The calendar tells us that autumn starts on 21 September, but in the Tuscan countryside it really kicks off a few weeks later, when the last grapes have been picked and the vines, like the trees and foliage in general, become mantled in reds, yellows and auburns, before shedding all colour in preparation for the winter cold. This is a season of competing urges: to stay in the house and prepare for hibernation, or to enjoy the sweet, ripe fruits of the last days of warmth. When the weather allows, autumn is probably the best moment to savour the Tuscan countryside, in all its shades and hues. Autumn is the season of pumpkins, cabbages, artichokes, citrus, apples and pears: a crescendo of flavours and aromas that culminates in the arrival of the olio novo – the new batch of olive oil.

Olive oil has been produced in Tuscany for millennia. Its history is almost as old as humankind’s. The olive is virtually synonymous with the Mediterranean coastline, and in Tuscany, the landscape contributes in no small part to its olives’ particular beauty and flavour.
The origins of olive oil are shrouded in the mists of time, but we can more or less pinpoint it to the Middle East, where olive trees grew naturally. In Palestine, we have identified what were probably the first olive presses in history. Gradually, the olive tree conquered the entire Mediterranean, thanks in part to the Phoenicians and the Greeks. In Italy, it was the same old suspects who proved the ablest olive farmers and oil producers: the Etruscans, the ancient people who dominated central Italy thousands of years ago. For the Etruscans, the olive was a sacred plant, and the oil was used for many different purposes: religious, cosmetic, and, of course, dietary. Over the course of the centuries, olive cultivation and oil production were honed to the point that Tuscan olive oil won a place among Italy’s most famous culinary exports.

In Tuscany, the olive has always found the ideal conditions for its growth, both meteorological – the region enjoys a mild climate – and pedological, rich as it is in marlstone, a type of stony soil that is also kind to grapevines. The four main species, or cultivars, of olives in Tuscany are Frantoio, Pendolino, Leccino and Moraiolo. The olive harvest generally takes place in November, and the ensuing extraction of the oil is divided into four main phases.

The first stage is the pressing, when the olive flesh and seeds are mashed into a pulp. This pulp is then kneaded over a period of time, in order to make the droplets of oil clump together into bigger drops, to the extent that they separate from the solid flesh. The actual extraction belongs to the third phase, which is followed by the fourth and final process, the separation of the solid matter from the water and the oil.
The quality of the oil is determined by a wide range of criteria, including the choice of cultivar, the pedoclimatic conditions in which the olive tree grew (namely, the type of soil and climate), and the techniques used to produce it. The oil is judged largely on its acidity level: the less oleic acid it contains, the better it is considered to be. 

Today, olive oil’s importance in Mediterranean cooking cannot be overstated. Moreover, its characteristics make it a nutraceutical product, not only good to the tastebuds but good for the health. Tuscan olive oil has a particular flavour, not found in other regions: slightly spicy, with an artichokey aftertaste. These qualities soften a bit over time, but the oil will keep perfectly well for a year and more.

The pleasure of the olio novo, as the new batch of oil is called in Tuscany, is without equal. At the end of November, the region’s many oil-making villages put on festivals to celebrate the arrival of this incredible product. The new oil is lathered over slices of toasted saltless bread, and a bit of garlic flaked on top too. This “dish” is called fettunta, and is probably the simplest, quickest and tastiest way to savour the delights of the olio novo, as the magnificent Tuscan autumn unfolds.