MH-Much like grapes and wine, olives and their oil are an influential part of Italy's economy and lifestyle. The growth of olives is primarily centered in the countries that surround the Mediterranean Sea. Even the scientific name, Olea europaea, points to the olive's strong grip on European countries with its meaning, "Oil tree of Europe." Italy alone produces over 500,000 metric tons of oil each year, and is not even the world's leading oil producer. The fact that the oil itself takes up only about 20% of the total weight of all the olives harvested shows just how many olive trees are scattered about the Italian landscape.
Used for thousands of years, olive trees have been referenced all throughout history in many different countries. Valued not only for the taste, oil had numerous other uses. In religious ceremonies it was used for baptism or anointment. Almost viewed as a magical elixir, it was used to cure ailments and was rubbed into the skin. Today, it is mostly used for its delicious properties, and in the recent past, as fuel for lamps.
Something I was unaware of until this trip, was that the different labels on olive oils actually distinguish quality and other properties of the oils. For instance, "virgin" means that there was no heat or chemicals used in production. Also, one step above that is "extra virgin" meaning that there is a lower acidity. Consequently, extra virgin is the best you can buy, and it is pure, unrefined, and has a taste considered to be superior to other olive oils. You can purchase oils that are not considered to be virgin, and instead they are termed, "Pure" or simply, "Olive oil." These are blends and do not have quite as good of a taste but can still be used in cooking.
Throughout our trip, the importance of olives in the Italian culture has been quite obvious. We have traveled to many different cities over the past few weeks, but wherever you go, the olive will follow. Whether it is olive wood kitchen products in Sorrento, or an olive tree magnet in a Tabacchi around Castiglion, it is clear the Italians love their olives. As we travel by train or bus to different places around Italy, countless groves of olive trees can be seen rolling across the terrain. Pictured, is one from our own backyard at Santa Chiara.