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Italian Olive Oil

Pauline Kenny

I am not an olive oil expert, but I have bought olive oil to bring home on all our Italy trips. These are my notes. For an expert's opinion, read the food guidebooks.

There is nothing like the fresh, high quality olive oil. Good quality olive oil is available in many regions of Italy. In my experience, each olive oil producing region of Italy declares their oil to be the best. People who really know oil can taste differences by region or by areas within the region. It all tastes good to me.

When you are in Italy, buy the best quality oil you can find. The prices are so much lower there that you can get the best oil for what we pay here for average oil. Even in Italy, poor quality oil is sold (those big bottles in the supermarket). The best oil is purchased like wine - from the farm or from a specialty shop. Oil is sold in bottles (usually 1 liter) or tins (3 liters or 5 liters). We always bring back a 5 liter tin and another 5 liters in bottles. The oil in bottles is frequently corked, like wine.

Box of olive oil from Arezzo farm, 5 liter tin of oil from Spello. 09/99

Box of olive oil from Arezzo farm, 5 liter tin of oil from Spello.

Check the expiration date on the bottle

When you purchase oil in Italy, be sure to check the date on the bottle. You want the oil from the most recent harvest. Olives are harvested in November or December, then bottled in the new year. By law in Italy, the container must have the date the oil expires, which is two years after the production date. Some bottles have the harvest date or the production date listed as well. Most people will tell you that you should not get oil over a year old.

In the US you will frequently find Italian oil that is over two years from the harvest date (I see this all the time in specialty shops in Santa Fe). Only certain brands imported to the US have either the expiration or harvest date on them - most have no date because we do not have the same laws as Italy.

A small olive oil producer in Tuscany told us that much of the poor quality oil sold in Italian supermarkets is old. The law requires the expiration date to be two years from when the oil is bottled, but some mass produced olive oil sits for years waiting to be bottled, so you are getting an old oil when you think you are getting a new oil. I don't know if this is true, but if you purchase your oil from a farm you have a better chance of getting "fresh" oil.

Where to get your oil

You can find top quality olive oil on estates throughout Tuscany, Umbria and Liguria (and other regions too, but I haven't looked anywhere else). Many books that list wine estates will also list olive oil estates. Buy the oil at the estate shop or in a specialty shop (like an enoteca). We have listed some of our favorites below.

Don't bring back brands you can easily get here, like Badia Il Coltibuono, or Laudemio.

Olive oil is also sold in the Agricultural Cooperatives (these stores are all over Tuscany). The oil sold here in 5 liter tins is inexpensive (I remember it being about $25) and is supposed to be from the olives of the region, but we were told that when they run out of regional olives they bring in the inferior olives from the south (that is what an olive farmer told us).

Filtered or Unfiltered

Unfiltered olive oil tends to be more expensive and they recommend using it not for cooking, but for a condiment (like on a salad). We love the unfiltered oil and use it for cooking anyway. Filtering just adds another step to the production process.

What does organic olive oil mean?

In the US, we buy organically grown produce, dairy products and oils. We firmly believe in the small farm and organic movement. There is a comparable movement in Italy. You will see olive oil producers that say they are organic or biodynamic (biodynamic is organic with the farming methods based on the teachings of Rudolf Steiner - an incredible agricultural system). When we are in Italy, we hunt out the organic and biodynamic producers. This may not be as important to you as it is to us.

Many people tell us that all the oil in Tuscany is organic, that we are crazy to go to organic farms. This may be true in some regions (for example, the Val d'Orcia region in the Crete and around Pienza encourage farmers to limit their use of chemicals) - but who knows? There is an organic and biodynamic movement in Italy for a reason (to offer products produced without chemicals), so we buy from them.

We have found good organic producers in Spello, Arezzo and Pienza - see our list below. The Carla Capalbo book has good information on both wine and olive oil producers (The Food Lovers Companion to Tuscany).

Italian Organic Olive Oil Producers

Tuscany: La Romita, Via Umberto I, 144, Montisi
www.romita.it

This organic olive oil producer is located on the main street of Montisi, a village north of Pienza. His oil is expensive but high quality. He offers early harvest oils which are very expensive.

