World of Olive Oil

When was Olive Oil first used?
Olive cultivation began in the eastern Mediterranean some 6000 years ago. It moved west through Greece into Italy and along the northern coast of Africa into Spain. The first olive oil pressing began in Spain under Moorish rule.

The Romans held olive oil in such high regard that they invented the screw press for olive oil production and perfected the method of extraction. The Roman demand for oil helped to spread the cultivation of olive trees further north into France and increased their dependence on a steady supply from Spain. For centuries olive oil was indispensable, having culinary, medicinal, and industrial uses.

MallorcaTreeWhere is Olive Oil produced?
The olive oil tree flourishes in Mediterranean-type climates (between the 30th to-45th latitudes) with hot dry summers and cool winters. The trees are sensitive to the cold during the growing season, but are able to tolerate drought and heat. Olive oil production is still mostly centered in the Mediterranean region, although in recent years we are beginning to see olive oils from regions throughout the world.

Spain was the first country to establish a “Denominacion de Origin” for olive oils. With over 300 million olive trees, it is the number one producer of olive oil at 35% of world production, 75% of which comes from Andalusia.  It grows many types of olives, such as the arbequina and verdial varieties of Catalonia, and the hojiblanca, piqual, cornicabra, and lechin varieties of the south. The piqual variety of the south accounts for 50% of all olive trees in Spain.

The second largest producer, with 24% of worldwide production, is Italy. Italians, who consume 10 quarts of olive oil per person per year do not produce enough oil for their domestic consumption, yet they are one of the largest exporters of olive oil in the world. Much of their oil is imported, bottled and exported as an Italian product. Spain is their major supplier.

Greece is the third largest producer with 19% of the world production. French olive oil production, which is mainly focused in the Provence region, is only a small percentage of worldwide production. California has also recently been recognized as an up and coming olive oil producer. Other countries that produce significant amounts of olive oil are Tunisia, Turkey, Libya, Argentina, Morocco, Algeria, and Portugal.

How is Olive Oil produced?
The Harvest season is from September to March depending on the region and whether the fruit will be used for oil or table olives. Olives are hand picked to ensure that the fruit is at its optimum ripeness and to reduce bruising. Unripe olives, which are pear shaped and green, will change to a dark purple and then black as they ripen and “fill” with oil. In Spanish this maturation process is called envero. Olives can be processed for oil at any time, but ripe olives will yield more oil and it will be less bitter. Like wine, the conditions and treatment of the olive tree throughout the year will have an effect on the yield and quality of the oil.

Once the olives have been picked they may be allowed to remain in piles for a short time to increase the heat in the piles, which helps to release more oil. But production should take place fairly soon after picking to reduce the chance of fermentation of the olives. In Spain, olives designated for “virgin” oil must, by law, be pressed within 72 hours of harvesting.

The newly harvested olives are first sprayed with jets of cold water to remove impurities and any leaves still hanging on. The olives are then ground, a process called tritulation, to shred the flesh and crush the pits. This helps to release the oil.

The resulting paste is spread onto mats (traditionally made from hemp called esparto), which are stacked one upon another and placed into a hydraulic press to undergo hundreds of tons of weight. The resulting reddish-brown liquid consists of part olive oil and part natural olive vegetable water.

The oil is then centrifuged to separate the two. Some producers will collect the oil that results solely from the weight of the olive paste before it is pressed. This first-run oil, referred to as yema flor in Spanish, is of the highest possible quality.

The process described above is called the first cold pressing, in which the oil is obtained without heat or chemicals. A batch of ten pounds of olives will produce about one quart of oil. With this process, 90% of the oil is extracted with the first press. The paste is sent to the refinery to remove the remaining 10% , or pomace oil. Historically when the olives were hand milled, much less of the oil was obtained from the first pressing. Second pressings and hot-pressing techniques were then used. Today this is no longer necessary, but many producers will still use the “first cold-pressed” terminology on their labels.

Why should I use olive oil?
There has been much research on the health benefits of olive oil – especially as a part of the Mediterranean Diet. Olive oil has been shown to have positive effects on everything from cancer to heart disease. Olive oil’s benefits come not just from the type of fat it contains (mostly monounsaturated), but also from the other beneficial compounds, vitamins and antioxidants found in high quality olive oils. Read about the latest research here.

No other oil is edible right after pressing. It is the perfect oil for eating and for cooking. It is wonderful for frying foods at high temperatures because it has a higher smoking point (410°F) than most others. It is also economical because it increases its volume upon being heated, and it can be reused with filtering. (Although do not mix it with new oil). It is the only oil that will preserve and protect the true taste of the food that it fries.

How should I store Olive Oil?
“Drink wine old and oil young.” Unlike wine, olive oil does not improve with age. It is best used within a year and a half of bottling. After this it is may begin to start to show signs of oxidation and an evident loss of quality. Bad oil will be obvious from a distinctive, unpleasant odor. Olive oil should always be stored away from heat, light, and air. It will solidify at 36° F, causing a white solid layer to form at the bottom of the bottle. This is not harmful to the oil, which will return to normal if brought back up to room temperature.

What are the different types of Olive Oil?
The best oil is cold-pressed extra virgin. All others are refined oils blended with extra virgin for flavor, color, and aroma. Olive oil is graded according to its acidity level. A lower acidity level indicates a better quality oil. The standards are set by the International Olive Oil Council (IOOC). 10% of all olive oil produced in the world is top quality virgin olive oil. The remaining 90% is refined to remove impurities which affect its flavor and aroma.

Grades (as designated by the IOOC):
Virgin olive oil is the oil obtained from the fruit of the olive tree solely by mechanical or other physical means that do not lead to alterations in the oil.

  • Extra Virgin Olive Oil: Absolutely perfect taste and odor with acidity of less than 1%
  • Fine Virgin Olive Oil: Absolutely perfect taste and odor with acidity of less than 1.5%
  • Semi-fine Olive Oil: Maximum acidity of 3%
  • Olive Oil: Blend of refined olive oil and virgin olive oil. Must have an acidity level of not more than 1.5%. Refined oil, which is obtained from virgin oils by a refining method, has no taste or smell and virgin oil is added to give it flavor.
  • Olive Pomace Oil: Refined oil extracted from the olive paste after the first pressing. Acidity not to exceed 1.5%. Flavored with virgin oil.
  • Virgin Olive Oil Lampante: Virgin olive oil that is not fit for consumption (off taste/ off smelling). Either refined for blending or used for technical purposes.

How does one taste Olive Oil?
Like wine, olive oil has many different variations dependent on the types of olives, the region and soil, the cultivation techniques, and the production process, among others. No one type of oil is inherently better than another, yet certain types will lend themselves better to certain culinary uses.

Many believe that the color will give an indication of the oils quality, but this is not so. The color will depend on the ripeness of the olives upon harvesting, and the type of olive used. When tasting olive oil, the first thing one must do is to smell the oil. Next, one should taste the olive oil with some bread, or preferably with a spoon so as to swill the oil around the mouth before swallowing. Note your first impression. Is it sweet and mild or strong and paunchy? Second, note the degree of pepperiness. It is important to realize that one’s impression of pepperiness will increase with the number of flavors on the palate. Thus the third oil may taste more peppery but may actually have the same pepperiness as the first. Follow each taste with a slice of apple before moving on to the next oil.

Olivar de la LunaCastillo de CanenaNeus by Priorat NaturLa Masia