Olive oil, the liquid gold of Umbria

Olive harvest at La Rogaia

Olive harvest at La Rogaia. Photo: W. Duchene
Olive harvest at La Rogaia. Photo: W. Duchene

Every year, guests from all over the world come to La Rogaia to pick their own olive oil.


Here is a testimonial by Thomas and Caroline from Berlin about the olive harvest 2018:

"Dear Annette, dear Wolfgang,

yes ! we liked the olive harvest very much. We were able to pick olives to our rhythm, to enjoy the scenery and to visit Assisi and Siena. We have already given away the first bottles of our own olive oil.

We sincerely wish that you manage the life on the farm well in your own rhythm, so that your project continues to fill the hearts with life."


Origins of olive cultivation

Olive tree at La Rogaia. Photo: W. Duchene
Olive tree at La Rogaia. Photo: W. Duchene

Olive oil has been used by humans for millennia. The first indications for the cultivation of olive trees and the extraction of olive oil can be found in Crete and Syria from 4000 BC.

In Umbria, olive cultivation was introduced by the Etruscans in the 1st millennium BC, and has since become an important source of income for the region.

A modest plant

Olive grove in August
Olive grove in August

Olive trees are extremely frugal and enduring. They can also thrive in very dry areas. An annual rainfall of 200 mm is already sufficient.

In some olive growing areas, however, the summers are getting hotter and drier, so experts predict that by 2030 olive groves will probably need irrigation.

The right time for the harvest

Olive oil fresh from the pressing
Olive oil fresh from the pressing

Traditionally, the olive harvest started in Umbria after All Saints' Day, i.e. on the 2nd of November, and continued until the 8th of December or sometimes even until just before Christmas.

However, due to climate changes with hotter and drier summers, the harvest nowadays has started earlier and the oil mills open up already in the second week of October.

But why is it so important that the olives are picked at the right time?

Each olive begins as a small green hard fruit. In the course of maturation, it becomes brownish or purple and finally black. The pulp becomes soft and the kernel hard. Inside the pulp, glucose first turns into fructose, which then becomes oleic acid. The oil content of the kernel also increases.

At the same time, "repair agents" are formed, especially polyphenols as antioxidants and the anti-inflammatory oleocanthal, which by the way is also contained in the drug Ibuprofen.

At the peak of maturity, the oil content of the olive has reached its highest level (nearly 90% of the olive in some varieties) and remains at this high level. However, the content of polyphenols and oleocanthal decreases rapidly during the following weeks.

The oil from olives which were harvested early has a grass-green colour, tastes bitter and peppery and feels scratchy in the throat. A taste which is not liked by everyone!
But exactly this scratching sensation in the throat is caused by the health-promoting substances, the polyphenols and the oleocanthal.

The oil from ripe or overripe olives tastes milder, more buttery and oily, which may be more moderate to the palate. But it is significantly poorer in additional health-maintaining substances.

How olives are harvested and pressed you can read in our blog post "Olive oil - from the tree to the bottle"

Does the designation "extra virgin olive oil" really guarantee high quality?

Cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil contains more than 80% of unsaturated fatty acids and polyphenols, making it one of the healthiest foods in the world.

But beware: Most of the commercially available olive oils are not cold pressed and have a much lower content of unsaturated fatty acids - even if it is so-called "Olio extra vergine" (in English "extra virgin olive oil").

In order for an olive oil to be called "extra virgin olive oil", according to EU legislation, only two fairly low threshold conditions have to be met:

1. The oil may only be extracted by mechanical means, i.e. without addition of chemical substances, and

2. The acidity of the oil may not exceed 0.8 g per 100 g. The acid content corresponds to the content of free fatty acids, which can lead to oxidation. They are "bad" fatty acids and should therefore be present in the lowest possible concentration. The acidity is indeed a measure of the quality of an olive oil. But it has nothing to do with the content of unsaturated ("good") fatty acids.

The legal requirements are very broad, because the allowed acidity of 0.8 g per 100 g is quite high. Good quality oils have an acidity of far below 0.5g per 100g!

And that olive oil is only obtained by mechanical pressing and not extracted by chemical means (for example, by ethyl acetate extraction with hexane) is probably the least that one can expect from a good oil!

The term "extra virgin olive oil" therefore says nothing about the content of unsaturated fatty acids and health-promoting substances.

