Olive Oil - Gourmet Guide

June 12, 2019 | By Dave Mattingly

Olive Oil History
Olive Oil is produced from the fruit of the olive tree, one of the oldest tree species in the world. The cultivation of olive trees began thousands of years ago in the Mediterranean by the Minoans on the Greek island of Crete. Stone mortars and presses used in Olive Oil extraction have been discovered that date back nearly 5,000 years. Cultivation processes were handed down from generation to generation, with each culture and region having its own variation on Olive Oil production. The Minoans of Crete began cultivating olives around 3500 BC. The Phoenician civilization spread olives to Southern Europe, Northern Africa and Egypt, as olives were found in Egyptian tombs that date back to 2000 BC. Olives and its oils were then spread throughout the Greek and Roman cultures. The Romans brought olive trees to Spain and other colonies as they expanded their empire. Olive Oil was used not only for food in ancient times, but also as a medicine, fuel, in religious ceremonies, as a cleanser, and in soap and for skin care. Legend has it that Athens of ancient Greece was named so because their civilization choose Athena's offering of an olive tree over Poseidon's offering of a salt water spring. While it is widely known that the olive tree branch has long been a symbol for peace, its image has also been used to represent wealth, power, strength and youth over the course of history.

Today Spain, Italy and Greece combine to produce over 75% of the world's Olive Oil, while many other countries throughout the world produce smaller amounts of Olive Oil. Spanish Olive Oil is characteristically golden in color with a nutty fruity flavor. Southern Italian Olive Oil is darker green in color with an herbal grassy taste. Greek Olive Oil is classically strong and green in flavor, while northern Italian, French and California Olive Oils are lighter in color and milder in flavor. Different varieties of Olive Oil are often mixed together to create unique Olive Oil blends.

Olive Oil Production
Olives are harvested in the autumn and winter. Olive trees are traditionally shaken to bring down their olives but may also hand-picked. Great care is taken when obtaining the olives so as to not bruise or damage them, as this may trigger oxidation which can compromise the olive's flavor. Olives are then transported to a processing plant where they are sorted and any leaves or stems are removed and the olives are cleaned. The olives are then crushed and grinded into a paste by a stainless steel or stone roller. At this stage in the extraction process, the olive paste undergoes the malaxation process in which a small amount of water is added to the paste and then mixed for 20 to 40 minutes. This allows the oil to concentrate and gain flavor. Heat may be added to the process, but too much heat may trigger oxidation decreasing the shelf life and nutrients in the oil. If heat is added, there is more production but the Olive Oil cannot be labeled Extra Virgin (in order to be "cold-pressed" an Olive Oil must be heated no higher than 80 degrees). The olive paste is then pressed further often with centrifugal force which separates the solid remnants of the paste, called pomace, with the oil and water.

Many different factors that occur during the production process influence the color, flavor and aroma of Olive Oil. These factors include the olive variety used in production, the location where the olives were grown, olive ripeness, timing and olive harvest method, production techniques and storage methods. Olive Oils are graded based on their flavor, method of production and level of acidity. While The International Olive Oil Council (IOOC) maintains standards that most countries use, the US does not follow the IOOC's standards, but rather a system developed by the USDA.

Olive Oil Grading

Extra Virgin Olive Oil: The highest quality grade of Olive Oil, Extra Virgin Olive Oil is produced from the first pressing of the olives, uses no heat during the production process, and has acidity below .8%.

Virgin Olive Oil: Virgin Olive Oil is lower quality than Extra Virgin Olive Oil and must have an acidity less than 1.5%. There is almost no production of this grade of Olive Oil as the market demand for Extra Virgin is much higher.

Refined Olive Oil: Refined Olive Oil is obtained by refining Olive Oil that cannot qualify for higher grades. In order to become refined, these Olive Oils undergo processing such as heating, chemical refinement or filtration. With a required acidity under .3%, Refined Olive Oil has a long shelf life.

Pure Olive Oil: Pure Olive Oil is a blend of Refined Olive Oil and either Extra Virgin or Virgin Olive Oil. Pure Olive Oils often contain about 85% Refined Olive Oil and 15% Virgin or Extra Virgin Olive Oil. Pure Olive Oil has a high smoke point as it excellent when used for cooking. Some people prefer its lighter taste and it is now marketed in the US as "Light Olive Oil" as a less robust salad dressing ingredient.

Pomace Olive Oil: Pomace Olive Oil is the lowest grade of Olive Oil. This oil is produced by extracting oil from the pulp and pits that are left over from the first pressings of the olives. To produce Pomace Olive Oil, the crushed pulp and pits are treated with solvent and may undergo additional filtering and refinement.

Olive Oil Health Benefits
Olive Oil is rich in vitamins A, D, K and E, and monounsaturated fat, the healthiest type of fat, which helps to lower "bad" LDL cholesterol. In addition to supporting heart health, Olive Oil also has anti-inflammatory benefits, may help reduce blood pressure, and may help those with or at risk for diabetes. Olive Oil plays an important role in the Mediterranean Diet, which emphasizes eating a primarily planted based diet of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and emphasizes the consumption of Olive Oil as the main source of saturated fat. Olive Oil is also has excellent emollient properties when applied to the skin, and is used in cosmetics, soaps, moisturizers and other skin care products.

Cooking With Olive Oil
A fine Olive Oil adds flavor, depth and texture to just about any food. Although Extra Virgin and Virgin Olive Oils withstand heat well, they are best when used uncooked or cooked at low to medium temperatures to retain the character and flavor of the oil. Pure Olive Oil may be used in sautéing, frying, grilling, stir-frying and deep-frying. Olive Oil also tempers the acidity in highly acid foods such as tomatoes, vinegar and wine. Extra Virgin Olive Oil is superb when added as an ingredient in vinaigrettes, marinades, sauces, dips, or drizzled over meat, vegetables, pasta or bread. Light and mild Pure Olive Oil is excellent for baking for use in place of butter to add exquisite flavor without all of butter's saturated fat and cholesterol.

Interesting Olive Oil Facts

  • Olive oil was ceremonially applied to the heads of kings and heroes in ancient times.
  • Ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman medicines and cosmetics made extensive use of olive oil.
  • Olive oil has been glamorized in literature. Homer referred to olive oil as "Liquid Gold" in his writings. The Islamic prophet Mohammed stated in his texts that olive oil cures seventy diseases.
Today, Olive Oil is still treasured for its medicinal, culinary, nutritional and cosmetic virtues. It is reported that olive oil
  • Is an intensive natural conditioner for skin and hair tissues.
  • Helps to assimilate vitamins A, D and K and provides essential acids that cannot be produced by human body.
  • Encourages healthy growth of young cells.
  • Slows down the aging process.
igourmet's Olive Oils are specially crafted in Italy, Spain, France, Portugal, Greece, Morocco, Israel and California. Available in Extra Virgin, organic, infused and flavored varieties, igourmet offers the most complete line of oils on the web. When searching for gourmet food online, look no further than igourmet.com.