History

Oil Intro

Homer called it "liquid gold." In ancient Greece, athletes ritually rubbed it all over their body. Its mystical glow illuminated history. Drops of it seeped into the bones of dead saints and martyrs through holes in their tombs. Olive oil has been more than mere food to the peoples of the Mediterranean: it has been medicinal, magical, an endless source of fascination and wonder and the fountain of great wealth and power. The olive tree, symbol of abundance, glory and peace, gave its leafy branches to crown the victorious in friendly games and bloody war, and the oil of its fruit has anointed the noblest of heads throughout history. Olive crowns and olive branches, emblems of benediction and purification, were ritually offered to deities and powerful figures: some were even found in Tutankhamen's tomb. 

Cultivating the Sacred

Olive culture has ancient roots. Fossilized remains of the olive tree's ancestor were found near Livorno, in Italy, dating from twenty million years ago, although actual cultivation probably did not occur in that area until the fifth century B.C. Olives were first cultivated in the Eastern part of the Mediterranean, in the region known as the "fertile crescent," and moved westwards over the millennia.

Beginning in 5000 B.C. And until 1400 B.C., olive cultivation spread from Crete to Syria, Palestine, and Israel; commercial networking and application of new knowledge then brought it to Southern Turkey, Cyprus, and Egypt. Until 1500 B.C., Greece—particularly Mycenae—was the area most heavily cultivated. with the expansion of the Greek colonies, olive culture reached Southern Italy and Northern Africa in the eighth century B.C., then spread into Southern France. Olive trees were planted in the entire Mediterranean basin under Roman rule. According to the historian Pliny, Italy had "excellent olive oil at reasonable prices" by the first century A.C, "the best in the Mediterranean," he maintained.

In the land of the Hebrews, King Solomon and King David placed great importance on the cultivation of olive trees; King David even had guards watching over the olive groves and warehouses, ensuring the safety of the trees and their precious oil.

Olive trees dominated the rocky Greek countryside and became pillars of Hellenic society; they were so sacred that those who cut one down were condemned to death or exile. In ancient Greece and Rome, olive oil was the hottest commodity; advanced ships were built for the sole purpose of transporting it from Greece to trading posts around the Mediterranean.

The belief that olive oil conferred strength and youth was widespread. In ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, it was infused with flowers and with grasses to produce both medicine and cosmetics; a list was excavated in Mycenae enumerating the aromatics (fennel, sesame, celery, watercress, mint, sage, rose, and juniper among others) added to olive oil in the preparation of ointments.

Olive trees have an almost titanic resistance, a vital force which renders them nearly immortal. Despite harsh winters and burning summers, despite truncations, they continue to grow, proud and strong reaching towards the sky, bearing fruit that nourishes and heals inspires and amazes. Temperate climactic conditions, characterized by warm dry summers and rainy winters, favor plentiful harvests; stone, drought, silence, and solitude are the ideal habitat for the majestic olive tree. Italy and Spain are now the most prolific producers of olive oil, although Greece is still very active. There are about thirty varieties of olives growing in Italy today, and each yields a particular oil with its own unique characteristics. 

Olive Oil Properties

Sun, stone, drought, silence and solitude: these are the five ingredients that, according to Italian folk traditions, create the ideal habitat for the olive tree.

We treasure extra-virgin olive oil for its nutritional and salutary virtues. La Cucina Italiana reports that extra-virgin olive oil is the most digestible of the edible fats: it helps to assimilate vitamins A, D and K; it contains so-called essential acids that cannot be produced by our own bodies; it slows down the aging process; and it helps bile, liver and intestinal functions. It is also valued for its culinary virtues and organoleptic properties as well: flavor (sapore), bouquet (aroma), and color (colore)

Climate, soil, variety of tree (cultivar) and time of harvest account for the different organoleptic properties of different oils. Certain extra-virgin olive oils are blends of varieties of olives; others are made from one cultivar.

The European Community gives the following parameters:

  • Extra-virgin olive oil with perfect taste is oil of the highest quality; it has a minimum organoleptic rating of 6.5 out of 10, low acidity (1% or less), and is untreated.
  • Olive oil has a minimum organoleptic rating of 5.5, a maximum of 2% acidity and is untreated.
  • The production of all other olive oils involves treatments.

Extra-virgin olive oil is produced in all regions of Italy, except Piedmont and Val D'Aosta. The leading producers are Liguria, Tuscany, Umbria, and Apulia. Tuscany produces such a great assortment of extra virgin oils that many do not resemble each other. In Umbria, it is so widely produced that it would be hard to imagine the landscape without the abundance of olive trees. Apulia is home to an impressive one-third of Italy's olive trees.

