It's time for new oil: 2021 oil guide – Italian Cuisine


AND new oil season. Given the tensions in the world, it would be nice if it were always time for olive trees. For Christians and Jews – we know this since childhood – the twig is biblical symbol of peace and well-being. But the tree is also important for Muslims: in the Koran it is considered a source of light in the heavens and on the earth, specifying that it is neither in the West nor in the East but exactly in the center of the cosmos, where it symbolically expresses the conjunction and the balance between Earth, Heaven and Underworld. None plant is so rooted in history and culture. «The peoples of the Mediterranean – wrote Thucydides in the 5th century BC. – they began to emerge from barbarism when they learned to grow olives and vines ". However, it is not necessary to disturb ancient myths and stories to talk about the miracle ofcooking oil. Meanwhile, because olive juice (this is nothing more than an extraordinary natural fruit juice) is the healthiest of foods, obtained solely and exclusively from the simple pressing of the olive.

new oil
Photo Alessandro Moggi.

The numerous Italian varieties

What makes it exceptional – and always different – are the variety of which Italy boasts the primacy as a demonstration of biodiversity that our long and narrow territory gives us: 533 native cultivars against, for example, just 70 in Spain, world leader in terms of quantity of oil produced, and 52 in Greece, the home of the first olive trees. We have the record in Europe of Dop (42) and Igp (7). Each variety – transformed into extra virgin olive oil – has a clear identity and, we could say, its mission in enhancing this or that dish. As with wine, you should have the practice of combining food and oil well, because the right drop can enhance a recipe or, on the contrary, turn off some flavor.

We see only the most used cultivars. Ligurian oil – il Taggiasco, especially – is very soft, light, ideal for not overdoing delicate preparations. Versatile is the Tuscan Frantoio with a beautiful green color with yellowish notes, with an intense medium-strong flavor that refers to artichoke and thistle on a dry almond base. Tuscan and at the same time Apulian is the Leccino, with vegetal scents and dark color, faint in bitter and spicy flavors; it is recommended on fish and white meats. Let's stay in Puglia with the bitterness, the sensations of toasted almonds and the spiciness of the very common Coratina; ideal on cooked vegetables and meat. In Sicily I have always been in the race Nocellara del Belice in the West and the Tonda Iblea in the East; in both cases it is an exaltation of intense flavors and aromas: wild herbs, sometimes citrusy with notes of green tomato for the Nocellara; harmony between freshly cut grass, artichoke, almond and natural aromas for the Tonda Iblea. Both are extraordinary in enriching first courses or enhancing peasant soups.

What are the adjectives to describe oil?

Round, sweet, harmonious, fruity, are positive adjectives for oil. But we also learn to appreciatebitter and spicy. They are marked flavors only in the best extra virgin, because they show a good presence of polyphenols, the natural antioxidants that are more than good for our body. Bitter and spicy also tell us a lot about the producer's abilities: 1) if it is late in harvesting, the olives will be too sweet because they are excessively ripe; 2) the correct extraction of the oil is carried out with cold milling to preserve the integrity of the olive; 3) in the blends we try to insert cultivars rich in polyphenols.
Quality negative are instead rancid (oxidized because exposed to air), dusty (stale taste), vinous (due to the fermented olives before pressing), moldy (when the olives have remained on the ground for too long).

The 2021 budget

Without prejudice to the skill of farmers and oil millers, what does the 2021-2022 oil campaign? This year too, the quality should be good for exactly the same reason that the quantities in many areas will be scarce: the persistent drought has not made the olives ripen, but has prevented the development of the oil fly and other parasites. Overall the Italian production should grow by 15% (315 million kilos, compared to 273.5 million last year), but with the country split in two: South well, North very badly, so-so Center. Puglia will be the queen of the vintage, with 140 thousand tons, almost half of the national production; Calabria and Sicily paired at 30-35 thousand tons, stable compared to 2020. Basilicata, Molise and Abruzzo are doing well, with double-digit growth. And here the good news ends. The further north you go, the more the drops are consistent: -20 / 25% in Campania and Lazio, -30 / 40% in Umbria and Tuscany, -80% in Garda and Trentino, -40% in Liguria; Sardinia is saved with a -10%. In short, olive growing Italy smiles, but does not celebrate, as does Portugal (a record year). Spain is disappointed, Greece assumes the worst harvest since the war; Turkey is satisfied as in 2020. Morocco and Tunisia, on the African Mediterranean coast, return to the levels of two years ago after the bad last season.

Ancient and new lands of oil

Ficus, Olea and Vitis – handed down by Pliny the Elder – were in the center of the Roman Forum. Two thousand years later, 189 olive trees planted between the Arch of Titus and the Colosseum and grown organically give us thePalatine oil, a very respectable fruity extra virgin olive oil. The new frontiers of Italian extra virgin olive oil are on the one hand the recovery of the ancient territories and, on the other, the planting of new olive groves, taking advantage of climate change. The case of Piedmont is significant: for some years the thermal rise has been pushing many young people to plant olive groves in the areas of Pinerolo, Monferrato and Canavese. The cultivated hectares are still just 250 with a production this year of about 800 quintals of oil from the Leccina, Frantoio, Pendolino cultivars. Picholine, a French variety that resists the cold well, is also being tested.

Cover photo by Sergio Ramazzotti.

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