By Caroline Prosser
Olive Oil Times Contributor | Reporting from Rome
When the hot weather arrives in Italy, food must be refreshing. This demands a light dressing, and makes the approaching spring the real beginning of the year for olive oil. Although Italians use it all year round, it’s in this period that the consummation of oil ‘a crudo’ (alone), shoots up.
Olive oil production in Italy represents 2-2.4 billion euro, reports the Confagricoltura association, which has always encouraged consumers to select high quality extra virgin oil. They are pleased to report that this does seem to be the case – the market for extra virgin olive oil has eclipsed the market of lower grade, cheaper olive oil in Italy. On average, 11 litres of extra virgin olive oil per year are consumed per nuclear family, compared to just 7 litres of regular olive oil. American author Frances Mayes (Under the Tuscan Sun) asked around in Tuscany, and even put the figure for extra virgin olive oil at a litre every week per family! What’s really helped the boost – say Confagricoltura – is a drop in prices. Some 50% of sales of extra virgin olive oil are sold on promotional offer, allowing habits to change for the better. Superior oil is taking a growing share of the market.
These impressive figures mean the market is becoming increasingly competitive – and Confagricoltura say this should push supermarket distributors towards higher standards of quality. Industrial production of extra virgin/virgin olive oil makes up less than 37% of the total volume consumed, compared to two thirds in the case of normal olive oil. Perhaps then it would be pertinent, they ask, for distribution chains to respond to the growth in demand for higher-end olive oil, i.e. DOP (determination of protected origin), and IGP (geographically protected) products?
For Rome’s top restaurants, the selection of a fine extra virgin olive oil is – as always – essential. The best restaurants have several oils in stock to match the exacting requirements of their dishes. The Michelin-starred Pagliaccio have been using the the same suppliers for seven years. “It’s a guarantee,” says Daniele Montano, restaurant manager. “They’re honest and tell us when the crop hasn’t gone well, and they aim to supply us well. We use four types of oil, which doesn’t vary from year to year because we trust our suppliers”. It may not come as a surprise that are prepared to spend on their preferred oil. Montano admits, “Value for money isn’t really a consideration for us… we simply want the best oil to match the best cuisine at any price.”
Simone Pinoli, maître of perhaps the city’s most famous restaurant, La Pergola, which holds three Michelin stars, counts as many as 18 or 20 different providers. “We search to cover all of the Italian regions, and then in every region, we look for the oil that, for us, is the best. That is, typically, DOP and biologically-produced oils, as well as the use of typical cultivation methods of the region.” He also lets in on a secret: “We try and use 100ml bottles, so as soon as the bottles are opened the oil is used.”
Regional loyalty is also key for one of Rome’s celebrity favorites, the historic Antica Pesa restaurant, which prides itself on classic Roman cuisine. They only use oils from the Lazio region, in particular, extra virgin olive oil from Sabina. They say this goes particularly well with their traditional dishes, and that their oil is produced exclusively for them.
Italians have always cared about the smallest details involved in eating well. And with extra virgin olive oil now more affordable than ever, it seems predictable that high quality will not only be the preserve of the restaurants, but should eventually arrive to the average Italian kitchen table. This is especially the case given the kick-start of new labeling regulations, introduced last year, demanding that every bottle of olive oil clearly displays its origins, meaning that 100% ‘made in Italy’ oils are exactly that.