What Makes Extra Virgin Olive Oil Great?

Tuscan View

So, what makes Tuscan Extra Virgin Olive Oil special?
* Elevation (in Guido’s case 250-290 meters or 820-950 feet above sea level)
* Soil (“Alberese” or medium textured soil combined with clay)
* Tuscan Climate (perfect for olive oil)
* Drainage (hills are appropriately sloped)
* Size of olives and trees (on the smaller side – best for rich olive oil)
* Timing of the harvest (Oct-Dec, Guido harvests early for the highest quality oil)
* Harvested by hand (preserves olives)
* Immediate pressing (within 24 hours of picking maintains a low peroxide level)
* Cold press method (temperature kept between 25-28C preserves quality)
* Oil is extracted from the first pressing only

It’s olive oil time. Troy and I are full of anticipation as we make our way to our second stop on our working farm tour, Guido Gualandi’s farm in Tuscany.

After we train to Florence and bus through the hills of Tuscany, we arrive in a little town called Poppiano. The rainy season is in full force and we stomp through puddles as we approach Guido’s house.

The Gualandi farm house has a history dating back to the turn of the first millennium. It is located in the hills surrounding the medieval Castello di Poppiano (which was likely built as as an external defense for the city of Florence). Guido’s home was originally owned by the Guicciardini family and used for farmers who worked the olive groves. The Extra Virgin Olive Oil made from Guido’s land has been tasted by royalty for nearly nine centuries.

The view of this landscape is quintessential Tuscany – rows of vineyards, olive groves and spears of Cyprus trees. I feel like I am looking at a painting.

Castello di Poppiano

Guido owns seven hectares in this region of Tuscany called Chianti Colli Fiorentini (approximately 17 acres). This area is known for some of the best Chianti wine and Extra Virgin Olive Oil in the country. Guido produces approximately 1,500 liters of wine (seven varieties) and 1,000 liters of olive oil per year.

He is often referred to as a Renaissance man because he uses the exact techniques that have been perfected over centuries. His products are organic and made with great respect for the environment. He literally makes wine by hand “I think that I am the only one left in Italy”; and his olive oil is also harvested and bottled by hand.

The Wine & Oil Man, Guido

Guido’s products are as good to the taste buds as they are to the environment. He has garnered acclaim from the James Beard Foundation and wine researchers around Europe.

Troy and I are here for the olive harvest. According to our research, this area produces some of the best olive oil in the world. It is full bodied and tastes of fresh grass, artichokes and eggplant. It is actually neon green when freshly pressed. As Guido says “the greener the better”.

If you have not yet tasted fresh olive oil, add it to your list of things to do before you die. There is nothing quite like it.

The reasons for its amazing flavor can be explained by geographic location as well as the traditions used to produce it.

The locals take enormous pride in their olive oil. It is almost a religion. It is fresh olive oil season and it feels like Christmas. The energy is palpable. Trattoria signs adorn the sidewalks “Olio Nuovo” (new olive oil here). Guido asks “have you ever tasted fresh olive oil?” Sadly we have not and can’t wait to become part of this tradition.

The affinity shared among Tuscan people for their olive oil reminds me of Notre Dame football fans. The olive oil in Tuscany is THE way olive oil should be – rich, bold, spicy and green.

According to Tuscan Olive Oil fans, oil in the South of Italy is too oily (because the olive/trees are too big and harvested too late) and oil in the North is too subtle, light and yellow (due to the soil). It’s easy to see the obvious bias, but I love the passion and tend to agree.

Troy and I can’t wait to get our hands dirty harvesting olives. We break out layers of field clothes and brace ourselves for some serious labor. The weather is clearing; it’s time to pick olives.

I hope you are as excited as we are to learn about some of the BEST olive oil in the world.

Next… videos, photos and blog posts on each part of this age-old process.

Part I - Harvesting Olives by Hand
Part II - At the Press, Turning Olives into Olive Oil
Part IIIBottling Olive Oil by Hand

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2 Comments

  1. Posted December 1, 2010 at 10:15 am | Permalink

    Thanks for writing about this area and the harvest. We love the olive oils from that area, including Castello di Poppiano Laudemio. Which “label” was being produced when you toured?

    • Posted December 3, 2010 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

      You are so welcome Luanne. We are actually participating in the olive harvest for several weeks here in Tuscany. We are at Guido Gualandi’s farm which used to be part of the Castello di Poppiano, so the oil will likely taste similar to the oil you mentioned from Poppiano. The label we are working with is Guido Gualandi. So glad that you wrote and thank you for being part of our foodie community!

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