The Hardy Olive Tree
An olive tree can live 1,000 years or more. Even if the tree dies or is cut or damaged, sprouts from its roots can grow into full-size, fruit-bearing trees. Olive trees succeed in climates in which there are mildly cold winters (they need cooler temperatures to set the buds that later form the fruit) and long, hot summers.
During the growing season, olives need a lot of dry heat. The tough trees don’t need much water and can tolerate temperatures as low as -10ºC for brief periods of time.
Rich, beautiful, and fragrant, olive oil is much like wine — taste is a matter of personal preference. The many variables that go into the production of olive oil yield dramatic differences in colour, aroma, and flavour. And several names are used to differentiate all of these versions, which you’ll learn about here.
Where in the World?
Most of the world’s supply is produced from olives grown in Spain, Italy, and Greece, but other areas, including France and California, are in on the fun, too.
Here’s what you need to know about olive oil and geography:
- Spanish olive oil is typically golden yellow with a fruity, nutty flavour. Spain produces about 45 percent of the world’s olive supply.
- Italian olive oil is often dark green and has an herbal aroma and a grassy flavour. Italy grows about 20 percent of the world’s olives.
- Greek olive oil packs a strong flavour and aroma and tends to be green. Greece produces about 13 percent of the world’s olive supply.
- French olive oil is typically pale in colour and has a milder flavour than other varieties.
- Californian olive oil is light in colour and flavour, with a bit of a fruity taste.
Olives from different countries are often blended together to produce an oil variety. Or, olives from diverse areas of one country may be combined. These bulk-blended oils are the most economical but are still high quality. On the other hand, some producers only use olives that are grown in a specific area of a country. These regional oils are usually known for their unique flavours.
Estate olive oils are the cream of the crop. Estate oils are produced using olives from a single olive farm. These olives are usually handpicked, then pressed and bottled right at the estate. Expect to get the best flavour out of these varieties, but also expect to pay more.
Making the Grades
There are three basic grades of edible olive oil, and several types within each grade. Extra virgin includes “premium extra virgin” and “extra virgin”; virgin comprises “fine virgin,” “virgin,” and “semifine virgin”; and olive oil includes what used to be called “pure olive oil” and “refined oil.”
All types of extra-virgin and virgin oils are made from the first pressing of the olives, which removes about 90 percent of the olives’ juice. Chemicals and high heat are not allowed in the production of extra-virgin or virgin oils — no further processing or refining occurs after the pressing process. Neither extra-virgin nor virgin oils are allowed to contain any refined olive oil.
Virgin olive oils
At the head of the olive oil class sit the extra-virgins, followed closely by the virgins. The difference between two oils and where they rank in the following hierarchy may be just half a percentage point of acidity. However, that is all it takes to distinguish between a very good oil and a great oil.
“Premium extra-virgin olive oil” is nature’s finest, thanks to its extremely low acidity (possibly as low as 0.225 percent). It is best suited for using uncooked in dishes where you can appreciate its exquisite aroma and flavour. Try it in salads, as a dip for bread, or as a condiment.
“Extra-virgin olive oil” has a fruity taste and may be pale yellow to bright green in colour. In general, the deeper the colour, the more flavour it yields. The International Olive Oil Council regulations say extra-virgin olive oil must have a superior flavour and contain no more than 0.8 percent acidity, but other regulators set the acidity cut-off point at 1 percent. As with the premium version, it is best to use extra-virgin olive oil uncooked in order to appreciate its flavour.
“Fine virgin olive oil” must have a “good” taste (as judged by IOOC standards) and an acidity level of no more than 1.5 percent. Fine virgin olive oil is less expensive than extra-virgin oil but is close in quality and is good uncooked.
“Virgin olive oil” must have a “good” taste, and its acidity must be 2 percent or less. Like other virgin oils, it cannot contain any refined oil. Virgin olive oil is good for cooking, but it also has enough flavour to be enjoyed uncooked.
“Semifine virgin olive oil” must have an acidity no higher than 3.3 percent. It is good for cooking but doesn’t have enough flavour to be enjoyed uncooked.
Some olive oil is further refined after the first pressing. These three types of oils can no longer bear the title “virgin.”
When virgin oils are not fit for human consumption (because of poor flavour, an acidity level greater than 3.3 percent, or an unpleasant aroma), they are sent to a processing plant where they become “refined olive oils.” There they undergo processing with agents that might include heat, chemicals, and/or filtration.
These refined olive oils become clear, odourless, and flavourless and have an acidity level of 0.3 percent or less, which gives them a long shelf life (refined olive oils’ only real advantage). They are typically blended with virgin oils, used in cooking, or used for foods that are labelled “packed in olive oil.”
