Land of thousand virgins: a journey through Italian olive oils

If you ever happened to read a recipe in Italian, you might have noticed a strange ingredient: “evo”.

According to the dictionary, “evo” means “era/age”: English term “Medieval”, for instance, comes from “Medioevo”, that is “medio” (middle) and “evo” (age); indeed, Medival times means Middle Age.

So, what is this “evo” Italian put in almost all their dishes, and that can’t be an era?
Oil.

“E.V.O.” – often spelled simply “evo” – is the acronym for extra-virgin olive oil. It’s an abbreviation of recent usage; not so long ago, the expression “olio e.v.o.” (in which “o” stood for “olive” only) was common, then it became even shorter.
Truthfully, there would be no need to specify “extra-virgin olive”, because Italians scarcely consider the usage of different kind of oils for their dishes. Practically deep-fried food only contemplate the usage of a different kind of oil (mainly corn, sunflower and, sometimes, peanut oil), and olive oil is sometimes used to deep-fry foods as well.
Italians alone consume 30% of the world’s total consumption of olive oil, that’s why Italy imports it even if it’s the world’s second producer.

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Italians and olive oil: a love story

Why do Italians love olive oil so much?
Because it’s good.
It’s tasty, it has interesting nutritional values and it belongs to a thousands-year old culinary tradition. Thank them they don’t pour it in your glass, too.

Olive oil has being produced for centuries in the Mediterranean area: ancient Greeks already knew it, and even populations from northern regions of Africa and coastal area of Middle East produce it since ever.
Romans, ancestors of nowadays Italians, were no exception.

Almost each one of the twenty Italian region produce olive oil. Obviously, each of them praise its own oil’s superior quality.
Actually, average quality of Italian olive oil produced by local, small oil mills is very high, and sometimes it’s just a matter of taste to tell the best one.

Olives are often harvested by hand, by shaking tree branches with a staff to make the fruits fall into nets, that had been put all around them. This method is called bacchiatura (from bacchio, an archaic noun for “staff”), and allows only a small amount of leaves and pieces of branches to mix with olives.

More often than sometimes, olives are picked by hand one by one; this process is called brucatura (brucare means “to graze”, even if it is more commonly used to mean the act of browsing made by herbivores). People climb trees with wooden ladders and takes olives away from the plant with bare hands or using comb-shaped tools.

Olive trees for massive oil production are harvested by a process called scuotitura (shaking), made with special machine. It is faster and easier (if the form of the land allows it), but the amount of leaves and other unwanted parts is high and impairs the oil’s quality.

Different varieties of olive tree (cultivar) are farmed in different areas of Italy and many of them obtained the DOP (Denominazione di origine protetta, Protected denomination of origin) classification, which more or less is for foods what DOC is for wines, and that guarantees both origin and quality standards.

Tour of Italy through local olive cultivars

Ligury

Ligury (Liguria in Italian) is the boomerang-shaped region of north-west Italy bordering France, on the Mediterranean Sea. Despite its small area (5,422 sq km/2,093 sq mi), it is an important producer of extra-virgin olive oil.

Riviera Ligure DOP (DOP extra-virgin olive oil from Ligurian Riviera) is the official name of top quality oil produced in Ligury, and it embraces three “subregions”:

Riviera dei Fiori DOP: extra-virgin olive oil from the province of Imperia (close to the border to France), made with at least 90% of olive of the local cultivar Taggiasca.
Taggiasca (from Taggia, a small town in the province of Imperia) olive is small, dark brown and very fragrant. The oil made from this cultivar of olives has a complex bouquet of flowers and fruits.

Riviera del Ponente Savonese DOP: extra-virgin olive oil produced in the western part of the province of Savona (that is: by the province of Imperia; ponente means “west”). Different cultivar of olive can be used to produce this oil, but Taggiasca cultivar must be employed at least for 65%. Its aroma is fruity and its taste is sweet.

Riviera di Levante DOP: extra-virgin olive oil from the provinces of Genoa and La Spezia (meaning levante “east”). Here are cultivated Lavagnina, Razzola and Pignola varieties of olive tree. They can all be used in producing oil, at least for 65%. This oil is fragrant and slightly spicy at the end.
Leccino cultivar, which is typical of Tuscany, is also cultivated in the eastern part of the region.

Tuscany

Tuscany is the homeland of extra-virgin olive oil as much as it is of full bodied red wines.
Every province of the region produces its own renowned extra-virgin olive oil, three of which have been recognized as DOP. Obviously, oils from Tuscany are very different from one another (just like wines labelled as “Chianti” actually are).

Lucca DOP: Lucca is a fascinating small town in the northern part of Tuscany, about 30 km (18.7 mi) as the crow flies away from Tyrrhenian Sea. Oil produced here is made from Frantoio and Leccino cultivars. It has a fruity aroma, but its taste can sometimes be intense, slightly hot and pleasantly bitter.

