Ever since mankind domesticated animals and settled, olive trees have been cultivated around the Mediterranean basin. Over centuries certain regions proved to be more suitable than others. Olive oil has always been the cooking and flavouring medium of healthy Mediterranean food. It is versatile, requires no refrigeration, has a long shelf life is suitable for both cold and hot foods.
The Greeks have valued it so much that only virgin boys were allowed to pick olives one by one.
Up to 1970’s, North American olive oil consumption was very low, and stores carried only a few “ run-of-the-mill “ olive oil brands. Some were of low quality, others suspect of fraud. Then Italian scientists burst on the scene with a study claiming that olive oil has no cholesterol, an obvious fact, and therefore was healthy.
North Americans, generally health conscious and gullible ( margarine claimed that very advantage, as we all know now, it is hydrogenated and therefore unhealthy ), jumped on the band wagon and started consuming substantial amounts of it. The media, always looking for something new to report, was there to provide enormous amounts of information. Some of it was of importance, the other as always trivial. Regardless, the public seemed to be eager to learn more and also try better quality olive oil
Today, regular grocery stores carry a range of olive oils from a number of countries. Those interested in better quality should visit Italian or Middle eastern grocery stores or call on gourmet food stores.
Toronto, Montreal, Quebec City Vancouver and the Edmonton-Calgary corridor have no shortage of them
In smaller towns the selection is limited, but you can always ask the store manager to bring in the brand of your choice.
Today, in addition to all Mediterranean countries, Argentina, the USA, New Zealand Australia and Chile produce olive oil, but still the biggest supplier of this healthy and tasty oil is Spain.
Spanish olive oil groves stretch from the French border in the east Mediterranean all the way to Andalusia along the coast. Some are in Rioja in the north-east, others in La Mancha.
The Spanish government decided to establish Denomination of origin status for its outstanding olive oil regions 26 years ago. These laws were designed to establish regions particularly suitable for olive tree cultivation, much liker appellation controlee laws applied to wine in practically all countries.
Geography and climate are key determinants of olive oil quality. Draughts and significant diurnal temperature variations affect both quality and quantity of the crop.
Spain’s olive groves are spread over 2.3 million hectares and some are older than 1000 years. ( Olive trees have an extremely long life). In the past, up to 250 different species were panted, but today a more efficient approach is taken and only 13 varieties are planted on commercial groves.
A Denomination of origin applies only to a geographic space, which also takes into consideration tradition ( species planted ), along with yields. Simply put, a pedigreed olive oil tastes better and tends to be more expensive. In Catalonia, olive grove owners prune more severely and obtain more deeply flavoured oils worthy of salad dressings. Some are pale in colour, others smoky green, yet others show buttery yellow hues. Needless to say each has a different texture and taste. Some producers blend equal quality and quantity oils in an attempt to achieve balance and harmony, others blend and filter. Filtered oils are limpid but taste less intense. However, unfiltered olive oil ought to be consumed within a year of production, a point North American consumers should bear in mind. It takes at least a few months for olive oil to arrive here, and by the time it hits retail shelves, nine months may have passed.
Spanish olive oil producers use the following olives : Arbequina, Blanqueta, Cornicabra, Empeltre, Farga, Hojiblanca, Lechin de Sevilla, Lucio, Manzanilla Cacerena, Picual, Picudo, Royal de Cazorla and Verdial de Velez Malaga. Each provides a different characteristic and requires particular climatic and soil conditions.
Olive oil is produced in two distinct classes: Virgin- and blended olive oil.
Virgin Olive oil quality classification in descending order is:
Extra-virgin olive oil: May contain up to .5 gram oleic acid per 100 gram of oil and must be derived from the first cold pressing
Virgin olive oil: May contain up to 2 grams per 100 grams of oil
Lampante oil: Contains more than 2 grams of oleic acid per 100 grams
Blended olive oils: Crude olive-pomace oil is thin, acid and generally watery in texture with little or no distinct flavour. Not recommended for cooking or salads.
Refined olive oil may contain up to 3 grams of oleic acid per 100 grams of oil, and pomace oil up to 3grams per 100. Both are thin and insipid.
Olive oil should be stored in a dark, cool place. Once opened, it should be consumed within a few months, as it oxidizes when in contact with excessive amounts of oxygen
The health giving properties of olive oil cannot be stressed enough But one must also be aware of the fact that moderation is the key., since one ounce for ounce or gram from gram olive oil contains as many calories as butter – nine calories per gram/
Olive oil is sunshine captured in food, eating it provides your body with health.
Article contributed by Hrayr Berberoglu, a Professor Emeritus of Hospitality and Tourism Management specializing in Food and Beverage. Books by H. Berberoglu