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Olive Oil

May 5, 2011

The olive, in the western world, followed the progress of peace, of which it was considered as the symbol – Edward Gibbon, “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”

We’ve come a long way since the days of keeping a tub of dripping in the fridge to use for frying food. Often the refinement of our cooking fashions has led to bewildering over-complexity (I recently commented to a friend that, from the times of a simple bottle of Skipping Girl, at last count I had five different types of vinegar in the pantry!) and food-snobbery, but when it comes to cooking oil, the trend towards good quality olive oils is all for the better.

I use good quality, extra virgin olive oil for almost everything that calls for cooking oil. I only make exceptions for things like deep-frying, or some types of cuisine where the flavour of olive oil would be out of place – principally Indian food – or where a specific taste, such as macadamia oil, might be called for.

What sort of olive oil?

If you’re unfamiliar with all this newfangled olive oil talk, the sheer variety on offer on the supermarket shelf can almost as daunting as trying to pick out a bottle of wine. So what should you look for in an olive oil? What does all this “extra virgin”, “pure” and “cold pressed” stuff actually mean?

Well, all those terms actually have a specific meaning. Each indicates how the oil is produced, and thus its quality. In order, they are:

  • Extra Virgin: This is the top grade stuff, made from the first cold pressing of good quality olives, with no chemical solvents used. There’s no difference, by the way, in oils that are labelled, “cold-pressed, extra virgin”, because virgin oil is by definition cold-pressed.
  • Virgin: This oil is extracted by the same method as extra virgin, but is made from the second pressing, or from second-grade fruit.
  • Pure: is “pure” strictly in the sense that it indeeds contains only olive oil. However, it is the inferior oil left after the virgin oil has been extracted from lower-grade olives, then refined with heat, chemical solvents, and pressure and filtration treatment. A small amount of virgin oil is mixed in to improve its colour and flavour.
  • Light and Extra Light: These oils are made from the last pressing of olives. They are more heavily refined and of lower quality than the other grades, with not much flavour and colour at all.

So that’s the different varieties of olive oils explained. Now, of course the extra virgin oil is going to be much more expensive than an extra light oil, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s money well spent. The difference in the flavour of an extra virgin oil is obvious; extra light oil is bland rubbish: you’d be better off just buying a bottle of canola oil.

You can save a lot of money, though, by buying in bulk. Buy one of those five-litre cans of oil to store in the pantry, and funnel some into a bottle to keep handy for everyday cooking.

To get the best value, check the unit-price on the shelf: it will tell you what each one costs per litre, or per 100ml (unit pricing is fantastic for directly comparing the prices of things!). Sometimes, one item will tell you its price per 100ml, while another brand of the same product will be priced per litre: just multiply the per 100ml price by 10, to compare.

Even with the extra-virgin oils, there are dozens of varieties on offer. I generally prefer to buy oil produced in Australia, as there are some excellent quality locally-produced oils.

Then there are the “boutique” varities. They’re a little pricey for everyday cooking, but their intense flavours are certainly worth spending a little more, if you want to use them sparingly for dressings, or similar applications.

What’s so great about olive oil?

At its most basic, olive oil just tastes great: what more reason do you need?

Beyond that, though, olive oil is great for your health. Again, extra virgin oil is the best, as it retains the most nutrients from the fruit. Olive oil is a key component of the “Mediterranean diet”, and although its health benefits have not been proven beyond doubt, research certainly suggests a strong association of olive oil consumption with many health benefits.

Among olive oil’s health benefits, it may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and several types of cancers, and help reduce or manage blood pressure, obesity, rheumatoid arthritis and immune function.

Some history

The olive tree is native to the Mediterranean, and originated in what is today Turkey, in Asia Minor. Wild olives were collected as long as 10,000 years ago, in the Neolithic, although it is not clear when and where the trees were first domesticated. Candidates range from Asia Minor 8,000 years ago, the Levantine coast (from Sinai to Turkey) 6,000 years ago, or in the Fertile Crescent of Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) 5,000 years ago.

The earliest known olive oil amphorae date from 5 1/2 thousand years ago in Crete, although the production of oil is believed to have started 500 to 1000 years earlier, either in Crete or by the Canaanites, in present-day Israel. There are surviving oil presses from Roman times.

The importance of olive oil in the ancient Mediterranean was such that Homer called it “liquid gold” in the Odyssey. As Gibbon observed, the olive was so widely associated with civilization that it became the well-known symbol of peace: Aristophenes referred to “greatest of all goddesses, Eirene, goddess of peace, her to whom the olive is so dear”. Even today, we talk of “extending the olive branch” as a peace-making gesture.

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