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Typical produce of the Mediterranean area, extra-virgin olive oil - obtained from the mechanical pressing of olives - is a key ingredient of the Mediterranean diet, with its high content of monounsaturated fats, facilitating the replacement of LDL (bad) cholesterol, with HDL “good” cholesterol in our blood. Extra-virgin olive oil is very digestible and therefore also recommended in the daily diet of those who have digestive problems. Its acidity reaches maximum 1%. Eighteen out of twenty Italian regions produce olive oil and several consortia are now issuing the PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) and PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) labels. Each region can boast at least one brand of extra-vergin olive oil.
We asked Roberto Carcangiu – a famous chef consultant - to help us choose the right type of extra-virgin olive oil, when preparing a dish. Here's what he suggested!
Lombardy, Veneto and Trentino
The typical cultivars of Lombardy, Veneto and Trentino are extensively grown mainly on the shores of Lake Garda and the hills of Veneto. The olive oil they yield has a floral fragrance and tastes of ripe apple and musk, sweet almond, olive and vegetable. I recommend to use it to dress up pasta salad, vinaigrette, freshwater fish and desserts such as carrot cakes.
Liguria main varieties of olive trees are grown on the Riviera di Ponente and on the Riviera di Levante: the coastline to the west and east of Genoa. The oil smells and tastes of olive, almond and vegetable. Great for cooking and frying, this type of oil is ideal in the preparation of mayonnaise, to flavour rice and boiled fish, and for the preparation of desserts, such as olive oil cakes and gruel.
This region can boast a great gastronomic tradition and that has to include olive oil, whose producion is small and mainly limited to the hills of Romagna and the provinces of Ravenna, Forlì and Rimini. There are many cultivars in this area. Among them a native variety of olive tree is grown in Brisighella - near Ravenna - known as Nostrana di Brisighella. This oil is ideal for the preparation of roasts and sauces.
In Tuscany, side by side with the famous vineyards, there are important cultivars that taste of olive, artichoke, fresh grass, almond, vegetable and spices. Tuscan olive oil can be paired with grilled meat, bruschetta made with fresh tomatoes, vegetable soup, fettunta - garlic bread, the typical local unsalted bread, panzanella – a Tuscan salad of bread and tomatoes. It is also used in the preparation of the so-called salsa verde - a savoury sauce made with parsley, anchovies, onion, olive oil and garlic - and for the seasoning of boiled cannellini beans.
Important cultivars have been grown on the hills of Umbria for centuries. The oil produced in this area is spicy and tastes of vegetal. It has the flavour of apple, olive, artichoke and almond. It can be paired with many dishes, such as red meat, legumes, fresh or steamed vegetables. It is at its best for the seasoning of spaghetti with garlic, olive oil and chilli, for the dressing up of the typical local unsalted bread, of pumpkin pie and, finally, of grilled lobsters.
Marche is another region in central Italy worth mentioning for the delicacy of its oil. Cultivars grown in this region yield an oil smelling and tasting of olive, almond and vegetable. Due to its delicacy, this oil is perfectly paired with beef and fish carpaccios. It can also be used for desserts, for fried food, especially fish and as an ingredient for a delicious mayonnaise. Abruzzo
Overlooking the Adriatic Sea, we find the lands of Abruzzo, whose cultivars stand out for their pungent scent of olive, sour almond, apple and vegetable. The oil they yield is very versatile. You can use it on the typical unsalted bread to make it tasty, on egg pasta, on savoury fish and on swordfish tartare, for the preparation of mayonnaise and vinaigrette. It is excellent raw on bitter tasting food, but also as an ingredient in desserts, such as lemon cake and short pastry.
Getting back to the opposite shores of the Mediterranean sea, we find the typical varieties of Latium cultivars. The oil smells and tastes of olive, almond, artichoke and vegetable. This oil is very delicate. It goes well with several dishes and is therefore classified as an all-round oil. It is perfectly paired with rabbit meat and pasta with clams.
Further south, in a warmer climate, we find the famous shores of Campania. The oil grown there has the scent and taste of olive, almond, dried fruit and vegetable. The oil from Campania is best served on fresh vegetables and used in vegetable pies, homemade pasta and white meat.
Calabria and Basilicata
Having reached the southern regions of Calabria and Basilicata, located between the Ionian and the Tyrrhenian seas, we find olive groves of great suggestion, with ancient and tall trees. Next to the regional production of dense and full-bodied oil, perfectly paired with the strong flavours of the local cuisine, there is an equally robust oil, yet fresher and more fluid, to be used for a more delicate and lighter cuisine.
Back to the Adriatic coast, among Molise olive groves, we find an oil that combines the smell and taste of olive, almond and vegetable. It is a well-rounded oil, best served on homemade pasta and fresh vegetables, for the seasoning of white meat, boiled fish and for the preparation of sweets.
In Puglia, one of the Italian regions with the longest-lasting tradition of olive oil production, oil has a typically pungent smell of olive oil, fresh herbs, artichoke and vegetable, while tasting pleasantly spicy, with notes of fresh grass, artichoke and olive. It is excellent on bruschetta, for the preparation of salsa verde for boiled meat and of pesto sauce, as seasoning for pasta and beans and of red meat.
The sun shining on this island makes its olive trees yield a quality of oil that smells pungent and tastes spicy. It has the flavour of olive, artichoke, sour tomato and fresh grass. It is best matched with bruschetta or with bread, grilled meat, fresh vegetables, caprese - a salad of mozzarella cheese, tomatoes, and fresh basil – and with salmoriglio: a sauce made of oil for the seasoning of grilled fish.
The typical cultivars of Sardinia, the other major Italian island, produce oil which has a pungent aroma and a spicy taste. It has a characteristic flavour of olive, artichoke and fresh grass, as is the case with the oils produced in Puglia and Sicily.