A pantry staple and a classic symbol of Italian food, olive oil comes in many varieties and is most commonly used to dress salad, pasta and pizza and as a cooking agent. Olive oil’s signature ingredient is, of course, the olive, which grows on trees that are plentiful throughout Italy, with southern Italy, including the Mediterranean basin, producing about 80 percent of the country’s total harvest.
In Italy, olives are still hand-picked from the tree or hand-shaken off the branches into nets. After harvest, the oil is produced by mechanically pressing whole olives.
In addition to cooking, olive oil can be used as fuel or in the making of pharmaceuticals and cosmetics.
The wild olive originated in Asia Minor, making its way to Italy during the Middle Ages by trade. Olive tree cultivation, however, was born in the Mediterranean. Olives are green at first, and only through ripening do they darken in colour. There are many different olive oil varieties, which differ by flavour, colour, consistency and acidity.
One of the most sought after olive oil varieties is extra virgin olive oil, which has a low acidity level of less than 0.8 percent and is always tasted for flavour before it reaches the market. Fine or virgin olive oil has an acidity of less than 2 percent and typically uses olives that are very ripe.
Olive oil contains vitamins E and K, and the extra virgin variety is highly antioxidant.
On a global scale, Italy produces about 25 percent of the world’s olive oil, or about 425,000 metric tons annually. Italy has 2.5 million acres of olive trees, or 13 percent of the global acreage.
The average Italian consumes 48 cups of olive oil each year. In the U.K., about 62,000 tons of olive oil is consumed annually by about half of all households, making it the world’s sixth biggest importer of this classic Italian product. Though the U.K. consumes far less olive oil than Italy, olive oil use has grown nearly 300% since the 1970s.