Chianti Classico DOP: what is probably the most renowned wine region of Italy also produces a refined extra-virgin olive oil. Employed cultivars are Correggiolo, Moraiolo and Leccino and the result is an intense oil, with a distinctive, yet pleasant, bitter flavor.

Terra di Siena DOP: from the town of Palio and of exquisite kinds of cured meat also comes a fragrant extra-virgin olive oil, whose aroma resembles vegetables and fresh olives, and whose taste is fruity, with a hint of artichoke. It is made from Correggiolo, Frantoio, Leccino and Moraiolo cultivars.

Lazio

Lazio is the region in which Rome, capital town of Italy, lies, and to some, Lazio is a capital region for extra-virgin olive oil production. Local oil production has very ancient origins, so that even the Roman poet Oratio sang about the quality of local olive oil.
Romans made olive tree cultivation and oil production systematic, and regulated products according to five classes of quality; slaves were only given poor quality oil, made from maggoty olives.

Being Lazio a very large region, oils produced here substantially vary from one another, both because cultivars change and because climate, elevation and soil also change. Within nine traditional kinds of extra-virgin olive oil produced in Lazio, three have been classified as DOP.

Canino DOP: it is produced in the province of Viterbo, by the small town of Canino, where already Etruscans used to cultivate olive trees. It can be made with olives from Caninese, Frantoio, Leccino, Maurino and Pendolino cultivars, and has a fruity, yet pointed, flavor. It is traditionally used to pan-fry food, too.

Sabina DOP: Sabina is an historical region in central Italy between the provinces of Rome and Rieti (that’s where the legendary episode of the Rape of the Sabine women – Ratto delle Sabine, in Italian – took place). Together with Canino oil, this is the first extra-virgin olive oil from Lazio to have obtained the DOP classification, in the middle of the Nineties. It can be made from Carboncella, Frantoio, Leccino, Moraiolo, Olivago, Olivastrone, Raja, Rosciola and Salviana cultivar. It has a sweet and aromatic flavor, with only seldom a bitter taste in the end.

Tuscia DOP: again from the province of Viterbo, this time from an area with volcanic soil. Olive varieties employed are Bolzone, Caninese, Canino, Corniolo, Frantoio, Fuggiasca, Leccino, Marzaiolo and Olivine.
Extra-virgin olive oil Tuscia DOP has an intense flavor, lightly hot-spiced, yet sweet.

Sardinia

Extra-virgin olive oil Sardegna DOP is one of the most recent oils to have obtained the DOP classification.
According to its production guidelines, it can only be produced in some municipalities in the provinces of Cagliari, Oristano, Nuoro and Sassari, from Bosana, Tonda di Cagliari, Nera di Villacidro and Semidana cultivars for its most part (80%), plus the addition of other local grown varieties.
It is an intense, complex, yet delicate olive oil, whose peculiarities may change from mill to mill according to the percentage of different cultivars employed.

Campania

Region Campania can also boast three DOP extra-virgin olive oil, out of five traditional quality of olive oil. 
Thanks to its proximity with the sea, its climate and its volcanic soil, it’s an ideal region to grow olive trees, and indeed it is fourth Italian extra-virgin olive oil producer.
Here we can find:

Cilento DOP: in Cilento they have a century lasting tradition in cultivating olive trees and producing olive oil, because this kind of agriculture was brought in the area from ancient Greek colonists.
Local employed cultivars are Frantoio, Leccino, Ogliarola, Pisciottana and Rondella. It’s a tasty and fragrant oil.

Colline Salernitane DOP: on the hills by Salerno they produce a tasty, lightly bitter, extra-virgin olive oil, whose taste can last long in mouth, without being hot. Main cultivars employed in its production are Carpellese, Frantoio and Rotondella.

Penisola Sorrentina DOP: this oil comes from the area of Sorrento, and it’s mainly made from Ogliarola cultivar, with the addition of Frantoio, Leccino and Rotondella varieties. It’s sweet and fragrant, and its aroma resembles fresh olives and herbs, while its taste is complex and long lasting.

Calabria

In the area of Crotone, archeologists have found evidence of oil production dating back to 4000 years ago.
The region’s position, in the heart of Mediterranean Sea, between Tyrrhenian and Ionian seas, gives it a special climate, that reflects in its oils aromas.

Alto Crotonese DOP: from the northern province of Crotone comes a surprisingly delicate oil, mainly made from Carolea cultivar, with the addition of Tonda di Strongoli, Pennulara and Rossanese.

