THE TRUE GENETIC ORIGIN OF THE OLIVE TREE IS NOT KNOWN
The true generic origin of the olive tree is not known. However, some say the cultivation of the olive began around 5,000 BC on the Greek island of Crete. Others say it originates in Syria, Iran and the Palestine area. All major civilizations in the Mediterranean, including the Egyptians, Phoenicians, Greeks, and Romans have spread the fruit to the Mediterranean shores of Africa, Southern Europe, and westwards across the Mediterranean Sea. The tree is among the oldest known cultivated trees in the world, even pre-dating the invention of our written language. Ancient documents in Syria from around 2,000 BC indicate the value of olive oil.
In the eastern Mediterranean the olive has been an important part of life. It was considered a symbol of peace, wisdom, and victory. The Greeks even anointed the winners of the Olympic Games with the oil. Other cultures anointed the dead with it, while the Christian church still use it to celebrate special occasions. In modern times olive oil is widely used in many cultures and religions.
According to Greek mythology, the Goddess Athena brought the olive to the Greeks as a gift. The tree was planted on a rocky hill, which today we know as the Acropolis. Amazingly, it is said the tree still there today originates from the first olive tree. Trees over one thousand years old can be found in Sardinia, Crete, the Greek mainland, and Macedonia.
The Mediterranean civilisation developed olive cultivation to a size covering more than 23 million acres in the Mediterranean basin. The Mediterranean countries, with their temperate climate and soil, are ideal for the continued nurturing of the olive. Distinct varieties can be found in many villages throughout Europe, the Middle East, and in North Africa. It takes between 10 to 15 years to reach full production. Traditionally, the fruit is harvested in autumn and winter by hand, or by beating the fruit off the tree with long poles. We now have more modern and effective methods used for faster harvesting. Over the last 30 years, high production costs, especially for the harvest, have changed traditional olive orchards. A spacing of 7.5m between the trees used to be normal, allowing you to plant around 70 trees per acre. Modern producers plant between 250 and 900 trees per acre.
To produce high-quality olive oil, the fruits must be harvested without breaking its skin, and should be processed within 12 to 24 hours. First, a vibrating screen and blower remove the leaves so the olives can be crushed. There are two ways to crush olives and extract the oil. The oldest and slowest method uses stone mills. However, in recent years most of them have been replaced with faster and more cost effective hammer mills. During the next stage of production the oil has to be separated from the fruits water content and solids. Possible methods include centrifugal decanters, selective filtration, or by pressing. Before bottling, the oil needs to settle for 1 to 3 months in bulk storage.
Worldwide there are around 23 million acres of olives, some of which produce around 1.5 million tons of table olives. However, approximately 16 million tons of olives are processed to produce 2.56 million tons of oil. Spain has about one-quarter of the world’s acreage and is the top oil producer with an output of 36% of global production. With 3.53 million acres and around 24%, Italy is ranked second, followed by Greece with around 17%.
Olive oil is graded according to the quality of the oil and its pressing. The grade is given from the first pressing, which removes about 90 percent of the olives’ juice. Chemicals and high heat, which destroy antioxidants, are not allowed in the production of extra-virgin or virgin oils. After the pressing process no further processing or refining occurs.
“Premium extra virgin olive oil” with an extremely low acidity (possibly as low as 0.225%) is nature’s finest oil and best suited for using uncooked, like in salads or as a dip with bread. Extra virgin olive oil must have a superior flavor and is best used uncooked, like the premium version. Furthermore, IOOC regulations say it must contain no more than 0.8% acidity.
The less expensive fine virgin olive oil comes after the extra-virgin oil and is close in quality. According to the IOOC regulations it must have a ‘’good’’ taste and an acidity level of no more than 1.5%. Virgin olive oil must have a “good” taste as well, and its acidity must be no more than 2%. It’s great for cooking, but has enough flavor to also be enjoyed uncooked. Semifine virgin olive oil, with an acidity no higher than 3.3%, doesn’t have enough flavor and is good for cooking.
WHAT MEANS D.O.P.
Olive oil is treated like wine, with the same classification standards. D.O.P means Protected Designation of Origin. Only producers that apply for and pass certification standards within the origin of the oil earn this designation.
When shopping, look for olive oil in a dark bottle or in a can.
Olive oil lasts about 18-24 months if it’s stored in a cool and dark place.
Light and heat turn the oil rancid and destroy the healthy antioxidants.
Over time the acidity level rises and the healthy nutrients decrease, which is why it’s recommended to use your oil within 12 months of pressing.
BENEFITS OF OLIVE OIL
Olive oil is mainly comprised of monounsaturated fatty acids, the healthier type of fat.
• contains healthy fat
• is nutritious
• is packed full of antioxidants
• improves digestion
• has anti-inflammatory properties
• may reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer
• may prevent cardiovascular disease
• may prevent Diabetes
• may decrease the risk of Alzheimer’s disease
• improves your skin and hair
• strengthens cell walls
• delays aging
VARIETIES OF OLIVE OIL
The world’s most influential olive oil varieties are
Arbequina, Picual, Coratina, Koroneiki, Frantoio and Leccino
The Spanish Arbequina variety has been the most widely planted type for several years now. It’s very aromatic olive with a herbal avour and comes from Tarragona and Lleida in the northeastern coastal regions in Spain. Another Spanish sort is the very fruity Picual, which grows in the southern regions of Sevilla, Huelva, Granada, Córdoba, Jaén, and Malaga.
Koroneiki produces excellent oil high in polyphenols and is the primary oil variety of Greece. The very small fruit has a fruity aroma and grows all over Peloponnisos, Zakinthos, and Crete.
Coratina is a variety that can be found around Bari in southeastern Italy. The very green fruits mature extremely late and are quite bitter.
The famous Tuscan-blend oils, Frantoio and Leccino, grow primarily around Firenze in Tuscany and central Italy. While the bright-green Frantoio variety has a strong aromatic and grassy flavour, the much lighter Leccino has its own distinct spicy flavour that adds complexity to the excellent quality blend.
This article was published first in the TML Magazine Issue 1, 2018.