Olive oil is a staple of the Mediterranean diet, widely recognized for its important health benefits. It is also rich in benefits to the palate, adding a pungent flavor and pleasing texture to soups, stews, meats and vegetables. Cooks who are unfamiliar with the versatility of olive oil may think of it only a medium for sautéing or frying food, but high quality olive oil is so delectable that it is best enjoyed at room temperature. One of the first things to do when settling in to your Florence apartment is to enjoy a bite of olio nuovo (new oil) with a piece of crusty bread. Be careful — the peppery sharpness of the new oil means it might bite back. Coughing is a good sign that it is rich in healthy polyphenols.
Harvested in October and November, the olives from Tuscany’s trees yields a world-famous olio nuovo. The olives are rinsed and pressed within hours of being picked. Similar to wine, olive oil varies in color and taste from one region of the Mediterranean to another, and even from one farm to another. In Tuscany, some of the best oils come from the Chianti region, and are known to be dark green and very spicy, hinting at artichoke and pepper.
One reason for this variation is that Tuscany’s trees are not as tall as those that grow in southern Italy. Many Tuscan farmers prefer to hand gather their olives while they are still green. The advantage is that the oil generated during pressing is much less acidic. Extra virgin olive oil, widely regarded as the highest quality, cannot contain more than 1 percent acid. When olives are allowed to ripen and darken on the trees, falling to the ground to be collected by nets, the acid content is much higher, negatively affecting texture and flavor.
Olive Oil Tastings and Tours
One way to experience the green flavor of Tuscany’s new olive oil is to tour one of the region’s olive oil mills. Most mills which are open to the public for tasting feature educational displays to inform visitors about the production process, from the life cycle of the olive tree to modern techniques for blending and storing the oil. Notably, many of the vineyards around Florence which host wine tasting also feature olive oil tastings, since the estates which produce grapes often produce olives.
Just as the bite of the polyphenol-rich olio nuovo lingers on the palate, your purchase of the year’s new olive oil will be a lasting reminder of the agricultural wealth of Tuscany, and an essential complement to the kitchen of all apartments in Tuscany. Deep into the winter months when the weather does not tempt people outside, a bite of olio nuovo will recall the milder seasons of spring, summer and autumn.