Bruzio DOP: this extra-virgin olive oil comes from the province of Cosenza and can be further distinguished, according to the subregion of production, into Fascia Prepollonica (mainly made of Tondina variety), Valle Crati (mainly made of Carolea), Colline Joniche Presiliane (mainly from Dolce di Rossano) and Sibaritide (from Grossa di Cassano).

Lametia DOP: this oil’s name comes from the Latin spelling of Lamezia Terme, the town in the province of Catanzaro it is typical of. It must be made at least with 90% of Carolea variety, and has a delicate and fruity flavor.

Sicily

A sunny, windy Mediterranean island with volcanic soil: what more can we ask for cultivating olive trees?
Indeed, Sicily can boast six DOP extra-virgin olive oils made from its several typical local varieties.

Monte Etna DOP: mount Etna is actually an active volcan, on whose soil vineyards and olive trees are grown. This extra-virgin olive oil is mainly made from a local cultivar called Nocellara Etnea, plus other locally grown varieties such as Biancolilla, Ogliarola Messinese and Tonda Iblea. Its fruity and not too hot.

Monti Iblei DOP: Hyblean Mountains, in the southern part of the island, are famous for their chalky soil, which gives olives grown here a typical taste. Most employed variety is Tonda Iblea, while Biancolilla, Nocellara Etnea and Sanbenedettese, together with other locally grown cultivars, are also used.
It’s not too spicy and it’s slightly fruity.

Val di Mazara DOP: only Biancolilla, Cerasuola and Nocellara del Belice cultivars are allowed to produce this extra-virgin olive oil that comes from the western coast of Sicily. It has a fruity and sweet aroma, and a fine, sweet taste.

Valdemone DOP: Valdemone is the name given to the eastern part of Sicily at the time the House of Bourbon ruled these lands. This extra-virgin olive oil comes from the province of Messina, and it’s made from Ogliarola Messinese, Minuta and Santagatese cultivars, to which the addition of Nocellara Messinese and a few other locally grown varieties is allowed, too. Its aroma and taste are complex, sweet, fruty, yet pointed, with notes of tomato and artichoke.

Apulia

Apulia (Puglia in Italian language) is Italy’s olive mill, being the main producer of extra-virgin olive oil in the country, thanks to its almost 50.000.000 olive trees.
No surprise five DOP extra-virgin olive oils come from this region.

Collina di Brindisi DOP: from an area limited to only eight municipalities comes an extra-virgin olive oil mainly produced with Ogliarola Garganica cultivar, plus minor percentages of Frantoio, Leccino, Cellina and Nardò. Flavor is pretty complex, with a delicate bitter taste.

Dauno DOP: produced in the province of Foggia only, it is made with Ogliarola Garganica, Coratina, Peranzana and Rotondella varieties, and can be further distinguished according to the subregion of production. Each of the four kind of extra-virgin olive oil Dauno DOP has a character of its own.

Terra di Bari DOP: its name means “land of Bari” and its mainly made from Ogliarola and Coratina varieties. It also can be further distinguished in three kinds, according to the area of production. They all are fruity and lightly bitter and spicy, but in different ways.

Terra d’Otranto DOP: this fragrant, yet bitter and spicy, oil is produced in the southern area of Apulia, from cultivars named Ogliarola Leccese (not to be confused with Ogliarola Gaganica) and Nardò.

Terre Tarentine DOP: lands in the province of Taranto also have their own DOP extra-virgin olive oil, mainly made from Coratina, Frantoio and Leccino varieties. This fruity oil is usually the most intense from Apulia, a little spicier and bitterer than other ones, but always in a pleasant sense.

Molise

There is only one kind of DOP extra-virgin olive oil in Molise, and it’s obviously called Molise DOP.
Different cultivars are allowed in its production, among which Gentile di Larino, Nera di Colletorto, Sperone di Gallo Olivastro and, of course, Leccino. Therefore, aroma and taste of oil produced in this region may vary a lot from mill to mill.

Abruzzo

Roman poets Virgilio and Ovidio mentioned olive oil from “Aprutium”, because it was already renowned.
Nowadays, Abruzzo boasts two fine DOP extra-virgin olive oils.

Aprutino Pescarese DOP: it is produced in the province of Pescara from locally grown olives, mainly belonging to Castiglionese, Dritta, Leccino and Pollice varieties. It has a light spicy taste, but it is still delicate in its complex.

Colline Teatine DOP: this oil is produced in the province of Chieti (oddily to Italian native speakers, too, “teatino” means “from Chieti”) from Gentile di Chieti cultivar, to which olives from Cucco, Nebbio, Leccino and Moraiolo may be added. It’s fruity and gently spicy.

Marche

In this coastal region on the Adriatic Sea, only one extra-virgin olive oil DOP is produced, and it’s Cartoceto DOP, from the small town in the province of Pesaro-Urbino, the main center in the production area. It is made from Frantoio, Leccino and Raggiola varieties, and therefore has a very delicate taste, which is also structured and complex.

