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Sicilian Olive Oil
In the beginning... Sicily's olive varieties trace their origins on this island from time immemorial, with the first oleasters and (much later) the Greek kalamata, probably the first domesticated cultivar brought to Sicily - preserved today as a single ancient tree in the eastern part of our island. Sicilian olive oil is among the world's most fragrant and appetizing. To categorize it generically among "Italian olive oils," as though you were filling out a customs declaration, is to overlook its unique qualities. It is believed that Sicily's particularly fertile soil, which in eastern regions is volcanic, produces some of the world's best olives. The ancient Athenians preferred Sicilian olive oil to their own, though some of the varieties grown in Sicily and Greece were actually the same.
A Question of Colour: The question of color should be put to rest. A persistent perception holds that the greener its color, the purer the olive oil. This is generally true for most varieties of olive oil, but it must be said that certain varieties of olive yield a slightly more golden oil. Like grapes, olives come in different colors. Olives may be green, grey or black when ripe, depending on the variety. Curing does not alter the basic color of the olives, but only deepens it. Certain types of olive tree grown in Calabria's Aspromonte region are tall and thin, producing a small dark fruit from sparse branches. The Sicilian trees are usually shorter with somewhat dense foliage. This makes it easier to pick the olives by hand, which causes less damage to the trees than mechanical harvesting.
Pressing Method: There are two ways of pressing olives to draw the oil out of them. Cold pressing uses a natural process, with no heat, to extract the first oil from the freshly harvested olives. This product is often called virgin or extra virgin olive oil. When it is unfiltered, it has a foggy consistency and a grayish sediment. To purists, this is the best grade of olive oil, and it is ideal for salads. However, the virgin olive oil sold in stores is usually filtered, and beware of "virgin" oils produced outside the European Union, where the term may be defined only vaguely. Most olive oil is "refined," meaning that it is extracted, sometimes with a heat process, from the olive husks that remain following the initial "cold" pressing. The quality of such "olive husk oils" is not that of the extra virgin kind, but of greater concern is some nations' legal laxity, which may permit the introduction of a certain percentage of seed oils while still allowing the mixture to be sold as "pure" olive oil. A vaguely defined product called "lite" olive oil, though pure, is a marketing gimmick that permits American firms to sell low grade, less flavorful, highly refined olive oil as though it were better for your health or tastier in recipes. These are misleading claims because research has shown that pure virgin olive oil (whatever its geographic source) is one of the best oils you can consume. Why would any chef prepare a salad using a bland product that doesn't taste like traditional cold-pressed olive oil? Virgin olive oils are usually less acidic than refined ones.
Quality: Apart from its purity and the extraction process used to produce it, olive oil is distinguished by its acidity. In general, the lower the acidity, the better the oil. For an idea of what we're talking about, try biting into a raw green olive sometime. It's tart and bitter, to say the least. It is true that cold pressed, unfiltered olive oil is typically more acidic than the filtered kind. Truth be told, even a relatively high acidity level would not be very obvious or unpleasant unless you were consuming the oil alone, without any other food or seasoning. For commercial sale, however, Italian extra virgin olive oils must have an acidity level no greater than one percent, and many boast a level far lower. To be designated "organic," an Italian olive oil must be made from olives grown on trees which have been free from chemical agents for at least three years. This conforms to European Community and Italian national directives. Olive oil is also graded by its thickness, or viscosity, though this does not imply a judgment of its culinary quality. Unfiltered oil is naturally denser, and more opaque, than filtered oil. The first seasonal pressing, available by early December, is sold in much the same way as novello wine. When olives are pressed, the pits (stones) are crushed as well, but a new process entailing removal of the stone before pressing yields a better oil. Actually, we shouldn't call it a "new" process, since evidence indicates it was employed by the ancient Greeks.
