History of extra virgin olive oil in Liguria

Olive trees in Liguria
Archaeology and literature witness the importance of olive oil production in the Greek and Roman world. “There are two liquids that are specially agreeable to the human body, wine inside and oil outside (…), but oil an absolute necessity” wrote Pliny the Elder in his Naturalis Historia.

Oil was produced in vast and organized rural settlements called villae. The Varignano area on the eastern Ligurian coast near La Spezia boasts a 2,000-year old oil mill (torcularium), set close to the pars fructuaria (the productive area) of the villa, complete with two oil presses and an open air storing cell (its millstone missing). Stocked in parallel rows of dolia (earthenware vessels) half-buried in the ground, oil was then poured into amphorae and loaded on carriages, ready for sale. The complex included a vast olive grove located in a dry, safe and scenic position, sheltered by wind and overwhelming heat.
The Varignano villa demonstrates the presence of olive trees in Liguria long before monks on their way back from the Holy Land introduced the taggiasca cultivar. Furthermore, archaeology demonstrated the presence of olea pollen in Liguria since 3,000 B.C. In Roman Liguria olive trees sided arable land and provided lost, yet evocatively named, fruits - pausia, regia, liciniana, orchite, sergia. The Fall of the Roman Empire was a severe blow for olive growing and viniculture; yet, during the Early Middle Ages, Benedictine monks from the isle of Tino took care of the Varignano complex – monasteries thrived with excellent botanists, apothecaries and scholars, whom we owe the perpetuation of farming know-hows.

Ligurian oil started to flourish in the Late Middle Ages – and still do today, despite the steepness of cropland and the neglect of agriculture. The celebrated RivieraLigure DOP (i.e. PDO, Protected Designation of Origin) is a tribute to local farmers, lovingly defined by gastronome Gino Veronelli as the “angeli matti” (mad angels). Their hard work patiently shaped a vertical olive growing landscape of dry-stone walls and tilled terraces, the treasure trove of preböggion wild herbs mix.
Regional cultivars include the taggiasca, small, black, delicately tasting as well as olives grown only for oil (arnasca, colombaia, lantesca, merlina, mortina, negrea, olivotto, pignola, rondino), and table olives (castelnovina, lavagnina, liccione, prempesa, razzola and the aforementioned taggiasca).

The PDO (est. 1997) features 3 subareas of production. The EVO from the Riviera dei Fiori subarea (90% taggiasca min.) is a delicate yellow, scenting (and tasting) of artichokes and almonds, a well-balanced mix of sweetness and mellowness. The Riviera del Ponente savonese subarea (taggiasca 50% min., then arnasca and colombaia) features a light yellow EVO with greenish hues, its nose fruitier, pleasantly bitter and pungent on the palate, sometimes with apple hints.
The Riviera di Levante subarea (lavagnina, razzola, pignola and the local frantoio, 55% min.) EVO, golden yellow (greenish tones), fresh of grass and artichokes at the nose, fluid, smooth, balanced and pungent, tasting of grass, artichoke and almond.

Liguria’s paedo-climatic conditions and millenary farming know-how foster the production of gentle, delicate EVOs, their fruit elegant and fresh, with neat notes of artichokes, dried fruit… The ideal match of light salads, octopus and potatoes, seafood pasta, vegetable pureed soup, light preparations based on fish or white meat.

My English abstract of the "Appunti per una storia dell'olio in Liguria" article by Umberto Curti as published on Liguria Food. Click here and read full version (in Italian)

Luisa Puppo

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