’t exist for extra virgin olive oil.
Is the best oil extraction system with stone mills?
The most widespread system is the “continuous cycle” (about 80-85% of the total), consisting of a crusher that chops the olives, a tank called kneader in which the pulp is stirred and a decanter separating the oil from the water and from the pomace: a mechanical processing, at a controlled temperature, in minimal contact with the air.
The traditional or “discontinuous cycle” (about 15% of the total), still used today to represent the romantic image of olives pressing, which consists of granite wheels that crush the olives and drupes (olive seeds), then is placed on nylon disks and pressed. This type of processing does not allow temperature control and the olive paste remains in contact with air throughout the extraction process.
Black olive or green olives: which are the best?
There is only one type of olive and, like most fruit, it changes color with ripening. In autumn the green skin turns to a darker color tending to black: this transformation usually represents the ripening period of the olive
Does olive ripening affect the quality of the oil?
Early harvested olives produce oil with green, fresh, very herbaceous hints which are rich in polyphenols and give intense sensations of bitterness and pungency. Grapes harvested after ripening produces a general decline of the positive components in the olives and gives oil with little bitterness/pungency, with the smell of very ripe fruits. Usually, the olives are harvested when 60% of them changed color.
Is it better to have a green or a yellow extra virgin?
An olive oil’s color indicates its flavor, not its quality, quite similar to wine. extra virgin has a color range between yellow and green, depending on the amount of carotenes present which give a yellow color. Chlorophylls and pheophytin, on the other hand, give a more greenish color. These color pigments vary depending on the cultivation, the ripening, the type of processing and preservation.
Which Olive Oils are better? “gentle” or “vigorous”
The label can contain only adjectives recognized by the European Regulations that refer to a positive attribute of olive oil (e.g. “intense”, “medium”, “light”, associated with attributes such as fruity, green, ripe, etc.) if certified by the Panel Leader, whose group has carried out the organoleptic (taste and smell test) evaluation to define the oils classification. It is not permitted to use adjectives such as robust, gentle, vigorous to describe an Olive Oil. However, some producers use these terms as a brand name to get around the regulations.
Why is an extra virgin olive oil good for us although it has a high-fat content?
Because it is composed mainly of mono and polyunsaturated fatty acids whose main properties help reduce bad cholesterol; it also contains Squalene, Beta-sitosterol, Polyphenols and Oleocantal that have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.
Is extra virgin higher in calories than olive oil or seeds oil (e.g. sunflower, peanuts, etc)?
All oils contain about 9 calories per gram, whether the oil is made from olives or seeds; there are no “light” oils. However extra virgin olive oil is scented and tasty, so just a spoon is enough to add flavor and taste, unlike olive oil or seeds oil that is odorless and tasteless, making consumers use them it in a greater quantity
How do you taste olive oil to evaluate its quality?
In order to taste oil, you pour a soup spoon amount of oil into a small glass, heat the glass with the warmth of your hand[s] allowing the scent to evaporate; about ten drops of oil should be sipped on the tongue, without swallowing, then “stripping”, that is to inhale air from the semi-closed mouth once or twice oxygenating the oil, to taste the bitterness on the tongue and pungent at the bottom of the throat (pinches); at the end of the tasting the scents that have sprung up in the nasal cavity will form the so-called post-nasal sensations
When the extra virgin olive oil “pinches in the throat” is it acid?
The acidity of the oil is not perceived in the mouth: it can be determined only through chemical analysis. The “tickle” that is felt in the throat is often mistaken for acidity: actually it’s the oil’s “pungency”, a positive characteristic that recalls chili and indicates the presence of antioxidant substances useful for health; its intensity depends on the cultivation, the ripening, and the pressing system.
My oil smells of grass, why?
In the oil there are volatile substances that, evaporating at low temperatures, giving up aromas of artichoke, apple, thyme, almond, etc. An oil smells of grass, not because the olives are grown in a field, but because molecules causing scent of grass are naturally present in some oils.
How long does Olive Oil last for?
Freshly pressed oil has a number of polyphenols that slowly decrease over time because they fight the oxidation of fat: when they are “consumed” the oil remains without its natural protection and it starts to become rancid.
The maximum storage time (usually 18 months) is determined by the producer or by the packer under his own responsibility and starts from the bottling and not from the production date: oil with a high quantity of polyphenols or better filtration keeps its product characteristics unchanged for much longer compared to oil that is low in polyphenols or unfiltered and therefore will be able to have a longer expiration date. It is a good thing to check the expiration date and, as with any food, it is preferable to purchase packaging that indicates the furthest date. For EVO produced in Italy (not other EU countries though) the expiration date must be preceded by the year of harvest (but only if 100% of the Olives were harvested in the same year). To experience the best quality, it would be better to use the most recent harvest.
How should oil be preserved? Is a glass or a can better?
Olive oil should be preserved between 12°C and 16°C (53.6 F and 60.8 F) in new and clean containers, sealed closed to avoid contact with oxygen, and stored in the dark because light produces photo-oxidation. Metal and dark glass are both good.
Are oil cruets prohibited in restaurants?
In Italy, cafes, bars, restaurants, oils must be presented in properly labeled containers, provided with a suitable closure that can’t be modified and which doesn’t allow reuse of the container when empty of the original contents: if there is an oil-cruet or a bottle without an anti-refill cap on the table or on the counter, it is advisable to ask for a replacement with a suitable bottle.
Selection of Top Italian Extra Virgin Olive Oils:
- EVO Monocultivar Frantoio by Chiarentana
- EVO Berardenga by Felsina
- EVO Rose Grand Cru Olivastra Seggianese by Frantoio Franci
- EVO Casaliva by Comincioli
- EVO Extremum Monocultivar Taggiasca by Olio Cassini
- EVO Trefort by Paolo Bonomelli
- EVO Amodeo
- EVO Colleruta by Viola
- EVO Affiorato by Intini
- EVO Eximius by Traldi
Related Blog Posts:
- Italian Olive Oil Guide
- A Guide To French Olive Oil
- Spanish Olive Oil
- Italian A-Z Food Name Dictionary