Starting at the bottom

Olio di sansa e di oliva is the lowest grade oil. The sansa says it all. It is the dregs of the olive oil industry – the dry residue that is dumped in a smelly, fermenting heap outside the olive mill. The sansa is carted off to a factory where the small amount of remaining oil is extracted with solvents and treated with chemicals to convert it to “barely edible”. The olio di sansa is blended with some olio di oliva and sold as the cheapest grade on the bottom shelf of the supermarket.

While the experts argue about whether or not it should be banned for human consumption, our advice is to leave it alone.

Outside Italy the sansa on the label is often changed to “pomace”, which means nothing in English either. If consumers realised it is really oil from mill waste, sales would probably collapse.

A step up

Olio di oliva is low-grade oil that has been produced from chemical treatment of an olive oil with a natural acidity of more than 2 per cent. The high acidity is due to the degradation of the oil. After processing with chemicals the acidity is low – in tests conducted in Italy by Altoconsumo most olio di oliva had less than 0.5 per cent acidity.

Unfortunately the treatment of the oil also destroys the flavour and vitamin content. Some is replaced by blending in a small amount of quality oil, but overall olio di oliva is bland. It is useful for high-temperature cooking as the flavour of all oil is boiled off with excessive heat.

Outside Italy this grade is usually called “olive oil”, which is simple and honest. Occasionally it is called “extra light olive oil”. In the food industry “light” usually means a product that has been diluted with water and detergents to reduce the calorie content, but with olive oil it means a pale colour and less flavour. This grade is also called “pure olive oil”. On the purity scale olio di oliva is mid-way between sansa and extravergine.

Untreated oil

If the oil flowing from the spout at the olive mill has less than 2 per cent acidity it can legally be sold direct to the public without chemical treatment. Oil with 1 per cent to 2 per cent acidity is called olio vergine di oliva – the ghost grade. It appears in all the books and magazine articles on olives but not in the shops. We saw a bottle of vergine in London some years ago, but never in Italy. In the trade vergine oil is blended down to improve olio di oliva or up to make the extravergine go further.

The top of one ladder

If the oil from the spout has less than 1 per cent acidity it is called olio extravergine di oliva. You have reached the top of one ladder. This is the best technical classification for olive oil. However, a new ladder based on flavour takes you up to better and more expensive oils.

Supermarket shelves are groaning with reasonably priced extravergine oils which meet the legal requirements on acidity but pack such an insignificant flavour punch that one wonders what all the fuss is about.

Discovering flavour

Flavour is a much more nebulous concept than the simple measurement of acidity, and is based on individual preferences. Expert oil tasters, like wine tasters, have a string of exaggerated terms to describe olive oil, but a simple starting point is the division between dolce and amaro oils.

Unfortunately dolce has been translated as “sweet”. In fact the oil does not contain sugar and a better description would be “soft”. Amaro has been translated as “bitter” but we prefer the term “spicy” or “with bite”. Generally, but not universally, the dolce oils come from Liguria and the amaro oils from the hills and mountains of Tuscany, Umbria and the Marche.

Searching for the origin of the oil

First ignore the address on the label. Most of the oil on the Italian market comes from bottlers based in Milan or Lucca. Lombardy does not produce a significant quantity of olive oil. Lucca is one of the top producing areas in Tuscany but it is also a huge centre for blending and bottling. A Lucca address on the label is no guarantee the oil came from there.

Some olive oil is labelled with the region – Umbria for example. This is a good starting point but the system of regional labels is relatively new and only used by a minority of producers. It is also too general. A Tuscan oil from the seaside at Grosseto is completely different from one produced in the foothills of the Apennines.

Storage and use

Unlike wine, bright light does more damage to olive oil than air. Some oil is sold in dark bottles for this reason but it is lovely to enjoy the glorious green colour of a fresh oil in a clear bottle. Keep the oil in a dark place for longer term storage but do not be extreme.

The flavour of a quality oil softens with time. For a dolce oil this process is rapid and the oil should be consumed in the first few months after the November harvest. For amaro oils the flavour lasts for one to two years. In fact some people find the fresh oil too strong and leave it to soften for a few months.

Quality oils should be used on cold and warm foods. Salads, pasta, soup, bruschetta and steamed vegetables are all enhanced by the liberal addition of quality olive oil. These foods are at less than 100?C when the oil is added and its flavour and vitamins remain intact. Where the oil is heated to higher temperatures for frying or roasting the flavour will be boiled off and the vitamins degraded.

Some personal recommendations

As Umbri by adoption and amaro addicts by inclination, we cannot help with the dolce oils. A good example of an Umbrian amaro comes from Sportoletti. The cantina and frantoio are located between Spello and Assisi but the olives are grown in the high country well above the Tiber valley.

From Tuscany we suggest Villa Capezzana. The olives and frantoio are near Carmignano in the hills above Prato.

Brian and Lynne Chatterton are olive growers in Umbria.

E-mail: blchatterton@tiscalinet.it.