Olive Oil a Natural Gift

Before grapes became wine, before grain became bread, perhaps before the horse was domesticated, there was the olive tree and there was olive oil. It was a constant companion as civilization expanded from the Caucasus to the Mediterranean shore. The civilization and the trees crossed the sea on the ships of the Phoenicians and reached the hills of Greece, Italy, Spain and North Africa.

Olive oil lit the night cleanly and portably. It was medicine for the sick, cleansing for the newborn and blessing for the dying. The olive tree and olive oil are mentioned nearly 200 times in the Bible. Olive oil became a key ingredient of Mediterranean life.

The Fruit of a Tree

Olive oil is unique. Among all the oils that are used for food, only olive oil is the fruit of a tree*. Olives do not need to be heat treated or chemically induced to give up their oil; in fact the oil gets worse if those methods are used. Oils can be extracted from nuts, legumes, lards and butters; but olive oil has a unique molecular structure that is healthier than all the rest. Many oils can be modified to taste "something like" olive oil, but they cannot be changed to get the same health benefits.

Olives are a bitter fruit. They taste so bad on the tree that they are rarely eaten by birds. Yet they contain up to 25% oil by weight. Traditional methods for extracting the oil used heavy stones, burlap bags and hydraulic presses. These are beautiful, quaint but not as clean as you'd like. Modern oil presses use stainless steal hammer mills and artfully designed centrifuges to cleanly and efficiently separate the oil from the bitter elements of the olive; the water, the pit and the paste.

The Taste of Olive Oil

Olive oil should taste like olives. It should be fresh, herbaceous, lively and a bit peppery. The flavors might mimic an artichoke or green, fresh cut grass. It should be pleasant and distinctive. Olive oil should never be bland, it should never have 'off odors'. It should never have flavors of mustiness, rancidness or 'old' anything. The definition of "extra virgin olive oil" is simply, oil which has NO flavor or odor flaws and has the correct, very low, percentage of broken molecules called 'free fatty acids'.

Olive oil is a strong anti-oxidant, it preserves itself in the bottle. Olives, on the other hand, are like any other fruit. Once they are picked they are subject to bruising, heat, light and air. The oil should be pressed from the fruit within 24 hours of picking. If not, the oil may pick up the flavors of the slowly fermenting fruit.

Olive oil is at its absolute best the moment it comes out of the press. In the absence of light and heat, the oil lasts for a long time. Unfortunately, the flavor of the oil is not so persistent. Every day that olive oil ages, it gets a little smoother, a little blander, a little less lively. Eventually the oil will have the flavor of highly processed vegetable oils. Olive oil should not be used if it has been more than 18 months since pressing. A limit of a year is even better.

It may have Passed an Olive Tree

Fifty years ago it was hard to find olive oil in anything but the local Italian market. Today, the shelves are full of 'olive oil' choices. They come from all over the world, and all of them say "extra virgin" in large and cleverly formatted ways. The truth of the matter, according to "Extra Virginity" by Tom Mueller; most of the supermarket oil you can buy is of questionable origin. It may have passed by an olive tree in Southern Italy while traveling from the chemical factory to a tanker ship. It's likely that the base oil was some cheaply available nut oil, chemically modified with a little olive flavor added with actual olive oil or another method. It might be from Italy. Consumer reports recently did a study of numerous readily available brands and found few that could rightfully be called "Extra Virgin Olive Oil". The product in local restaurants is probably even less likely to be anything but bulk oil bought from a large importer.

The glasses or tins of olive oil in the store very rarely talk about the variety of olives that went into their product. Yet, just as with wine or apples, there is a real difference between the oils from one of the over 500 varieties of olive trees from around the globe. If you get to like one particular variety, or region or ripening method you may want to be able to find it again when you go back to the store. It will require another article to look at these differences.

Tips on Choosing the Best Olive Oil

Suppose you want to find a really nice olive oil for a special dinner - to cook with, to drizzle over a salad or to complement some wonderful bread or cheese. How can you hope to find that oil among the rows and rows and shelves of clever packaging; most saying "extra virgin produced in Italy"? First, look for a 'pressed by' or 'produced on' date. That date should be reasonable: November or December within 12 to 18 months for northern hemisphere sources and May or June for Australian oil.

Next, look for a clear and unambiguous indication that the olives were grown by the same people who pressed the oil and put it in the bottle. "Estate grown" is usually a good clue. "Organic" is less important as a growing method, but may indicate that the trees are controlled by the bottler.

If there is a choice between clear glass, dark glass or a tin container, always go for the oil that has seen the least light. Ultraviolet light is not good for those healthy molecules in the oil. The tin or dark glass make it harder to see the golden product, but they show that the producer has respect for the oil.

Last, avoid anything that says "produced in Italy" or "bottled in Italy" without the date and estate reference mentioned above. If it is actually olive oil, it still has taken too long to get from grove, to the mill, to the tanker ship, to the Italian bottler, back to a cargo ship, across the ocean through the distribution process and to that grocery shelf in front of you.

It sounds tricky, and it is! But it's like finding a great brand of wine that you can enjoy over and over again. It is a real gift of nature, and some people do a better job getting it to your table than others.

Someone in California is doing it

Olive oil is best from someplace local. It has traveled less, it has been processed less and it has been lovingly produced by someone who knows where the trees are growing. California is emerging as a fine producer of quality oil. From north to south, from coast to desert there are small producers who are selling quality oil in the exact flavor profile you're looking for. Early harvest sharp, late harvest smooth, Tuscan style, French style, whatever... someone in California is doing it and they are putting the details on their label.

Just as the Phoenicians introduced the olive to Spain, the Spanish missionaries brought the trees to California. Olive trees have thrived in San Diego since 1769. Today you can see the descendants of those 'Mission' olives in the streets and yards all over our county. Here in Ramona there are over 1000 producing olive trees. Some are many decades old and as big as oak trees, others are recently planted from varieties specially chosen for olive oil. It will be interesting to see if this climate, this land and this collection of trees can once again produce that healthful oil for your table.

* recently another tree fruit, avocado, has become a source of oil.