Liquid Gold

by Zrinka Peters

OLIVES AND THEIR OILS have a history that seems to go back to the beginning of the world. The olive tree is one of the oldest cultivated crops and has developed along with civilization out of the Mediterranean basin. It has for millennia been prized for its precious fruit. Its place in history is well-deserved — after all, it was an olive branch that Noah’s dove brought back to indicate the end of the Flood, and kings have historically been anointed with olive oil. It holds its place in history as a symbol of peace, wisdom, fertility and purification.

Americans have more recently discovered what the ancients knew long ago about olive oil — that there’s a lot to love about this liquid gold. It’s healthful, delicious, fragrant and comes in beautiful colors. Recent scientific research also confirms olive oil’s health benefits. It’s no wonder that Americans have developed a love affair with it - US imports of olive oil rose by 215% between 1984 and 1994.

Most of the olive oil produced in the world today comes from a handful of countries in the Mediterranean region: Spain leads the way, producing over 30% of the world’s olive oil, followed by Italy, Greece, France and numerous others.

The basic method of extracting oil from olives has not changed that much since ancient times. The olives are picked when ripe, and must begin to be processed within a short time — often within 3 days of picking—to minimize the oxidation which begins to take place as soon as they are picked. They are crushed, pits and all, into a thick paste, and spread onto porous disks, which are then stacked on top of each other and have pressure applied to them in order to extract the oil.

Today’s technology has provided mechanical methods of grinding the olives and extracting the oil. A centrifuge is used to separate the oil from the olive paste. The extracted oil must then be decanted or put into another centrifuge to further separate it from the water that is extracted with it.

Since the first pressing of olive oil is done in a similar fashion pretty much everywhere, what accounts for the differences in flavor, fragrance, color — and price? Anyone who loves a good olive oil knows that there are some pretty significant differences in these areas. The flavor of a particular oil depends on a number of factors— the variety of olive (there are hundreds of different types), the degree of ripeness when picked, the region from which the olives are harvested, and how—and how quickly—the oil was extracted. All olives start off green and gradually turn darker and eventually black as they ripen. A younger, greener olive will produce a greener oil and often one with stronger flavors. A darker, more mature olive will produce a lighter oil and more mellow flavors. Color, incidentally, is not an indicator of quality or flavor.

Types of Olive Oils

Definitions of various types of olive oil can vary, depending on the governing body writing them. The major olive oil-producing countries are members of the International Olive Oil Council (IOOC), which sets rules and defines standards for each grade of oil. Most countries use these standards.

Extra Virgin Olive Oil: This one is the most prized, and with good reason. The ‘extra virgin’ classification should mean an absolutely premium grade oil. It is the oil from the first pressing of the fruit, and it should be flavorful and aromatic.

Extra virgin olive oil has a very low level of acidity (this refers to the amount of oleic acid in the oil) — not more than 0.8%. The lower the percentage of acid, the better quality the oil and the fruitier the taste. It is minimally processed, having had no heat or chemical treatments, and the oil has not been altered in any way.

The best quality virgin olive oils should not be used for cooking, as heat alters the chemical makeup and destroys much of the flavor. Rather, enjoy it as a condiment and for uncooked purposes — on salads, drizzled on vegetables or soups, or for dunking bread.

Virgin Olive Oil: Is extracted using the same methods as extra virgin olive oil, but it has an acidity level of not more than 2%.

Ordinary Virgin Olive Oil: Has an acidity of not more than 3.3%.

Refined Olive Oil: This is obtained by refining virgin olive oils which have too high a level of acidity or are defective in some other way. It is chemically treated to remove strong flavors (making it basically tasteless and odorless) and neutralize the acid content. The level of acidity is not more than 0.3%.

‘Pure Olive Oil’: This can also just be called ‘olive oil’; it’s a blend of refined and virgin olive oils with not more than 1.5% acidity. This oil comes from either a second cold pressing, or by a chemical extraction of the remaining olive mash which was left over from the first pressing. It is much lighter in color and blander in taste than virgin olive oils. ‘Pure’ simply refers to the fact that no none-olive oils have been mixed in.

Light Olive Oil: In the US, there is no official definition of ‘lite’ or ‘light’ olive oil — this designation refers to color and flavor, not to caloric content. All olive oil has the same number of calories (120 per tablespoon). This is oil that has undergone an extremely fine filtration process which results not only in a lighter color but also a higher smoking-point, making it suitable for high-heat frying.

How to Store

Olive oil has a few enemies which encourage oxidation and rancidity – light, heat, air, and time. Because of this, olive oils should be stored in cool, dark cupboards or wine cellars, capped tightly, and…used! Olive oil, unlike wine, does not improve with age; a prolonged period of time actually encourages rancidity and a loss of flavor. Properly stored, many good quality olive oils will keep for a year or more.

To Your Health

One of the reasons olive oil is enjoying such popularity at this time is because of its widely publicized health benefits. It contains large amounts of monounsaturated fatty acids, which are some of the ‘good’ fats that help to lower blood cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of heart disease. Olive oil is rich in antioxidants, and scientific research has found it to have multiple other health benefits including bolstering the immune system and reducing the risk of some diseases, including certain cancers.

Olive oil is sometimes compared to wine; fine olive oil, like fine wine, delivers nuances of flavors — it can be fruity, peppery, bitter, or have hints of fresh-cut grass, artichoke or tomato. It can enhance the flavors of a meal and add to its enjoyment much like a good wine.

Like wine also, artfully produced oils can carry a steep price tag. But this is no reason for intimidation. Whether a color is beautiful to you, an aroma enticing, or a taste delicious depends on your personal preferences and has little to do with cost. It doesn’t matter how much you spend — just whether you like the oil. And we sure do. •

from the May-June 2008 issue


Refined: not more than .03% acidity
Extra Virgin:
not more than 0.8% acidity
not more than 1.5% acidity
not more than 2% acidity
not more than 3.3% acidity
no official definition

The lower the percentage of acid,
the better quality the oil.