Olives have been a staple of the human diet for thousands of years. They were first cultivated by the Assyrians, who figured out that these hard fruits could be eaten and used for oil. That was over 8000 years ago, and since that time, the bush that the Assyrians would have known has been cultivated into the olive trees we see today. Olive trees come in many varieties and grow well in the same climate as grapes. Perhaps that is why these two staples seem to go hand in hand, especially in Tuscany, where it is hard to find a vineyard that doesn’t have at least some olive trees. Delicious, versatile olives can range in color from green, to purple, to red or brown. They can also have completely different flavors – in both the olive and the finished oil. Below are five of the most famous oils and olives you are likely to find when visiting Italy.
Grown all across Italy, but believed to have originated in Tuscany, this is one of the most popular olive varieties in the world. As an oil, these olives produce an extremely mild flavor and golden color. The olives are green to black at harvest and the trees grow well in cooler climates, like those found in Northern Italy. The finished oil is often blended with other oils to create a more robust flavor. If you’ve had Tuscan oil, you’ve almost certainly sampled Leccino, as it is extreemly popular in this region.
Second to Leccino, Frantoio olives are some of the most common in Italy, especially in Tuscany. These olives are fruity and leave a stronger aftertaste than the mild Leccino olives. The oil is an intense green, with a buttery finish. Frequently Frantoio and other light oils are blended together, which creates something soft, pleasant, and easy to cook with oil.
Another olive that originated in Tuscany, these olive trees grow in central Italy, throughout Tuscany and Umbria. When the olives are picked they, are a vivid black-violet color. After pressing, the Moraiolo oil is bitter and spicy and is wonderful for adding extra flavor to blends. Moraiolo is most often found mixed with other oil types from the same region including, Frantoio and Leccino, which creates a delicious, flavorful and multidimensional product.
Known as “Nocellara del Belice” from the Valle del Belice area of Sicily, these large green olives have a mild flavour and are used to make the Valle del Belice DOP olive oil. The oil is characterized by a fruity taste, lightly spicy and with a slight aftertaste of almonds and tomatoes. They are also pickled as an eating olive called Castelvetrano.
Coratina olives are found in the south of Italy, mainly in Puglia and Basilicata. These olives are green, fruity and the oil they produce has an intense green color. The oil is spicy and a touch bitter which pairs pleasantly with meat and hearty Tuscan dishes like ribollita. If you like more flavorful oil, you will likely enjoy a Coratina – for example try Dievole’s pure Coratina EVOO.
There are countless other varieties and blends of oil and olives in Italy, and even throughout the world. Interestingly also, just because you’re in Tuscany, doesn’t mean the oil you’re eating is necessarily from that region. Because of the complex process of blending flavors, you can easily eat and enjoy oils from all over Italy. Therefore, even if you’ve never been to Puglia, there is no reason your taste buds can’t go and enjoy the special flavors to be found there. Oil and olives are a great way to “travel” around Italy, without ever leaving your home!