Olive oil seems to have spread throughout western Europe by way of Greece. As a matter of fact, there seems to be some evidence of cultivation of the olive tree on the island of Crete as far back as 2500 B.C. Olive oil is mentioned in Greek mythology, and in the Bible as well. It has been used in many religious rituals and to anoint monarchs at their coronations. And at some point in time, one must assume that people started to put the oil "into" their bodies as well as "on" their bodies. Oh, happy day!
The Grading System
Since olives are grown and oil is processed in so many different places and in so many different ways, it stands to reason that each of the hundreds of varieties that are available for sale today have their own distinctive flavor nuances. You may want to have more than one type on hand. For instance, you may prefer one for cooking and another for salads or drizzling. This is a summary of the olive oil grading system; it's important that you understand it.
- Extra Virgin Olive Oil Extra-virgin olive oil from the Mediterranean is graded as such based on four factors. The first is that it must be made from the mechanical extraction of olives. That is to say, after the olives have been picked and washed they are crushed to extract their pulp and juices. The second factor is that they be cold pressed. This refers to the method in which they are crushed. They must be crushed with the traditional stone mill or with a discontinuous hydraulic press. There can be no added heat or chemicals either of which could alter the oil. The discontinuous hydraulic press is one driven by water. The olives are processed in batches where the pressure from the hydraulic press on the olives produces a liquid which is then centrifuged. This separates the oil from the water. The third factor needed to qualify for the extra-virgin olive oil label is that the acidity level be less than 1%. And the forth factor is, in essence, a taste test by expertly trained professionals who must verify that there are no gustatory or olfactory defects. The olive oils from California generally must meet the same standards for grading with the exception of the the taste test.
- Virgin Olive Oil This is also virgin or unpressed olive oil which must have perfect aroma, taste, and color. However, it may contain an acidity level of up to two per cent.
- Olive Oil Olive oil (without the "extra virgin" or "virgin" prefix) is basically oil that is derived 100% from olives. It's acidity level must be less than 1.5 per cent. It is generally a blend of refined and virgin oils and costs less than the extra-virgin varieties.
- Pomace Oil This is the lowest grade of olive-based oil. Solvents are used to extract whatever oil may be left in the olive paste after the finer grades of oil have been made. Like olive oil, it basically has no taste or smell of its own. It acquires these from the addition of small quantities of extra-virgin olive oil. It is used more commercially than domestically, and and does, of course, cost much less.
Other Factors Affecting Quality And Price
You will notice that even within each grade, there can be a large price range. Especially within the extra-virgin olive oils there are some valid reasons for this.
Olives grow on trees. To process them, they must be removed from the branches. How this occurs can affect the price. They can be picked off the ground after having matured. They can be captured in nets set below the branches to keep the olives from bruising. The olives may be left to fall into the nets as they mature or they can be "combed" into the nets by workers on ladders who gently comb the trees with wooden rakes. How long the olives remain in the nets before being gathered and processed will also impact the taste. Obviously, some methods will produce less bruising of the flesh, and therefore less of the oxidation that might negatively affect the taste. However, those methods are also the most expensive for the grower and will, therefore, affect the price.
It takes an olive tree four to five years to yield its first fruit, and another 10 to 15 years to reach its full production capacity. Young trees must receive plenty of care to insure that they reach maturity. For example, the tree picture to the right has to be carefully staked and tended while it is still young. All of this must be factored into the cost. And as with all other fruits and vegetables, the harvest of a particular year will come into play. An early frost, or strong winds during budding can sometimes destroy an entire crop.
Color And Taste
The color of olive oil usually ranges from light yellow to green. Keep in mind that a green olive has not yet ripened, a black one has. The yellow oils probably come from a riper olive, picked later in the season, and are usually a bit sweeter.
The green oils come from olives picked earlier, when they are still green. These usually have a fuller, fruitier taste.
Various olive growing regions have a tendency to pick the olives at different stages of ripeness. For instance, the Tuscan oils seem to favor an early harvest.
The type of olive will also make a difference in color and taste. Many oils are made from a blend of various olives. However, recently, the "Single-Estate Oils" are gaining in popularity. Rather than combining their olives with other growers to produce a sort of generic oil, many growers are producing oil from a single variety of olive grown on their own estates. These oils are acquiring a very good reputation and are becoming increasingly popular. It's also interesting to note (but not surprising) that many olive growers also grow grapes and freely mix the two in their fields as depicted in this picture of a Tuscan vineyard.
The best way to become knowledgeable about the particular taste associated with a certain type of oil is to actually taste it. You may want to try the same oil in different dishes. You may also want a different oil for cooking than you do for salads or dipping. Many fine brands will offer information based on the formal tastings, and will describe the oils as light, peppery, fruity, etc. This may be a good way to start if you cannot actually taste the oils before buying.
Once purchased, store the oil in a cool, dry place away from light. Since olive oil, once bottled, does not improve with age, it is best to consume it within a year to eighteen months of the harvest date in order to avoid disintegration and loss of flavor. Refrigeration is not recommended.
Olive oil, like all other fats, is made up of saturated fatty acids, monounsaturated fatty acids and polyunsaturated fatty acids. Saturated fats are thought to be at least in part responsible for the blockage of arteries that leads to coronary heart disease. Both of the other two types of fatty acids may actually protect against this disease by lowering the blood cholesterol levels.
Cholesterol in found in the blood in two forms, high-density and low-density lipoproteins. The high-density (HDL) is the helpful kind of cholesterol and the low-density (LDL) is not. Of the unsaturated fats listed above, the polyunsaturated variety lowers both kinds of cholesterol, however the monounsaturated fatty acids lower only the LDL, leaving the HDL or "good" cholesterol intact. Olive oil is made up of 70% monounsaturated fatty acids.
Studies are beginning to show other potential health benefits such as improving digestion and augmenting the assimilation of vitamins and minerals. The Mediterranean diet in general is proving to be a very healthy one. The predominance of olive oil in this cuisine seems to be a main factor.
Also, see our background information on Agrumato Oils, which are uniquly flavored olive oils made in conjunction with lemons or oranges.
A Gentle Plug For Our Store...
Our cybercucina.com online store offers many fine olive oils of different types and price ranges and from different countries. Simply stroll through the Olive Oil Aisle to view our selections.