October 2001: We bought a 5 liter tin of the December oil (his least expensive oil, 140,000 for 5 liters - 28,000 per liter, $14). Wonderful oil. We got to join a Butterfield and Robinson bike tour group for a tour of his small processing plant. The owner also showed us a simple vacation rental apartment he has. The same people own the La Romita restaurant next door, which is supposed to be excellent, but we didn't get around to trying it. The Butterfield and Robinson guys ate there.

Tuscany: Fattoria La Vialla, Via di Meliciano, 26, Meliciano (on road from Castiglion Fibocchi to Meliciano, north of Arezzo) Closed Saturday and Sunday. 9:00-12:30, 15:00-18:00

September 1999. Recommended in the CC book. Organic olive oil, wine, vegetable preserves. Also tourist rentals. We brought home 6 bottles of olive oil and some of the preserves. They were great. The farm is easy to find. Drive up the long driveway and park. The shop is small and always crowded with Germans. This farm caters to Germans - the labels on the bottles are Italian and German and they will speak to you in German when you go in the store.

October 2001. Went there again for 6 bottles of olive oil to take home (750ml bottles, 21,000 lire each ($10) - works out to 28,000 per liter ($14)).

Tuscany: Poggio Oliveto, Localita Venturi, 36, Roccastrada (GR), phone: 0564-577257. This farm outside of Grosseto sells biodynamic olive oil in 3 liter glass bottles. The directions to the farm are given in the Wine Touring in Tuscany book.

Umbria: Le Case Gialle
www.lecasegialle.it

Organic olive oil from farm near Bevagna (also have vacation rentals on farm). Mauro will ship the oil to the US. If you get it shipped by paying him the FedEx shipping, it is cheaper than charging it to your account, because he gets a special rate. Several members of the SlowTalk message board have ordered oil from Le Case Gialle.

Umbria: Hispellum, Corso Cavour, 35, Spello.
www.enotecahispellum.com

This store (across from the restaurant "La Cantina") sells wonderful organic olive oil from their nearby farm and sauces that they make. The woman running the business was great and let us sample the olive oil with bread, then she made us try about 10 different sauces on small pieces of bread (excellent). We had just had a big lunch and were already full! Then she took us to the basement to show us a huge box of dried porcini; the smell was incredible. We bought a five liter tin of the organic olive oil (110,000 lire). That works out to about $11 per liter. (You can find 5 liter tins for half that price in the Siena Consorzio Agrario Provinciale, but it is not organic or as high quality.) The tin can makes it easy to carry home. We also got some of the little jars of sauce (1 arugula, 2 white truffles and porcini, 2 black truffles and porcini).

They have a web page and will ship the organic olive oil. The new oil from the December harvest is available in January.

Umbria: Gradassi, Campelo on the Clitunno
www.gradassi.com

Olive oil and organic farm products.

Puglia: Donna Cecilia
www.interlagos.it/donnacecilia/

They will ship to the US. Oil prices and shipping prices are quoted on the site. This farm is owned by the mother-in-law of Stefano who is sometimes on our message board.

Other Umbrian Olive Oil Producers

www.protrevi.com: ProTrevi. This is an excellent Umbrian website; under Prodotti tipici alimentari you'll have an oil page, which carefully refrains from linking to any specific grower.

www.oliotrevi.it: Olio Trevi.

www.olioumbro.com: Umbrian Oil Cooperative

www.mancianti.it: Frantoio Mancianti

US Sources

www.casesf.com: Casa de Case is the exclusive U.S. importer of the superb extra virgin olive oil produced by Olivestri in Umbria near the Tuscan border.

www.realgoodfood.com: Jim Dixon's Real Good Food, out of Portland. Lots of recipes, sources of Italian olive oil, a few vacation rentals.

www.purelyorganic.com: Purely Organic. Organic gourmet Italian products (olive oil, pasta, etc.).

www.tuscanyflavours.com: Conti store in the Florence San Lorenzo market. You can order direct from them.

www.theolivepress.com: The Olive Press, Glen Ellen (Sonoma County), California. Order specialty olive oils, olive tapenades and other wonderful things. Not Italian, but still great olive oil and olives. Expensive.

www.bellaumbria.net: Order Umbrian olive oil from this web site.

See our "Where to buy Italian things in the US" page for more sources.

Books

Judy Ridgway, The Olive Oil Companion The Authoritive Connoisseur's Guide. Knickerbocker Press 1996

You can find books in Italian in Italy.

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