The price of extra-virgin olive oil varies greatly. Two factors are influential: where the olives are grown and which harvesting methods are implemented. Certain locations yield more bountiful harvests; consequently their oil is sold for less. Olive trees planted near the sea can produce up to 20 times more fruit than those planted inland, in hilly areas like Tuscany. It is in these land-locked areas that the olive trees' habitat is pushed to the extreme; if the conditions were just a little more severe, the trees would not survive. Extra-virgin oils produced from these trees have higher organoleptic scores.

The History

There were ancient writings that noted a liquid much like balsamic called Saba, which came from the Greco, Roman, and Egyptian periods.

Originally Saba was made from Trebbiano and Lambrusco grapes but did include other types of grapes from the region. The grapes were cooked until the liquid became thick and reduced to less than 50%. The Saba was primarily used for sweetening just about anything. It was used with meats dried or cooked, wild bird and game, grain dishes, berries, and as a sweetener with other liquids to drink.

At some point Saba became a lost art as war and other cultural influences became more prevalent. Historical evidence seems to indicate the first signs of aged balsamic vinegar began around 1000 AD. It was valued as a prized possession and a special gift just as well-aged balsamic vinegar is today. It was also used in ancient times as a disinfectant and as a perfect elixir for external and internal use. (It is still used today as a digestive.) 

The Process

The basic process is simple. The grapes are harvested and then cooked down to a "must" (thick almost syrupy liquid) in copper cauldrons. It is then barreled, and here in lies the real secrets of the closely guarded family recipes. It is the type of wood, the aging and transferring of vinegar from barrel to barrel that makes the difference between balsamic vinegars.

Only certain woods like oak, cherry, chestnut, mulberry, acacia, juniper, and ash are used for the barrels. In the beginning there is a mother sauce from which all aged balsamic vinegar begin. A barrel is never completely emptied. There is always a percentage that is left in the original barrel as new balsamic is added to continue the aging process for the newly added younger balsamic vinegar.

Each barrel has a hole to allow for evaporation and for air so that time, change in weather, heat, and cold of the season can work its miracle in the aging and acetification process (the mellowing of the sharp acidic taste). On average the balsamic stays in each barrel for at least a year although that may be part of each families secret recipe. Some balsamic vinegar may remain in some barrels a little longer in the later years to produce heavier notes of certain wooden barrels.

How long it stays in each barrel before being transferred to another barrel and what percentage remains in the original barrel is what gives each balsamic its distinct flavors. We do know that the longer the balsamic stays in the barrel the thicker and sweeter it becomes picking up the nuances of the various woods in the barrels.

The heavier vinegar taste of young balsamic vinegar gives way to a sweeter, syrupy-smooth viscosity. Just a tiny drop of well-aged balsamic vinegar fills the mouth with flavors that are deep and full of mystery that is almost indescribable. It's a taste that should be enjoyed slowly and remembered for the moment.

Points to Remember

Remember that excellent quality aged balsamic vinegar (12 years and older Like Our Condimenti ) should not be governed by price. Like a fine wine know the producer of the balsamic vinegar and their reputation, its origins, type of grapes used, any additives such as sugar, is it aged in wood or stainless steel barrels and for how long, any certifications or awards, and age of the balsamic vinegar.

Last but not least on this little check list: does it meet and adhere to the demanding guidelines set by the Consorzio established in the mid-1970's. (The governing body that oversees the production of and sets the quality standards by which all traditional balsamic vinegars are measured) in Modena, Italy. 

Misconceptions

There is one final misconception regarding balsamic vinegar. Unlike wine, which can age and the complexities change in a bottle; balsamic vinegar stops its aging process. There are no further nuances to pick up from the mother-balsamic vinegar or from the wooden barrels it was stored in. Once it is removed from the barrel and sealed in a glass bottle it will keep for years but will no longer continue the aging process. 

A final note

Keep in mind that there are a number of less expensive aged balsamic vinegars on the market that are quite good just as there are a number of less expensive wines. It is a matter of taste and how you plan to use it. Many younger balsamic vinegars are excellent for cooking and salads, older balsamic vinegars for finishing dishes, and well aged balsamic vinegars from twelve years to 150 years for desserts, aperitifs, digestives and for the shear extravagance and pleasure of enjoying a luxurious flavor that only a few have ever had a chance to experience.