Between Myth and History: Olive Oil in Tuscany

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Cooking with extra Virgin Olive Oil
Black and green olives.

The story of olive oil is an ancient one, extending back at least a millennia. The large number of early Greek and Roman amphora used to store olive oil attests to its popularity and age, but the origin of olive oil itself is somewhat of a mystery. However, there is evidence that olives were cultivated as long ago as 4000 BC.

Olives were important enough to the early Mediterranean civilizations that both the Romans and Greeks incorporated the origins of olive trees in their respective mythologies. The Greeks believed that Athena created olives, and Roman mythology held that Hercules struck the ground with a staff, and an olive tree sprouted on the spot. Religions and mythologies have made wide use of the olive tree: Zeus was believed to have chosen the olive as the tree of peace; The dove that flew to Noah in his ark bore an olive branch; many Mohammadens believed that Mohammed himself thought as olive oil as a divine source of light. For the Greeks, who first widely used olive oil, it was originally a beauty treatment and lamp fuels.

The olive oil trade was hugely important throughout the ancient Mediterranean world, and ships carried olive oil on all their routes. Again, the proliferation of ancient amphora, as well as shipping records, makes this clear. It was the Romans who found that the popular cosmetic and fuel oil was also a delicious condiment. As the Roman Empire grew, people throughout the area began using olive oil for cooking.

The Roman Empire gained power and lands, and the cultivation of the olive spread. The Romans actually divided some of the southern regions of the Empire by organizing them into olive producing areas. After the collapse of the Roman Empire, olive production fell dramatically across southern Europe, but some of Tuscany’s most remote fortified towns continued to produce olives and olive oil.

Nearly a thousand years after Rome lost power, the cultivation of olive groves began to flourish again in Italy. Tuscany, as a powerful region with sophisticated legal and social structures, came to the forefront in the production of olive oil, and in setting standards for such production. As early as 1400, Tuscany became known as the center for olive oil production, which indeed was flourishing throughout Italy.

According to the editors of Journey Through Tuscany to Discover Its Products, “Revolutionary and wise Medicean agricultural policies made a real change in the landscape of Tuscany, encouraging the rental, under advantageous conditions, of vast uncultivated lands to peasant families. These new farmers were required to respect a single obligation. The had to clear the forests and plant olive trees.”

When missionaries left Europe for the New World, olive oil was one of the products that they took with them. However, it wasn’t until the great immigration waves of the late 19th and early 20th centuries that olive oil made its way into the culinary consciousness, outside of the Mediterranean.

For Tuscany, after the great Medicean land reforms, the most important advance in olive oil agriculture and economics came in 1997 when the European Union recognized a geographical identity for the olive oil of Tuscany, which was already the most famous olive oil in the world. Again, according to the editors of Journey Through Tuscany to Discover Its Products, previous to 1997, “On the market, at that time, we found half a million quintals of ‘Tuscan’ olive oil, when production was less that 20 thousand!

Today, the mark of Protected Geographic Indication (an olive branch against the background of a map of the region) insures that every single olive that is used in the production of Tuscan olive oil is grown in Tuscany. Further, every olive mill that crushes those olives, and every stage of processing and packaging Tuscan olive oil are all right inside the geographic borders of Tuscany.

There are 70,000 small producers of Tuscan olive oil, and they cultivate four main types of olives, and many other lesser known varieties (all grown in Tuscany) are used to insure the complexity of the flavor of the oil. The four main types are Frantoio, Maoraiolo, Leccino, and the Pendolino, which is used as a pollinator tree.

Our fresh oil is bright green, has a spicy and slightly bitter taste, and is as healthy as it is delicious. Extra Virgin (first pressing) olive oil is good for digestion, prevents ulcers and gastric upsets, and favors the absorption of vitamin E. And it is widely known that the so-called Mediterranean Diet is high in “good” cholesterol and prevents heart disease.