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Ten Things About Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Centuries-old olive tree in the Alto Salento, Puglia.

Centuries-old olive trees in the Alto Salento, Puglia.

Our immersion in the world of extra virgin olive oil has consumed our lives. As we get ready to launch our fledgling Pascarosa venture, we’re learning more and more about the extraordinary benefits of extra virgin olive oil. Like you, I have used extra virgin olive oil almost exclusively in cooking without a complete understanding of its incredible value. What we’ve found goes far beyond our formerly hazy understanding that olive oil is probably pretty good for the human body.

At the risk of droning on and on about our new favorite topic, here’s a round-up of extra virgin olive oil’s top ten attributes. Tell me you’re not completely stunned by at least some of them.

A farmer surveys his harvest as he waits for his time slot at the olive mill.

A farmer surveys his harvest as he waits for his time slot at the olive mill.

It takes a lot of olives—really a lot—to make oil. To yield about 16.9 oz. or 500 ml, you need at least 12 lbs. of them. If you’re harvesting early when the olives are still a little green, you need even more because the more olives mature, the more oil they release. It takes an average picker a little under an hour to pick this many olives, so you do the math. Oil labeled extra virgin from Italy that sells for $8 a liter in the supermarket is unlikely to be what it claims.

Almost ready to harvest, these olives range from green to pale violet to deep purple.

Almost ready to harvest, these olives range from green to pale violet to deep purple.

• It turns out that the olive harvest date plays a big part in the eventual health and flavor attributes of extra virgin olive oil. Olives handpicked from the tree at the beginning of the ripening process (generally the end of October and the beginning of November) produce increased organoleptic characteristics of fruitiness, piquancy, and bitterness. The resulting extra virgin olive oil is rich with antioxidant elements that stabilize conservation. It’s these antioxidant qualities that make extra virgin olive oil so beneficial in so many ways.

Pouring Olive Oil• This one is the real knockout. Health benefits associated with extra virgin olive oil are extensive, with new findings reported all the time. Oleocanthol, a powerful phytonutrient found in extra virgin olive oil, acts as an anti-inflammatory, decreasing the risk of developing some cancers and preventing their recurrence. It also helps reduce levels of blood cholesterol leading to heart attacks. As the world’s physicians cope with a veritable epidemic of obesity and early onset diabetes, extra virgin olive oil has been shown to lower “bad” low-density lipoproteins while improving blood sugar control and enhancing insulin sensitivity. And new research is revealing all kinds of stunning benefits from the prevention of the onset of osteoporosis to reduced likelihood of developing rheumatoid arthritis among those who regularly use extra virgin olive oil.

• That prickly bite at the back of your throat when you taste some extra virgin olive oils? Embrace it. The piccante bite, or pizzica, is the best indication of an extra virgin olive oil’s antioxidant and anti-inflammatory value. It is the flavonoid polyphenols in olive oil that contribute to a bitter taste and resistance to oxidation. These polyphenols are strong antioxidants and they’ve been shown to provide the host of beneficial effects you just read about.

Facial soap made with extra virgin olive oil.

Facial soap made with extra virgin olive oil.

• The men and women of ancient Greece were considerably more savvy than we are about the cosmetic value of extra virgin olive oil. In addition to being a natural, hypoallergenic way to moisturize skin, extra virgin olive oil has the added advantage of providing strong antioxidants like Vitamins A and E that help repair and renew skin that has been damaged from overexposure to sun, air pollution, and other modern-day environmental hazards. These antioxidants have the natural ability to stimulate cells and return skin to a firmer, smoother, and healthier condition. And olive oil, along with other components of a Mediterranean Diet, may contribute to the prevention of malignant melanoma.  Malignant melanoma, the most dangerous type of skin cancer, may be slowed down by consumption of antioxidant-rich extra virgin olive oil.

The first, unfiltered extra virgin olive oil off the press is always a vibrant green-gold.

The first, unfiltered extra virgin olive oil off the press is always a vibrant green-gold.

