Olive Oil: The rich Italian genetic heritage

In Italy the olive-grove area extends for 10 degrees latitude from north to south: its territory is sandwiched between two parallel coasts in the middle of the Mediterranean and as such its environment varies from the cold Mediterranean climate of the North to the subtropical zone of the warmer areas of the region. This has made it a natural birthplace for a rich variety of cultivars, with many species being introduced and selected from other areas of the Mediterranean and within existing populations.

It is no coincidence then that out of a total of just over 1500 varieties of olive trees reported worldwide, about 700 have been identified, described and characterised in Italy. All along the peninsula environments have been created which have led to the selection of the many cultivars following natural aspects of the weather (i.e. cold winters and dry summers) as well as the inhabitants’ traditions (table olives, oil olives) and, finally, commercial interests.

As such each region has ended up creating a unique combination of cultivars that give the product its own specific identity.

Currently these footprints are coded in the multitude of PDO and PGI that cover almost the entire Italian territory: from the DOP Garda oil (latitude 45 degrees north) to the PGI Sicilian oil (latitude 37 degrees north).

The first is an oil produced in a very limited area that covers Lake Garda and climbs up to Trentino (it is reputed to be the most northerly production in the world). In this area the most prevalent cultivar is the Casaliva, from which a medium fruity oil with a sweet herbaceous note is obtained.

In the second case, the oil is produced over much of Sicily. Located in the centre of the Mediterranean, the island has for centuries been a crossroads for numerous populations. This unique combination of historical, social and cultural elements has favoured the creation of a rich genetic heritage; there are more than 25 autochthonous cultivars of which 3 are prevalent: the Nocellara del Belice, a dual-purpose variety, the Cerasuola with a high and stable oleic content, the Biancolilla, an olive from which an oil with a scent of orange blossom is obtained.

These are just two examples that highlight the extreme variability of a naturally diversified genetic heritage that is able to associate taste, territory and history to satisfy the most diverse nutritional, hedonistic and intellectual needs of today’s consumers.