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Thanks to the many health-conscious citizens of Europe, olive oil has become a staple in the pantry of millions eager to enjoy healthier, richer tasting food. Unfortunately, the many varieties and blends of olive oil result in a confusing decision process when determining the right olive oil for a particular appetizer, salad or entree. So here's a lesson: Italian olive oil 101.
Olives are a fruit produced by the Mediterranean evergreen tree throughout various regions of Italy and other parts of the world. The evergreen tree, one of the world's oldest cultivated trees, is sturdy and can typically withstand many of nature's elements, but colder temperatures, rain and/or ice can wreak havoc on fruit production and overall tree health. Regular pruning and seasonal fertilizing is required to maintain ongoing olive production.
While an olive begins as a green fruit, the ripening process causes the olive to darken, or turn black. When the olives are deemed ripe, harvesting begins. (More seasoned farmers will settle their nets long before the harvest, usually at the beginning of the season.) Nets and pickers will proceed into the grove for several days of picking and stripping olives from their natural habitat. Since many families refuse to modernize the process of harvesting olives, this ritual is completed by hand until the last succulent piece of fruit has been picked or shaken from the tree onto the awaiting nets. Many pickers endure cuts, bruises and uncomfortable pain during the harvest. But their efforts result in a more plentiful bounty.
Once the olives have been picked, they are moved to a processing facility, usually a local mill or perhaps located on the same farm where the evergreen trees reside. Now begins the most critical time for the olive; the time spent between picking and pressing. The fruit is prone to mold and decomposition now that it has been removed from the tree. If pressing will take place over several days, the olives may be turned to ensure the skin does not spoil. Despite the time-honored tradition of hand picking olives, the sorting and pressing process has been modernized in an effort to save precious time. Once leaves, twigs and any other remaining debris have been removed, next comes the actual press, where the entire olive - including the stone / pit - meet the press. The entire press process is rather cumbersome, including grinding and mixing, as well as separating the oil from the water, then further processing the oil.
Following the press, the resulting olive oil is considered "non-filtered" or "cold pressed" simply identifying the oil as what was first pressed from the olive. (Cold pressed often is the most expensive variety of olive oil.) Some also may refer to first-pressed olive oil as "virgin" since the oil has not been filtered, modified or altered in any way. However, a virgin olive oil also may contain unique aromatic and taste traits specific to the region of origin. More specifically, for an olive oil to be classified as "virgin" it must contain not more than 2% acidity. (The acidity is in reference to oleic acid; a monounsaturated fatty acid.)
The extra virgin olive oil classification demands similar quality as the virgin classification, but requires it must not contain more than 1% acidity. (Some purists specify acidity must not exceed 0.8%.) "Ordinary" or "pure" virgin olive oil contains not more than 3.3% acidity. Then there is refined olive oil; a derivative of virgin olive oil. Anything beyond virgin and extra virgin classification requires specific processing treatment.
Many factors may affect the taste, color and aroma of olives and their
resulting oil such as soil, fruit maturity, extraction process and climate. When tasting olive oil solely is its pure form, the most common terms used to express the flavor are fruity, fresh, buttery, astringent, peppery, sweet or green. You may desire an olive oil tasting to experience the multitudes of flavors and aromas. Simply pour a small amount of olive oil (usually about a tablespoon) into a small, clear glass (a cordial glass is the perfect size). Carefully swirl the oil around the glass to coat the entire surface. Hold the bowl of the glass in your hand in order to delicately warm the oil, thus releasing the oils natural aroma, and then inhale the fragrance using your nose. To actually taste the oil, you may sip the oil directly from the glass, or dip a small piece of unsalted bread (white French bread is best) into the oil. Should you choose to dip the bread, you will want to discard the oil from that particular glass.
For those curious how to most effectively pair olive oil with food and cooking, here are some recommendations:
- Always use quality olive oil. (Think of olive oil and wine the same. We're told to never cook with a wine we wouldn't drink on its own. The same practice holds true for olive oil,)
- Extra virgin or cold pressed olive oil is the highest quality olive oil available and used widely among restaurant chefs. Keeping price and quality in mind, this oil is used more sparingly. Extra virgin olive oil variety is best used over salads or for dipping bread.
- Virgin olive oil contains less flavor and aroma than extra virgin and is best used for frying, grilling and oven roasting. Ordinarily or pure virgin olive oil contains less flavor and aroma than virgin olive oil and may be used in recipes when flavor from the olive oil is not desired.
- Olive oil is not wine! Many think that it gets better with age, but it's not like that at all. It is a fresh product and must be consumed quickly onece you open the bottle.
- Olive oil bottles must be kept in a cool, dry storage. Your cupboard is fine, the ledge of your sun drenched window is not.
- Good extra virgin Olive oil is a very healthy food, but never forget that it's a kind of fat and contains a lot of calories. Its fat is however better than other kind of vegetal or animal fat, because of its high content of monounsaturated fatty acids as well as high content of antioxidative substances.
- Olive oil helps lower bad cholesterol and helps with good cholesterol. Ask your doctor if and how include it in your diet if you are having cholesterol issues.
While olive groves and oil production have reached as far west as the United States, Italy is still considered the foremost producer of high quality olive oil. Some of the same groves and estates of Italy have been producing olive oil for hundreds of years, continuing a time honored family tradition appreciated throughout the entire world. It's easy to taste the difference.
By Melissa A. Tyson