The current “olive oil” category used to be called “pure olive oil.” Today, oils in this classification are a blend of refined olive oil and a virgin olive oil. The virgin oil lends a little aroma and flavour to the final product, which can have an acidity level of no more than 1.5 percent. In most cases, oils in this category contain about 85 percent refined oil and 15 percent virgin or extra-virgin oil. Oils of the “olive oil” grade withstand heat well.
“Olive pomace oil” is made from the olive paste that is left in the centrifuge after the olives are pressed and the oil-water mixture is extracted. Olive pomace oil can be treated with heat and chemicals to extract additional oil (about 10 percent of the original amount of oil in the olives). Its acidity cannot exceed 1.5 percent.
Virgin oil may be added to pomace oil for colour and flavour. Olive pomace oil is edible, but it may not carry the name “olive oil.” This oil is most often used commercially and is rarely seen on the grocer’s shelf.
Sometimes, cooks don’t need the full flavour of olive oil, or they need a little extra taste added. Oil producers have responded to these needs by creating lite olive oil and flavoured oils.
“Lite olive oil” is also called “light” or “mild” oil. These oils have undergone an extremely fine filtration process (without the use of heat or chemicals) to remove most of the natural colour, aroma, and flavour. This makes them suitable for cooking or baking in recipes in which a fruity olive flavour isn’t needed. The terms “lite,” “light,” and “mild” can be used along with “extra virgin olive oil,” “virgin olive oil,” and “olive oil.”
In this case, “lite” or “light” do not refer to fat content. These oils contain the same amount of fat and calories as any other olive oil (about 13 grams of fat and 120 calories per tablespoon). The classifications instead refer to the oil’s lighter colour and flavour.
Do you want oil with more flavour rather than less? Some manufacturers make high-quality flavoured olive oils by adding sweet or savoury ingredients, such as spices, herbs, vegetables, or citrus peel, to extra-virgin oils during the pressing process. Lower-quality flavoured oils have these ingredients added after pressing.
Commercially prepared flavoured oils are usually safe to keep and use for a long period of time, but homemade ones are not. If you create your own homemade flavoured oils, make only small amounts that you can use within several days, and always store them in the refrigerator to prevent the growth of potentially harmful bacteria. The oil itself does not support bacterial growth, but the moisture and nutrients in fresh herbs, garlic, dried tomatoes, or citrus peels do.
Green olive oils come from unripe olives and impart a slightly bitter, pungent flavour. Emerald-tinged oils have fruity, grassy, and peppery flavours that dominate the foods in which you use them. These oils are great with neutral-flavoured foods that allow their bold flavours to shine. You can pair green olive oils with strongly flavoured foods as long as they complement the oils’ pungent tastes.
Olive oils that glimmer with a golden colour are made from ripe olives. Olives turn from green to bluish-purple to black as they ripen. Oils made from ripe olives have a milder, smoother, somewhat buttery taste without bitterness. These oils are perfect for foods with subtle flavours because the gentle taste of a ripe olive oil won’t overshadow mildly flavoured foods.
Olive Oil Health Basics
In addition to the wonderful flavour it adds to your food, olive oil is also one of nature’s healing wonders. This liquid gold works to keep hearts healthy, may reduce inflammation and the risk of certain cancers, and might even play a role in controlling diabetes and weight. This is because olive oil is a monounsaturated fat, which lowers bad cholesterol without affecting good cholesterol. In this article you’ll learn how to use olive oil to improve your health.
Healing Through the Ages
The olive’s medicinal properties have helped people for thousands of years, and those who reaped the benefits of the fruit didn’t keep its wonderful secrets to themselves. As the olive migrated, folk remedies that used olive oil evolved to reflect the times and maladies of different regions. Olive oil was taken by mouth, spread on the skin, and dropped into the ears or nose. People considered it both a cure and a preventative measure for many afflictions.
Here are some popular folk remedies that have been used over the years:
- Take a spoonful or two to treat an upset stomach, difficult digestion, or constipation or to reduce the body’s absorption of alcohol from alcoholic beverages.
- Apply to skin to prevent dryness and wrinkles, to soften the skin, and to treat acne.
- Use on the hair to make it shiny and to treat dandruff.
- Strengthen nails by soaking them in warm olive oil.
- Ease aching muscles by massaging them with olive oil.
- Lower blood pressure by boiling olive tree leaves and drinking the “tea.”
- Clear nasal congestion with drops of olive oil in the nose.