A Brief History of Olive Oil
Based on archeological research, it is likely that olive trees have been cultivated since about 6000 - 5000 BC in what is called the Fertile Crescent which includes present day Egypt, Israel, West Bank, Gaza strip, and Lebanon and parts of Jordan, Syria, Iraq, south-eastern Turkey and south-western Iran. In the early days of olive oil production, it was used primarily as a lamp fuel but beginning sometime around 1600 BC, the culinary uses of olives and olive oil began to take root in Greece. Soon after, Italy, Spain and France all developed the cultivation of olive trees and the production of olive oil for culinary purposes. In the 15th century AD olive trees were brought to the West Indies via Spain. Cultivation in the New World took place in the 16th century in Mexico and eventually in Peru, California, Chile and Argentina.
Today the majority of olive oil is produced in the countries surrounding the Mediterranean. Worldwide olive oil production in 2005 was about 2.3 million metric tons. Spain is the world’s largest producer of olive oil at about 1 Million metric tons of oil per year; Italy produces about 500,000 tons and Greece about 300,000 tons. For comparison sake, the US produces about 1,000 tons per year.
What is Olive Oil?
Olive oil is the oil extracted from pressing olives. The olives are harvested, sorted, cleaned and mashed into a paste (pits and all is the traditional way although there are some more modern and more expensive methods where the olives are pitted first). The paste is mixed, then the solids of this mixture are separated from the liquids and finally the oil is decanted from the water. Once decanted, the oil is stored until it is ready to be bottled. Some oils are first filtered and then bottled.
All of the oil we deal with is Extra Virgin, first cold press oil. Lower quality oils are the result of multiple pressings to release every last bit of oil and often involve the addition of hot water and/or solvents to extract more oil.
Olio Nuovo is the first batch of oil from a season’s harvest and pressing. At its best, it is unfiltered but without sediment because the oil is so new, the solids haven’t had time to settle to the bottom of the bottle and remain suspended in the oil creating a cloudy appearance. The oil tends to be full of big, fresh flavors. Olio Nuovo is typically available for about four to six weeks after pressing. Oils bottled after this have had time to settle down in terms of both their solids and their flavors. Olio Nuovo is different than what is called first run oil which is the tiny amount of oil produced from the initial grinding of the olives into a paste. This oil is typically very raw and is rarely if ever sold commercially.
Olives are harvested October – December depending on the climate. Warmer climates are harvested earlier and cooler climates are harvested later. It is interesting to note that there is a small window of peak polyphenol levels in the ripening olives.
Video of Olive Harvest and Oil Production at Moulin Jean Marie Cornille
More Details about Olive Oil
Olive oil is a complex food with a deep history and varied dimensions of colors, textures, aromas and flavors. Like wine, these dimensions are impacted by several factors including:
- Varietal selection
- Environment (soil, climate etc…)
- Cultivation methods (irrigation, fertilization, pesticides, pruning etc…)
- Pressing / extraction
Generally speaking, olive oil does not get better with age but it’s worth noting that if you don’t like the intensity of really fresh oil, it will soften with time (but it will also lose much of its healthful properties).
Ideally, olive oil should be consumed with a year of its harvest date, but some oils maintain very good flavor even after 2 years. An oil’s longevity depends on:
- Olive variety (some olives naturally have a higher concentration of polyphenols)
- Ripeness of the olives used to produce the oil (riper olives are more susceptible to oxidation)
- Production methods (delay from harvest to press increases oxidation, unclean methods can increase potential for oxidation)
- Transportation conditions (heat increases oxidation)
- Age of oil (the oil breaks down over time and oxidizes)
- Storage conditions (cool and dark environment preserves the oil betters than warm and bright)
One of the features of olive oil that gets a lot of press is the “acidity level”. When people mention the acidity level, they are referring to the total percentage of Free Fatty Acids (FFA) in the oil. The lower the number the fresher taste. The acidity percentage of an olive oil is one of the ways to ensure the authenticity and a minimum level of quality of an oil in that it has not been adulterated with refined oil and that it has not undergone extensive oxidation due to poor production. Extra Virgin Olive Oil (as defined by the International Olive Oil Council or IOOC) is required to have less than .8% FFA and no defects in aroma or flavor. Most of the oils we sell have between .2% and .5% FFA so the window of quality within “Extra Virgin” is actually quite large.
How to Store Olive Oil
Keep your oil in a cool, dark place like a pantry or cupboard away from the stove. Don't be alarmed if you find sediment in the bottom of your olive oil bottle the best oils are unfiltered and particles will naturally settle to the bottom. Olive oil “freezes” at different temperatures, but it will generally begin to solidify at 40 degrees F or below. The natural waxes that are on the outside of the olive become a constituent part of the oil after pressing and it is these waxes that congeal most easily. Freezing will not harm olive oil but it should be allowed to fully thaw at room temperature before using.
Cooking with Olive Oil
The lower the free fatty acid %, the higher the smoke point. Olive oil has a smoke point of anywhere from 350 to 420 degrees F. Smoke point is really only an issue if you plan to use the oil to fry with. The Joy of Cooking suggests 356 F as a good frying temperature so a good quality olive oil should be fine. One simple consideration when buying an olive oil you plan to fry with is to get it filtered as the filtration will remove any particles which will lead to a lower smoke point as the “impurities” will smoke before the oil itself.
Tasting Olive Oil
There is no single method of evaluating an olive oil. Your method of tasting an oil is an individual choice but it is worth being aware of techniques others have found to be useful. All evaluation methods will include paying attention to:
First, notice the color of the oil. The color is a direct correlation to the color of the olives used. Green olives are higher in chlorophyll and will produce greener oil. More ripe olives will produce oil with a more golden color. Second, allow the oil in the tasting vessel to warm in your hand so that it releases its aroma more readily. Breathe in the aroma and make note of the associations.
A common “technical” tasting approach is to take a small quantity into the front of the mouth and to draw it back over the tongue with a quick succession of short sucks of air. In Italy, they call this strippaggio. This approach allows your tongue to capture a progression of flavors from the front of your tongue to the back. If this isn’t your thing, don’t worry and just take a small amount of the oil into your mouth and with a closed mouth, allow the oil to coat your palate and express itself.
Olive Oil and Health
Olive oil is considered to be healthy because of its polyphenol content and its mono-unsaturated fat (oleic acid) content. There have been extensive studies of the health benefits of olive oil. If you are interested, a good place to start is by visiting the Oldways Preservation and Trust website.