Umbria

Even if it’s famous for being the only one non-coastal region in central Italy, Umbria is enough close to the sea to benefit of Mediterranean climate and to produce a top-quality extra-virgin olive oil, too, even if harvest usually takes place later than elsewhere.

Umbria DOP can be distinguished into five sub-classes, according to the area of production, which vary a lot from one another, because they are made with different kinds and percentages of cultivars. Colli Assisi-Spoleto, for instance, must contain at least 60% of Moraiolo cultivar, while Colli Amerini, on the other hand, can be made of 15% only of Moraiolo cultivar.

Emilia-Romagna

Although this region’s culinary tradition is dominated by products of the inland, the climate of its coastal area allows the production of two DOP extra-virgin olive oil, from the provinces of Ravenna, Rimini and Forlì-Cesena, all in the subregion called Romagna.

Colline di Romagna DOP: this extra-virgin olive oil from the provinces of Rimini and Forlì-Cesena is mainly produced from cultivars Leccino and Correggiolo, to which the addition of olives of Moraiolo, Pendolino and Rossina varieties is also allowed. It has a fruity and “green” aroma, and its taste is close to the one of fresh olives, with a pleasant bitter note.

Brisighella DOP: this is a sort of local culinary jewel. It is made from a special, local variety of olives, called “Nostrana di Brisighella” (meaning “home-grown from Brisighella”, a small town in the province of Ravenna), which has been selected through decades of production. It is made in the province of Forlì-Cesena and Ravenna, where olive oil production dates back to the Roman era.

Veneto

Even if this region has a large coastal area, olive trees are cultivated in the inland, in the province of Verona, Vicenza, Padova and Treviso, where both the Adriatic Sea and the Garda Lake positively influence climate.
There is only one extra-virgin olive oil Veneto DOP, distinguished in further local kinds according to the area of production. In each area, different cultivars are employed: Valpolicella (in the province of Verona) is mainly made from Grignano and Favarol olives, Euganei and Berici (from the name of the hills by Vicenza and Padova) is mainly made with Leccino and Rasara varieties, and Veneto del Grappa (from the slopes of Mount Grappa in the province of Treviso) must contain olives from Frantoio and Leccino cultivars at least for the 50%.

Lombardy

Lombardy (Lombardia in Italian) is not a region by the sea, but it has lakes – beautiful, large lakes – whose climate permit successfully to cultivate olive trees in their surroundings.
Two extra-virgin olive oil from Lombardy obtain the DOP classification.

Garda DOP: Garda lake is the largest lake in Italy, and it belongs to Lombardy, Veneto and Trentino Alto-Adige regions. Olive trees are grown in the whole lake area, and the oil produced is further classified according to the province it is made in.
Extra-virgin olive oil from Garda Bresciano (in the province of Brescia, Lombardy) is made from Casaliva, Frantoio and Leccino cultivars. It is definitely fruity, delicate yet complex, with just a light spicy taste.

Laghi Lombardi DOP: it is produced both in the province of Brescia and Bergamo, by Garda and Iseo lakes, and in the provinces of Como and Lecco, by the Lake Como. The former is called Sebino and can be made from Leccino (40% minimum), Frantoio, Casaliva and Sbresa cultivars; the latter’s name is Lario and can be made mainly from Leccino (80% minimum), with the addition of Casaliva and Frantoio only. It is usually a little spicier than Garda one.

Trentino-Alto Adige

This is a mountain region in the northern part of Italy with an unsuitable climate for growing olive trees. Despite this, in its very southern area, thanks to the influence of the lake, Garda Trentino DOP extra-virgin olive oil is produced, from Casaliva, Frantoio, Leccino and Pendolino cultivars. It is pretty similar to the Garda Bresciano DOP oil.

Friuli-Venezia Giulia

Our journey ends on the opposite side of nothern Italy, by the border to Slovenia.
Although they produce extra-virgin olive oil in the area of Collio, too, where top-quality white wines also come from, the only one DOP extra-virgin olive oil of this region is Tergeste DOP, and comes from the province of the capital town Trieste (being “Tergeste” the town’s ancient Roman name). This area’s typical cultivar is Bianchera, a kind of olive used to produce extra-virgin olive oil in the region of Istria (Croatia), too. 
Tergeste DOP extra-virgin olive oil is also made with olive of Belica, Carbona, Frantoio and Leccino cultivars. It has an intense taste, lightly bitter and persistent.

There only are two regions in Italy that don’t produce DOP extra-virgin olive oil, Piedmont (Piemonte) and Aosta Valley (Valle d’Aosta), because they are too mountainous and cold to allow quality intensive olive tree cultivation.