By Any Other Name: Italy is the world's largest producer of olive oil, but olive varieties are not identical. Several traditional olive varieties have been grown in Sicily for a very long time, and are preferred to hybrids - of which there are many. Verdello is a large green olive. Biancolilla is favored in southwestern Sicily, Nocellara Messinese and Ogliarola Messinese in the northeast. Crasto is grown in the lowlands of the Madonie Mountains of northern Sicily. Cerasuola (Ogliara) is raised in the vast area between Sciacca and Paceco. La Minuta is grown in the area of Patti and Capo d'Orlando in the province of Messina. La Cavaleri is raised in the Caltagirone area, Biancolilla around Agrigento. The Tonda Iblea variety is raised around Ragusa, while Moresca is grown in the triangular zone formed by Catania, Siracusa and Ragusa. Castiglione is native to the volcanic Alcantara Valley near Taormina. Nocellara del Belice is raised in the Trapani area, Carolea in the Enna region. Some varieties are better for salads, others for pressing. Castiglione, Biancolilla, and the various Nocellara varieties, for example, are better for pressing.
Appellation: In theory, like Sicilian wines, olive oils should carry an appellation indicating where the olives pressed to make it were grown. While the law favours appellations by region over the varieties of olives used to make the oil, there are guidelines for these, so a Valle del Belice oil should be made primarily from olives traditionally typical of that area. These appellations follow.
• Colline Ennesi - Hilly region around Enna in east-central Sicily, generally contiguous to that province. Carolea is principal variety.
• Monte Etna - As the name implies, the areas on the slopes of Mount Etna, fruits of its rich volcanic soil. Range of varieties includes Nocellara Etnea, Moresca, Tonda Iblea, Ogliara Messinese, Biancolilla, Brandofino and Castiglione.
• Monte Iblei - Region of the Hyblaean Mountains of southeastern Sicily. Preferred varieties are Tonda Iblea, Moresca and Nocellara Etnea.
• Valdemone - Generally contiguous to the province of Messina, including much of the Nebrodi region. Various varieties including Ogliarola Messinese, Verdello, La Minuta, Nocellara Messinese, Ottobratica, Brandofino, Verdello (subspecies of San Benedetto).
• Valle del Belice - The Belice Valley south of Trapani, principally Nocellara olives but also Biancolilla, Cerasuola (Ogliara), Buscionetto (Biancolilla), Santagatese.
• Val di Mazara - Southwestern area. Preferred varieties are Biancolilla, Cerasuola, Nocellara del Belice.
• Valle dei Templi - The area in the immediate vicinity of Agrigento. Principal varieties are Biancolilla and Cerasuola (Ogliara).
Buyer Beware! Unfortunately, there are unscrupulous Sicilian firms that use olives from Calabria, Apulia or other parts of Italy to make the oil they press in Sicily. To make things worse, many of the best known "Italian" olive oils, even those classified "extra-virgin," are actually produced from olives imported from Spain, the Balkans, Turkey and Tunisia. Though much of the "Sicilian" olive oil sold in the export market is not made from locally-grown olives, under European Union law there's little accountability for the precise origin of the product. In some cases the olives are pressed abroad (outside Italy) and the oil is imported into Italy for bottling as "Mediterranean" oil with little regard for precise extraction standards (superior cold pressing versus inferior 'refining') or quality. Much is lampante, an oil pressed from dried, dirty olives found on the ground rather than harvested from the trees. Most lampante is also 'rectified' with chemical agents in order to control its acidity; sometimes such oil is extracted - in the case of Spain and Tunisia - using agents such as talc. There are no import controls for oil which arrives in Italy from other EU countries. Incredibly, much of the olive oil sold in Italy is not Italian! A controversial 1995 law permits much lampante oil to be sold as 'extra virgin.' The scandal is too complicated to explain in detail here. Caveat emptor!
Best Sicilian Olive Oil: Every two or three years, the editors of this publication gather a panel of culinary experts to judge Sicily's best olive oil based on ten or more brands from around the island.
Olive Products: The oil is only one of the products of the olive. There is also green, grey or black olive paté, a delightful spread for sandwiches or appetizers. And, of course, there are both cured and dried olives. Some firms market their own oils, pressed from olives grown on their own farms. More often, the company that bottles and sells the oil has purchased the harvests of numerous growers.
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