Between now and mid-November, it’s olive harvest time in Tuscany – a labor-intensive process done entirely by hand using an instrument that ‘combs’ the olives from the trees. This old method is still preferred since mechanical harvesters can damage the olives, and they say that one bruised olive can ruin an entire barrel of oil.
Often referred to as ‘green gold’, Tuscan olive oil is special for many reasons. For one thing, the olives are harvested while they’re still green because of the danger of early frosts. (In more southern parts of Italy the harvest can be as late as January.) Less ripe olives yield less oil (around 200 olives per liter of oil), making Tuscan oil more hard to come by and also giving it its prized peppery taste.
As soon as they’re harvested the olives are rushed to the frantoio, or oil press. Speed is essential to avoid the risk of oxidation or fermentation, which would make the oil taste rancid. The olives are crushed, then further processed to separate the oil from the water, and the fresh, fragrant oil is poured into traditional terracotta jugs or more modern steel tanks. It is then left to sit for 30 to 40 days before being filtered and bottled.
If you’re buying Tuscan olive oil, you need to make sure it’s the real thing. Check that the label says Extra Virgin (less that 0.3% free fatty acid content) or Virgin (less than 2% acidity) olive oil, grown and produced in Tuscany. Also make sure that it comes in a dark green bottle. This is to help prevent breakdown caused by light. No Tuscan oil producer would ever sell his oil in a clear bottle.
And, remember, unlike some wines, olive oil does not improve with time. It’ll be at its best for only a year. Keep it in a cool dark place, tightly sealed. It’s special, so be sure to enjoy it at its most delicious!