Olive oil may seem to be found all over Italy, but most olive oil comes from territories south-west of the Apennines; the north is butter country, where it's too cold to survive outside the warming influence of the larger Italian lakes.
Olive oil is one of the basic components of the vaunted Mediterranean Diet, healthy because the nature of its mono-unsaturated fat and of its wealth of polyphenols, an antioxidant that protects cells from damage and has anti-inflammatory properties.
Olives are harvested in the late fall. Olives are often shaken gently off the trees by the hydraulic olive rake my Tuscan neighbor Enrico is wielding like a modern warrior in the picture above. They fall gently into the nets and are immediately picked up and packed for their journey to the mill.
Many olive oil producing agriturismi have programs to teach you about the process by which olives are harvested and turned into artisinal oil, an oil you are unlikely to find in your generic grocery stores in America, where even "EVOO" or Extra Virgin oils are not what they seem and may not even be entirely composed of olive oil.
An argiturismo that has been a beacon of light in the promotion of fine olive oil is Il Fontanaro in Umbria, producing consistent prize-winning olive oils. They also produce traditional Umbrian products like honey, wine and saffron. We recommend a stay for those interested in the process, and for the culture that's found around Fontanaro. Finally, be sure to visit Madrevite Winery while you're there! There's a lot to learn about food and culture in this establishment, plan on spending at least 5 days.
Cookbook author Pamela Sheldon Johns, author of Cucina Povera (review), also runs Poggio Etrusco, a Tuscany bed and breakfast with an organic olive farm near Montepulciano. In early November she offers “La Raccolta,” a "5-day program where, along with cooking classes and artisan visits, you participate in the olive harvest, watch them pressed at the frantoio, and bring home your own hand-picked olive oil." Through the website you can also order the olive oil they produce (but going there and seeing is much, much better!)
If you find yourself on the Gargano Peninsula in Puglia, you can pop in to Il Trappeto, a wine bar and cantina set inside an olive mill in the romantic town of Vico del Gargano. (Plan a vacation: Gargano Itinerary.)
Extra-Virgin Olive Oil: Finally, The Truth and Nothing But The Truth! - If there was a single page that could be called "everything you wanted to know about Italian Olive Oil" This just might be the one. And yes, large corporations have found ways to make bad olive oil out of good olive oil, which is the reason that the "Extra Virgin" olive oil you get in your American supermarket tastes like absolute crap compared to the farm produced olive oil at that cute B&B in Tuscany you stayed at.
Yes, at markets in Italy you'll find many types of olives that have undergone various curing and marinating techiques. Two of the most unusual are the Green Cerignola olives from Puglai, a mild, lye-cured olive, and the dish called Olive all'Ascolane, giant olives that have been stuffed with a meat mixture, breaded and deep fried. They've been eaten since the 17th century and originated in Ascoli Piceno, a fabulous place to visit in the Marche Region.