Like other Mediterranean countries, Italy’s history is intimately linked to three key plants: wheat, vines and olives. Cultivated across Italy for thousands of years, these three crops provide the raw products needed for the four pillars of modern Italian cuisine: pasta, bread, wine and olive oil.
The history of olive oil in Italy
Italy has some of the oldest surviving olive trees in the world (some of them have been going strong for an estimated 3000-4000 years), but olive oil has been around for much longer than this, since at least 4,000 BC. It was initially the ancient Greeks who dominated olive oil production, with olive trees first introduced into southern Italy around 800 BC as Greece expanded its colonies across the Mediterranean.
They thrived, outlasting the influence of the ancient Greeks, and by the time of the Roman Empire, olive oil production had taken hold, with groves spread across Italy. The Romans revered olive oil, using it liberally in their cooking, and also as a remedy and a moisturiser. Olive oil even became an important symbol within the Roman Catholic Church – to this day, it’s used to anoint the heads of the baptised. Ever since, olive oil has been a key feature of Italian cuisine, culture and daily life.
How is olive oil made in Italy?
Whether in Italy or elsewhere, the process of making olive oil has actually changed very little in the last few thousand years:
- Olives are easily damaged, so they are often still harvested by hand (by vigorously shaking the branches until the olives fall into a waiting net).
- Next, the olives are taken to a mill, known in Italy as a frantoio.
- Here, the olives are washed and pressed, either in a special steel machine or between giant granite stones.
- The pressed olives produce a mix of oil and juice, from which the oil is separated.
- Olive oil from this first pressing is known as extra virgin olive oil. Over two-thirds of the olive oil produced in Italy is extra virgin olive oil.
Types of Italian olive oil
Italy has millions of acres of land dedicated to olive oil production, with 18 of its 20 regions producing their own olive oil. Italian olive oil is particularly notable for its variety, with each region cultivating and pressing oil from olives that are specific to that area. Italy itself is home to over 500 different varieties of olive, and these differences are reflected in the final product: olive oils from northern Italy tend to be delicate and mild; ones from central Italy are often stronger and more grassy; and those from the south (where most of Italy's olive oil production happens) are typically more peppery. Today, the characteristics of more than 30 different Italian olive oils are protected in law – known in Italy as DOP.
Olive oil in Italian cuisine
Although Italians do eat butter, particularly in the north of the country, olive oil is the undisputed foundation of Italian cuisine. Whether used for frying (like in this aubergine parmigiana recipe), braising (as in this artichoke tagliatelle) or sauce-making (like a classic Italian pesto), olive oil is a cornerstone of Italian cooking. Indeed, many Italians see olive oil as the single most important kitchen staple, as well as ingredient in itself. Because of this, they’re much more willing to pay a premium for good quality extra virgin olive oil – sourced, of course, from Italy’s many olive groves. The logic goes that good olive oil is a condiment, fat and ingredient all rolled into one, and so is worth splashing out on.
Italian olive oil: frequently asked questions
Can you cook with extra virgin olive oil?
It’s a commonly spread myth that you can’t cook with extra virgin olive oil. As long as you don’t heat it past smoking point (between 190–207°C), extra virgin olive oil is suitable for a whole range of culinary uses – from frying to braising and roasting. Indeed, many Italians will keep two bottles of extra virgin olive oil in the kitchen: one ‘everyday’ extra virgin olive oil, which is used for cooking, plus a bottle of the best extra virgin olive oil they can afford, which is used for drizzling, dressing and dousing.
Should you add olive oil to pasta water?
Put simply, no. It’s often claimed that adding olive oil to your pasta water will stop the pasta sticking together, but this isn’t true. All it’ll do is make your pasta slippery, which means it’ll be much harder for your sauce to coat the cooked pasta. The best way to stop pasta sticking is to cook it in enough water in the first place (1 litre of water for every 100g of pasta). You should also stir the water as soon as you add the pasta, and at regular intervals whilst it cooks.
Do Italians put olive oil on pasta?
Whilst you won’t catch any self-respecting Italians adding olive to their pasta water, it’s a different story once the pasta is cooked. Italians often use olive oil (specifically extra virgin olive oil) to dress cooked pasta. This can be as simple as a liberal drizzle over a finished pasta dish, but the most famous example is pasta aglio e olio, or pasta with olive oil and garlic. This simple dish elevates a handful of ingredients into something much greater than its parts, so it’s key to use the best extra virgin olive oil you can lay your hands on.
Do Italians dip bread in olive oil and balsamic vinegar?
Although you might be used to a pre-dinner snack of bread, olive oil and balsamic vinegar at home or in your local Italian restaurant, it’s not actually an Italian tradition. In Italy, bread is typically eaten with other food (although not with other starchy foods like pasta, rice or polenta). Even though bread is nearly always brought to the table when you sit down to eat in Italy, the idea is that you’ll save this for later in your meal. In fact, many Italians find the idea of bread, olive oil and balsamic before a meal doubly offensive – not only are you filling up on bread before the main event, but you’re also ruining your taste buds with the acidic vinegar.
Is there much difference between Greek, Spanish or Italian olive oil?
The flavour and colour of olive oil varies by country and region, due to differences in the olives that are used, the soil they were grown in and the climate they were exposed to. Because of Spain’s temperate climate, Spanish olive oil tends to be more yellow than Italian and Greek olive oils, which typically have a darker, greener hue. Flavour-wise, Greek olive oil is generally milder and more delicate than Spanish olive oil, which is fruitier, and Italian olive oil, which is more herbal.