Tuscan olive oil and
Tuscan bread (saltless) have always formed the staff of life
in Tuscany and continue to this day to be major and essential
components of the Tuscan diet. Olive oil is used both
"raw" as a condiment on bread, salads, tomatoes etc and extensively in
cooking. In contrast, use of butter is very limited in Tuscan
cuisine. The Tuscan olive oil of choice is "extra vergine" -
extra virgin - the highest possible quality olive oil, with
free fatty acid content below 0.3%.
Below, we give some olive oil grading information relating to
various retail markets, but the long and short of it is that you
must know exactly where your olive oil is coming from, because
the regulation of olive oil quality can be extremely lax and corrupt,
including in Italy. It is therefore crucial that you trust the
source of your oil. Obviously, if you live in Tuscany, you can
grow your own olives - most families with a patch of ground do
exactly this - and if you are visiting, you can and should buy
your oil directly from a grower. This is quite easy, because
almost every wine producer also produces olive oil so that oil can
be bought at any of the very numerous "Vendita Diretta"
and "Degustazione" places dotted along the country roads
of Tuscany. If you buy from a supermarket, read the label
carefully - it should say extravirgin olive oil produced in
Tuscany. Be suspicious of low prices - the oil will be either old
or not coming from where it should.
Next - olive oil, unlike many wines, does not get better with
age. The fresher the oil is, the better the taste, and,
indeed, olive oil still within three months of harvest is known as
"olio nuovo" - new oil - and is extremely popular
because of its peppery flavour, the product of the phenols,
anti-oxidants and other volatiles that are so good for us. The
olive harvest usually takes place in late October and early
November, so that the olive oils on sale around the end of the
year and early new year are best. Olive oil remains perfectly
acceptable for a full year, but most domestic producers press just
enough oil to last their family and friends until the next
harvest. Do not buy olive oil sold in clear bottles. Dark green
bottles help prevent breakdown caused by light and no reputable
producer will market his olive oil in a clear bottle. Keep your
oil container tightly sealed - oxidation is a major contributor to
the degradation of olive oil.
Occasionally an olive crop fails and consumers have to
resort to commercial suppliers. 2011 was such a year in Chianti. There was so
little rain throughout the summer that the olives were little more
than skin and stone. Many small growers didn't even bother to pick
Some older expressions used in relation to olive oil include
"cold pressed", an old term that refers to the days when oil was
pressed from the fruit pasta using a large mechanical press. These presses are still around, but not used much because they expose the oil to too much air. This oxidises
some of the important phenols and anti-oxidants.
"First press" is another old term used to describe the oil produced by the first pressing using the mechanical presses. The pasta was then pressed again to produce a poorer quality oil.
Modern olive presses, usually belonging to the local municipality
or groups of "associates", and to which small producers
take their baskets of olives to be pressed, are much better than
the old presses. They separate the oil and water from the olives
during the pressing process, keep air out of the procedure and
maintain a low temperature. The "pasta" left after the
first press is usually left behind for extraction of lower grade
oil used in commercial cookery.
In summary, for all purposes, try to obtain the freshest,
genuine Tuscan, extravirgin olive oil, and keep it in a cool, dark
storage space to stop it going rancid. At refrigerator
temperatures, some olive oil constituents start to crystalise -
waxes, for example - and the oil becomes opaque. The oil is
apparently not harmed by this process which is readily reversible.
Retail grades of olive oil
In countries that adhere to IOOC standards, an oil's grade
must be displayed on the labels. (The US is not a member of IOOC.)
Extra-virgin olive oil comes from cold pressing of the olives, contains no more than 0.8% acidity, and is judged to have a
superior taste. Extra-virgin and virgin olive oil may not contain refined oil.
Virgin olive oil has an acidity less than 2%, and is judged to have a good taste.
Pure olive oil. Oils labeled as Pure olive oil or Olive oil are usually a blend of refined and virgin or extra-virgin oil.
Olive oil is a blend of virgin oil and refined oil, of no more than 1.5% acidity. It commonly lacks a strong
Olive-pomace oil is a blend of refined pomace olive oil and possibly some virgin oil. It is fit for consumption, but may not be described simply as olive oil. Olive-pomace oil is rarely sold at
retail. It is often used for certain kinds of cooking in restaurants.
Lampante oil is olive oil not suitable as food.
The expression lampante comes from olive oil's long-standing use in oil-burning lamps. Lampante oil is mostly used in the industrial market.
Pay attention to the wording on olive oil labels outside of Italy.
"100% Pure Olive Oil" is often the lowest quality available in a retail store: better grades would have "virgin" on the label.
"Made from refined olive oils" means that the taste and acidity were chemically controlled.
"Light olive oil" means refined olive oil, with less flavour.
"From hand-picked olives" implies that the oil is of better quality, since producers harvesting olives by mechanical methods are inclined to leave olives to over-ripen in order to increase yield.
"First cold press" means that the oil in bottles with this label is the first oil that came from the first press of the olives. The word
"cold" is important because if heat is used, the olive oil's chemistry is changed. It should be noted that extra-virgin olive oil is cold pressed, but not necessarily
all first oils are cold pressed.
The label may indicate that the oil was bottled or packed in a stated country. This does not necessarily mean that the oil was produced
there nor that the olives grew there. The origin of the oil may sometimes be marked elsewhere on the
label. It might be a mixture of oils from more than one
country, and olives are sometimes trucked over provincial
borders in order to be pressed in a more prestigious zone.
Retail grades in the United States from the USDA
As the United States is not a member, the IOOC retail grades have no legal meaning in
the US. Terms such as "extra virgin" may be used without legal restrictions.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) currently lists four grades of olive oil. These grades were established in 1948, and are based on acidity, absence of defects,
U.S. Grade A or U.S. Fancy possesses a free fatty acid content of not more than 1.4% and is "free from defects"
U.S. Grade B or U.S. Choice possesses a free fatty acid content of not more than 2.5% and is "reasonably free from defects"
U.S. Grade C or U.S. Standard possesses a free fatty acid content of not more than 3.0% and is "fairly free from defects"
U.S. Grade D or U.S. Substandard possesses a free fatty acid content greater than 3.0% "fails to meet the requirements of U.S. Grade C"