The olive tree is so connected to the Mediterranean civilization, that a Greek myth says that when Zeus had to decide which goddess appointed the town of Athens, between the two contenders Poseidon and Athena, he chose Athena because she had given the humanity the most useful gift: the olive tree. The sacredness of this tree upon the Jewish people is attested by the Bible: a white dove announced the end of the Flood carrying an olive branch in its beak. The gnarled and twisted olive tree, capable to live up to 1,500 years, characterizes the landscape of the warm markets of Mediterranean countries and it is a symbol of their culture.
The origin of the olive tree is so ancient as the Mediterranean civilization. The olive was cultivated in the Mid East area in 5000 BC Phoenicians were trading the olive oil and contributed to diffusion of this "liquid gold" in the other Mediterranean areas, especially in Greece. Greeks probably exported it to Romans who in their turn transplanted the olive trees in their possession in Spain and North Africa. With Romans, olive oil was an important good, so much that they established a kind of stock exchange, the arca olearia, where batches of olive oil were exchanged and the prices fixed. In ancient times, the olive oil was firstly an aliment, but was also used as a medicine and a cosmetic: Greek athletes were used to anoint the body with oil. In the XVIII and XIX centuries, olive oil becomes an important raw material for industry and means also energy for lighting. It is a fundamental asset in the economy of the time.
During the centuries, the olive oil has always kept a relevant place in the cuisine of Mediterranean countries, being generally preferred to butter and other vegetal condiments such as palm and corn oils, more used in the Northern countries. As it is well known, the modern studies in the nutrition field have recognized important qualities to the Mediterranean diet and to the olive oil, which is a fundamental component of this.
Most studies concord that olive oil, which is composed for 98% of oleic acid (a monounsaturated fat), has a positive effect in lowering the bad component cholesterol (LDL) and in increasing the good component (HDL). The beneficial effect of olive oil in protecting the arteries may be imputable not only to its oleic acid component, but also to the numerous and not fully known substances constituting the residual 2% (the non-saponifiable component), which today are intensively studied. Furthermore, several studies conducted in the Mediterranean area are showing a possible positive effect of olive oil in protecting against some of the most common cancers (breast, colon, uterus and prostate). Again, the effect may be due also to the mostly unknown components of the non-oleic part of the olive oil.
The olive oils destined to alimentary use are basically classified in two types on the basis of their acidity:
– extra virgin olive oil (the most demanded) has an acidity not greater than 0.8%
– virgin olive oil (often simply said "olive oil") has an acidity not greater than 2%.
Both types must be produced by a mechanical process called "cold pressing". Apart their unique sweet and spicy taste, these oils are considered the most healthy condiments existing and can be eaten both cooked and raw. In fact, the high smoke point of the extra virgin oil (210 ° C) makes it ideal to fry.
Liguriais one of the few areas (the other ones being in proximity of lakes, such as Garda) in Northern Italy where the olive tree is traditionally cultured. Were the Benedectin monks, during the Middle Age, to provide a great improvement in the olive cultivation. They introduced the renamed quality taggiasca (from the village of Taggia, where a tragedy was founded) and the technique of terracing. The taggiasca olive is mainly diffused in the Imperia province and generally in the whole Western Liguria. It can be considered the queen of the Ligurian oil, since it originates the most of the production, giving the appreciated smooth and soothing oils, with the characteristic final sour taste. Lavagnina, Razzola, Rossese, Lantesca, Olivastrone are the qualities diffused in the Eastern Liguria. They originate delicate oils, but with a more accentuated bitter taste.
The Ligurian oils are protected by the PDO (DOP in Italian) brand Riviera Ligure, with three additional geographical indications: Riviera dei Fiori, Riviera del Ponente Savonese and Riviera di Levante. Of course, you can also find good Ligurian oils without the PDO indication, but the presence of the logo is a clear signal of quality and a guarantee that olives are cultivated and produced in Liguria. It is important to pay attention, because many oils produced in Liguria are made of olives originally generally from Italy: they are not PDO and can not grant the typicity of the flavor. Moreover, there is a very simple way to establish which olive oil is the best to you: pour a spoon of oil in a glass and taste it. Look also at the color and smell. Probably, an expert would consider this a very rough organoleptic exam, but the important it is to begin experiencing with your own senses.
A good Ligurian olive oil should have a yellow color may be with a light tender to green, a slight fruity odor and a sweet taste with a faint bitterness. A bottle of 0.750 ml has a basic price of about 10 Euros, but you can find oils costing the double and even more. The bottles are usually wrapped in the characteristic silver or gold paper, to protect the content from the effect of the light.
Among the PDO oils, the Imperia Province does the lion's share. On a total production of 58 tons, 56 come from Riviera dei Fiori! And they are nearly fully produced with taggiasca olives, the small but very tasty olives typical of the Western Liguria. The olives for the oil production are picked up when they are not fully mature yet. In Liguria, this happens in the late autumn, when they have a purplish color. Traditionally, the farmers put thick nets under the trees and then shake them to make olives to fall. In the Imperia province, the traditional method does not use nets: the branches are beaten and then the olives are basically taken from terrain.
The new crop is celebrated in Imperia (Oneglia) the last week-end of November with a fever dedicated to explore the typical Ligurian flavors. In the East Riviera, the olive oil is celebrated in Moneglia the day after Easter.