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What You Never Knew About Olives And Olive Oil

21 Interesting Facts To Know

About Olives And The Best Olive Oil in Italy

Olives have been an integral part of life in Italy for generations -- especially in rural Central Italy where I live. The climate, soil and topography here are ideal for growing olive trees.

Just down the road from my place in Spello, the old Roman town of Trevi is surrounded by over 300,000 olive trees. I can tell you from first-hand experience that harvesting olives from that many trees is a huge amount of labor-intensive work.

Trevi is home to the fascinating Museum of the Olive Tree (Museo della Civilita’ dell’Ulivo). Located in an old Convent of Saint Francis which was built in the 13th Century, the building architecture is also interesting. It is has the distinction of being the first public museum in Italy and in Europe dedicated to olive oil and olive trees.

View Of Trevi, Italy In The Spring

View Of Trevi, Italy In The Spring

For the last several years I have volunteered to help some good friends with their annual olive harvest. They own a 70-tree olive grove (oliveto) located just outside of Spello. On our lunch break we all got talking about olives and the conversation sparked my interest in learning more about olives and olive oil in Italy.

Here are some of the things that I discovered:

Oldest Olives Trees In The World, In Italy, and My Region of Umbria

1. The first olive trees were first cultivated in the Mediterranean about 7,000 years ago on the border between present-day Turkey and Syria. Read more HERE and HERE.

2. The oldest olive tree in Umbria and perhaps the oldest olive tree in Italy is located in the nearby town of Trevi which is about 12 miles (20 kilometers) from where I live. This tree is known as the Olive of Sant’Emiliano and is said to be on the spot where the first Bishop of Trevi and its Patron Saint was martyred in 304 AD during the age of the Roman Emperor Diocletian.

Ancient Olive Tree Of Sant’Emiliano in Trevi

The 1,700 Year Old

Ancient Olive Tree Of Sant’Emiliano in Trevi

For more information, click HERE and HERE.

3. There are an estimated 130 million olive trees in Italy, slightly more than

2 trees per resident.

4. In the Central Italy region of Umbria, there are a total of 5.5 million trees – a little over 6 trees per resident. Umbria produces a relatively large amount of olive oil relative to its population.

Map of Italy

Umbria Is Located In The Center of Italy

Just 2 Hours From Rome & Florence

Extra Virgin & Cold-Pressed Olive Oil

5. Mature olive trees produce only 3-to-4 liters of olive oil per tree (a little less than one US gallon). This is one reason why good olive oil is so expensive.

6. Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO) is the least-processed olive oil. This oil is “cold- processed”, meaning that no heat is involved in extracting the oil from the olives.

Olives are ground up into a paste, cold-pressed and then circulated through a centrifuge (which runs at a speed of 5,000 revolutions per minute) to extract the olive oil.

EVOO is the best quality oil and it retains its healthy natural antioxidants and vitamins due to cold pressing.

7. Regular olive oil is a blend of both cold pressed and processed oil. The oil is lighter colored and is just called “olive oil”.

8. If you want to try and eat a raw olive, good luck! Raw olives possess an awful bitter taste. When you bite into a raw olive, you will want to immediately spit it out. However, when olives are converted via centrifuge into olive oil, the taste changes completely.

Olive Varieties

Olive Varieties

9. There are over 500 different varieties of olives throughout the world. Since Italy is fortunate to have a wide variety of microclimates, the vast majority of these olive varieties can be found someplace within Italy.

10. Roughly 90% of all olive oil produced in the world comes from only 45 varieties of olives.

11. The five most popular varieties of olives in Italy are: Leccino, Frantoio, Moraiolo, Nocellara and Coratina. The first three varieties are prevalent in my area (Regione).

An Olive Grove Outside Of Spello, Italy

An Olive Grove Outside Of Spello, Italy

Leccino olives have a delicate, captivating flavor. They have the smell of freshly cut grass, almond, and a mild, spicy peppery ending flavor.

Frantoio olives have an artichoke like flavor combined with freshly cut grass, and a stronger peppery after-taste.