Nor does "extra virgin olive oil" have to be extracted from whole fruits. It can also be made from olive mash as long as only mechanical means of pressing are used. And it does not have to be "cold pressed", as heat may be added during the oil production.

But if you know that at temperatures above 27 ° C polyphenols and unsaturated fatty acids are destroyed, it becomes clear that only cold-pressed olive oil from the first pressing (i.e. from the whole fruits) can really have a health-promoting effect.

For this reason cold-pressed olive oil is much too precious for frying, as the heat destroys the valuable ingredients. It should only be used cold. e.g. for salads, bruschetta, over antipasti like grilled vegetables or carpaccio.

Quality has its price

Olives on the net. Photo: Peter von Felbert
Olives on the net. Photo: Peter von Felbert

Why does cold-pressed virgin olive oil come at a price?

Let's start with the question of yield, that is, how many olives do you have to pick for one liter of olive oil?

At the first pressing of the olives, a temperature of 27 ° C should not be exceeded during the pressing process, since the valuable components are to be retained.

If this temperature limit is maintained, the yield of oil is between 10% and 20% of the weight of the olives. The range of variation depends on the olive variety, the degree of ripeness of the olives and the weather conditions shortly before or during the picking period. (Logically, wet or water-soaked olives  after rainy days contain proportionally less oil).

This means that from 100 kg of olives only 10 to 20 liters of oil can be obtained, or vice versa for one liter of oil 5 to 10 kg of olives must be picked.

Anyone who has been involved in the olive harvest knows that a picker will hardly ever pick more than 50 kg of olives per day when picking manually. This means that after eight hours of work in the olive grove you receive only 5 to 10 liters of oil. This does not include all the other work in the olive grove during the year (see our blog post "About crowncut and tree-combers. A year in the life of an olive tree")

Therefore handpicked, cold-pressed olive oil from first pressing  is a very valuable product.

If only cold-pressed oil from the first press were available, the supermarket shelves would be almost empty.

But they are not. And why?

The answer is simple: Olives contain up to 90% oil. After the first pressing we only extracted 10 to 20%. Hence, after the first pressing, the mash (i.e. the ground pulp) is still very oily and can be pressed a second or third time to extract oil.

There is nothing wrong with that, as it would be a waste to throw away the oil containing mash.

However in order to extract more oil, the mash needs to be heated to temperatures well above 27 ° C.

This sometimes also happens in small oil mills, which press the olives of the farmers during the day and reuse the leftover mash at night.

Mostly, however, the mash is picked up by trucks and taken to the oil mills of the big producers. There the oil is extracted with the supply of heat, still "only by mechanical means". And if the acidity is below 0.8g per 100g - which is not difficult to obtain - the oil may be designated as "extra virgin olive oil". This is the oil we can buy in the supermarket.

Of course, the customer is pleased that he can get a supposedly good olive oil for about 5 EUR per liter. But for that price it just can not be cold pressed and directly made from olives. Apart from the fact that at this price the olives were most likely treated with artificial fertilizers and pesticides, not to mention the usually very low wages for the olive pickers.

"Extra virgin olive oil" from the supermarket in the price range from 7 EUR per liter upwards can taste quite okay and is good for frying and cooking. We also use it for these purposes, but we at least make sure to only buy organic olive oil.

However, it is important to know that this "extra virgin olive oil" contains almost no special health-promoting substances.

If you want to have the beneficial health effects of olive oil, you should pay attention to the quality designation "Extra Virgin Olive Oil" on the label plus the additional information "cold-pressed, only first pressing directly from olives". And remember to use this olive oil only cold!

Olive Harvest and Culinary Weeks

Would you like to pick your own olive oil and take home cold-pressed oil from the very first pressing in organic quality?

Come to Umbria for the olive harvest!

HERE you can find more information about the Olive Harvest at La Rogaia

Until November 30, 2018 you can benefit from our early bird special price!

In our culinary autumn week, you can also witness the olive harvest and experience an olive pressing and olive oil tasting - as well as the legendary cookery courses with Mamma Ornella, spectacular gourmet tours and much more.

HERE you can get more information about the Culinary Weeks at La Rogaia

Would you like to be advised personally? CONTACT US by email or phone

BOOK right away !

Important: You can benefit from our early bird special price only until November 30, 2018!

Picknick during the olive harvest. Photo: Oliver Ginnert
Picknick during the olive harvest. Photo: Oliver Ginnert

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