Good marketing over the years has enabled Italy to give the impression that it is the world’s most important producer of olive oil even though it actually produces considerably less oil than Spain and sometimes less than Greece. It also imports more olive oil than it produces much of which finds its way into blends which are promoted as though they were truly Italian.
However, Italy does produce a very high percentage of extra virgin olive oil compared to ordinary olive oil. It also produces the widest range of tastes and flavours in its extra virgin olive oils. Every province of Italy produces olive oil with the single exception of the Val d’Aosta in the north-west. Each region has its own olive varieties and a host of different micro-climates.
Liguria, in the north of the country, is an important producing and packing region. The oils from olives grown on its mountain terraces are apple sweet with nuts and a touch of pepper. However, many of the local olive oil companies blend and pack oils from other regions and these will taste quite different. If the oil is not a PDO or PGI oil look for a reference on the label to the Taggiasca olive which is specific to the region.
(A PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) olive oil covers the term used to describe those which are produced, processed and prepared in a given geographical area using recognised know-how.)
(In the case of the PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) the geographical link must occur in at least one of the stages of production, processing or preparation. Furthermore, this olive oil can benefit from a good reputation.)
Tuscany has become synonymous with the best of Italian oil but within Italy itself only the Tuscans would agree with this proposition. Tuscan olive oil varies in taste and flavour quite considerably, so much so that the region as a whole was refused a single PDO listing. Instead individual regions within Tuscany, such as Sienna and Grosetto, have been awarded their own PDO.
Most people think of Tuscan olive oil as green and pungent with a good peppery punch. Descriptions of typical flavours include grassy, artichokes, salad leaves and sorrel. Some of the oils do indeed taste just like this. However, other oils offer flavours which are more reminiscent of dried grass and meadow hay, roasted nuts and chocolate or bitter herbs. A few, like the oils pressed from the Olivastra olive in southern Tuscany, are sweet and fruity, quite lacking the pungency usually associated with this region.
Umbria is another important region for premium oils. Here the tastes and flavours are a little softer than those of Tuscany though they are just as varied. Abruzzi, Molise and Garda are also starting to export some interesting green and grassy oils.
However, it is Puglia and Calabria in southern Italy which are the great producing regions. Much of the oil from here is blended with oils from other countries and sold under brand names but some producers are starting to bottle their best extra virgin oils and sell them individually. Styles in the south vary but the oils tend to be quite sweet often with a peppery punch which can be quite surprising.
Sicily is the next largest producing region and here too there is a move to keep the best oils out of the blends and to bottle them individually. The best oils have a distinctively leafy flavour with a touch of fresh tomato coulis. This appealing flavour is winning awards for the oils as well as a good place in the market.
Extra virgin oils from the island of Sardinia are also worth seeking out. They are usually wonderfully herbaceous with fresh fruity flavours and good lasting qualities.