Moraiolo olives have a slightly bitter taste with some spiciness, but with a fruity floral aroma. This oil is a beautiful liquid forest green color. Both the taste and smell convey a wonderful strong aroma of pepper, cut grass and citrus.

Most olive oils are blended with different olives to give a more balanced flavor.

Where Olive Oil Is Produced

12. Spain is the largest producer of olive oil in the world, followed by Italy. Surprisingly, France has few olive trees in comparison to Italy (only 3.5 million trees compared with an estimated 130 million in Italy) and France produces very little olive oil.

13. One-third of all olive oil imported into the USA comes from Italy.

14. Olives are grown in the USA as well. They are grown in seven states: California, Arizona, Texas, Georgia, Florida, Oregon and Hawaii.

15. Italy annually produces between 12-to-20 times more olive oil than in the US, depending upon each year’s crop yield.

Ripe Black Olives

Ripe Black Olives Ready To Pick

16. About 80% of Italian olive oil is produced in Southern Italy, with only 2% here in Umbria.

17. The amount of olive oil produced in Italy has been declining in recent years due to adverse weather patterns and an olive tree disease called Xylella Fastidiosa that first appeared in Southern Italy. The disease is slowly moving northward. So far, we have not had any cases in Central Italy but cases have been reported in France, Germany and Spain.

You can learn more HERE.

Best Olive Oil In The World

18. There are approximately 5,000 olive mills (frantoio) where they convert olives into olive oil. Today, a modern frantoio utilizes a number of high-tech methods to process olives. Olive mills use: forklifts, conveyor belts, an olive washing and drying machine, a mashing machine that mashes the olives into a paste, and finally a centrifuge which separates water and other impurities from the olive oil.

19. Umbria is a small producer of olive oil but what it makes is of exceptionally high quality. Umbria has won numerous competitions for the quality of its olive oil.

A Local Olive Oil Tasting Area

A Local Olive Oil Tasting Area

20. Overall, Italy produces some of the highest quality and best olive oil in the world. Italy consistently wins the largest or second largest number of awards in world competitions.

Italy was the top winner followed by Spain at the 2020 New York International Olive Oil Competition which is considered the most prestigious competition in the world. Interestingly, the US placed a distant third in the competition.

You can learn more about the New York International Olive Oil Competition HERE.

21. Local, award-winning olive oil producers include:

These three olive oils are my personal favorites because they share a light peppery taste but are also all slightly different from each other.

I first discovered Gaudenzi’s olive oil years ago when I read an article in the US Airways Magazine about the top 100 olive oils in the world. Gaudenzi will let you sample their oil over bruschetta -- or in the purest form in a small cup -- in their rustic tasting room.

All three of these Umbrian olive oils have won numerous awards over the years for the quality of their olive oil.

Italian Vocabulary:

EVOO – Extra Virgin Olive Oil - This is not really Italian but it is a common anacronym used for Extra Virgin Olive Oil which is the highest quality oil. The quality of the olive oil varies by the type of olive, altitude, time of the harvest and the process to extract the oil from the olive. EVOO is required to have no more than 0.8% acidity and is viewed as being more flavorful.

Frantoio – This is the place where you take your olives to be processed into olive oil. There are over 5,000 frantoi (plural of Frantoio) in Italy. Some frantoi are co-operatively owned by individual cities throughout Italy and some are privately owned businesses as well.

Museo - Museum. It seems that almost every town in Umbria has a museum -- no matter how small. My town of Spello which is smaller town, has four museums. It seems like there are museums in Umbria for every type of personal interest.

Olio d’OlivaOlive oil

Oliveto – A group of olive trees in a particular olive grove. What is interesting and different from the U.S. is that an oliveto is defined by the number of olive trees rather than the particular size or dimensions of the olive grove. When you buy an oliveto in Italy, you buy a specific number of trees rather than the size or acreage of a specific property.

Regione - These are roughly equivalent to states in the U.S. These are further divided into provinces. There are a total of 20 regions (the plural is regioni) in Italy.

Ulivo – An olive tree. Ulivi is the plural for olive trees.

Xylella Fastidiosa – It is a bacteria and plant pathogen which has killed millions of olive trees in Southern Italy. There is currently no known cure.


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