Our travels today wound through the picturesque Colli Berici, or Berici Hills, south of Vicenza, Italy. Off the well worn tourist track, we encounter only locals out hiking the trails or cycling along these quiet country roads. In addition to vineyards, we are surrounded by many olive orchards. Producers are many, and we of course taste some olive oil as we stop for a snack at a favorite wine bar.
The flavor of olive oil is due to the presence of a large number of chemical compounds. Over one hundred compounds, including alcohols, esters, ketones, aldehydes, and phenols are found in olive oil, and contribute to each a distinctive aroma and flavors. The flavors can range from mild and fresh to grassy, floral, to spicy, with enough peppery piquancy to make one cough.
Many factors play a role in the presence and amount of this compounds. The care exhibited in growing, harvesting, and extracting the oil. If the olives are stored for a long time after harvest, or milled at too high a temperature (this does increase the yield), the flavor degrades. Olives that have been harvested to early also suffer, the highest concentration of the volatile components in olive oil only develop fully in mature olives.
The storing conditions and the age of the oil is also important. With age, the flavor and aroma of the oil decrease. Olive oil should be stored out of direct sunlight, in a sealed and dark container, and used within 30 days of opening.
Finally, the variety, weather, and location of the orchards all play a role as well. Producers of olive oil have the same deep knowledge and appreciation of terrior as a wine maker. They know the optimum place in their orchard for each varietal, how the flavors in each varietal develop on their lands, and suffer through bad years when the weather doesn’t cooperate.
Today we sampled a Colli Berici olive oil side by side with a Sicilian oil – north versus south. The Colli Berici oil was fresh, lighter, with hints of grass. The Sicilian more piquant and peppery. I’d prefer the former to garnish a grilled white fish, the latter on a crostini. So many to enjoy in different ways!