• I used to think green olive oil must be richer in flavor than yellow olive oil. In fact, the color of the oil indicates almost nothing—it’s all about the way the oil tastes in your mouth. This is why olive oil tasters use small blue glasses to avoid being influenced by the oil’s color. Unfortunately, some producers have taken advantage of this myth by adding leaves to the olive crush, which increases chlorophyll and achieves a darker green color. Even worse, other unscrupulous olive oil merchants add green food coloring to substandard oil in an attempt to cash in on this common misconception. The first extra virgin olive oil that drips off the press is always a beautiful green-gold color, thick with the residual pulp of olives. Once filtered, the oil becomes clear, which enhances its storage capabilities without sacrificing any of its healthy polyphenolic content.

Olive cultivation dates from antiquity, well before written language. And olive trees can be extremely long-lived. Some living trees in Italy, Spain and Greece have been documented to be over 2,000 years old. Olives have even been found in Egyptian tombs dating from 2,000 B.C. With the expansion of the Greek colonies in the 8th century B.C., olive culture reached North Africa and southern Italy. Olives were so important to the Roman Empire that the southern regions were organized around olive provinces. Clearly our ancestors were on to something.

Centuries-old olive trees develop gnarled trunks over time.

Centuries-old olive trees develop gnarled trunks over time.

• There are more than 700 kinds of olives, or cultivars, known to exist in the world today. Each contributes to the gastronomy of the region in which they’re found; many have been exported to thrive in new regions. In Italy, there are more than 60 million olive trees planted throughout the country, with the largest aggregate found in the region of Puglia. That’s enough for each man, woman and child in Italy to have one of his or her very own.

Traditional olive harvesting means picking by hand.

Traditional olive harvesting means picking by hand.

• Extra virgin olive oil is perhaps one of the few products to which economy of scale does not apply. Manual harvesting is really only feasible in small groves, which allow for handpicking. This method avoids any bruising of the fruit, which can cause oxidation and fermentation. Crushing, extraction, separation of water, and subsequent filtering can take place within hours, limiting air contamination and unintended fermentation, which increase acidity and, ultimately rancidity in the oil.

Industrial capacity olive groves with automated harvesters in California (Seattle Times, 2008).

Industrial capacity olive groves with automated harvesters in California (Seattle Times, 2008).

• In the past decade, olive oil consumption has risen 35% in southern Europe, its traditional market, and more than a hundred per cent in North America. As is the case with nearly all grown edibles, demand is outnumbering availability, resulting in industrial-level production. In this type of farming, olive trees are planted in vast quantities, requiring colossal amounts of watering and machine-powered olive picking. To reduce time and manpower, oil is extracted from olives in large batches through heated technology, which reduces or eliminates the oil’s polyphenolic content. In contrast, traditional olive oil is often made from centuries-old trees in small orchards, requiring only handpicking and less technology, then cold-pressed to extract oil. This traditional process helps retains the juice’s naturally occurring nutrients. Not only has this newer, mass-production practice taken an economic toll on organic olive oil farmers, whose cultivation and processing is strictly regulated by the European Union, but it’s also responsible for widespread soil erosion and desertification in Spain, Greece, Italy and Portugal.

Low-tech extra virgin olive oil from a friend's recent harvest.

Low-tech extra virgin olive oil from a friend’s recent harvest.

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3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Catherine, just love this post. So informative, interesting, mind boggling on a lot of points! Recently, a few articles have appeared about olive oil and prevention of various cancers. Who would have thought! Here’s hoping to a very long life as we have been consuming large quantities of olive oil for about 30 years. Isn’t it wonderful to be in the land of this ambrosia!

    January 12, 2013
    • Thanks, Nina. This personal olive oil tutorial has been an incredibly revealing experience. I thought I was pretty well informed, but the more I dig, the more I am convinced that we should be slathering olive oil all over ourselves as we swill it. I can think of worse things . . . I hope you’re well–it looks like it’s been a chilly winter so far there. We just got back from a quick trip to Naples, which was heaven. Sunny, blue skies and a hint of a breeze off the Mediterranean sea. Oh, and the pizza.

      January 25, 2013
  2. I started using olive oil on a regular basis when I went to Italy 40 years ago, where I first learned to cook. At the time olive oil was purchased in Australia at the chemist in tiny bottles and used to treat cradle cap in babies. Now of course olive oil is readily available and Australia produces some very good olive oil. I always try to purchase from a small grower.
    …my mother’s name is Olive and she hates it.

    January 12, 2013

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