Drizzle it, cook it, sip it, light it, lather it – olive oil has many properties and uses but not everyone understands how to truly appreciate this amazing and ancient elixir. Olives are mostly grown in Mediterranean countries such as Spain, Greece and Italy, and the process of crafting wonderful olive oil is similar to wine-making and just like grape vines, olive trees are influenced by the climate, soil, neighboring crops, flowers, insects, water, minerals and a certain je ne sais quoi – let’s call it a touch of the olive fairy’s wand – as the olives are transformed from seed to ripened fruit. And, naturally, these characteristics come through in the oil which was traditionally extracted by crushing the olives with stone or granite wheels, but today steel rollers are most commonly used to crush the olives and pits and grind them into paste from which the oil is extracted. Oil extracted from green olives can taste a bit grassy, and riper fruit yields a more floral profile. There might be notes of nuts, bananas, apples and even citrus. If the scents of hay, mud, cardboard or vinegar are detected then the oil is rancid and should not be consumed.
When evaluating an olive oil’s quality, consider if it is extra virgin, virgin or refined, and then assess the scent, color, texture and flavor. The oils from Spain are a favorite of foodies for their versatility, smooth texture, slight bitterness, sweet and fruity and sometimes nutty flavor.
Extra virgin, which is made from the first cold pressing of the olives, is the most prized and expensive of all olive oils. With less than 1% of acidity, the buoyant flavor is best enjoyed in emulsifications, for dipping bread and in salad dressings but the oil should not be used for frying due to its low smoking point.
Virgin olive oil is also extracted during a cold press, but with an acidity level of just below 2%, it can be enjoyed like extra virgin but is a bit more versatile and can be used for cooking bright Mediterranean recipes and when sautéing vegetables and proteins. But never for deep frying!
Refined olive oil is the least expensive of the crop, but it is rather bland and less inspiring than its more virginal cousins and used mainly for cooking – but not deep frying. This one is really good to also use for non-culinary purposes, such as a skin tonic and for brightening and strengthening the hair (run some through your strands after bathing and shine all day).
There are at least hundreds – if not thousands – of varieties of olive oil available including those that are infused with herbs (rosemary is divine), spices (chili is very popular), fruits (orange can be bitter or sweet) and even chocolate! Dive in to the fascinating and stimulating world of olive oil and discover a vast field of seemingly endless possibilities, especially as new varietals of olives are created or old ones are rediscovered as happened recently when researchers recovered three olive varieties native to Galicia, Spain that are at least 100 years old.