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Green Gold

Long Savored Along the Mediterranean, Olive Oil is Adding Zest to America's Diet
Sam Gugino
From the Print Edition:
Orlando Hernandez, Mar/Apr 99

Until the past 15 years or so, olive oil was thought to be too ethnic for white-bread America. Sure, we loved Italian food, but it was the spaghetti and meatballs variety of southern Italy. Not only did Americans think olive oil too ethnic, they thought it unhealthy. "People had preconceived ideas that olive oil was too rich and too caloric because it was strongly flavored," says Bill Monroe, chief executive officer of Bertolli, North America, the leading producer and marketer of olive oil in the United States and Italy. For more than a generation, Americans have been told that eating foods high in fat and cholesterol could lead toheart disease. We were advised to switch from animal fats to polyunsaturated fats such as corn or safflower oil to minimize the risk.

Then two things happened that shifted public perceptions about fat. In the mid- to late-1980s, olive oil was found to be not only not bad, but good for us. The nutrition pendulum had swung from polyunsaturated fats--which reduced low-density lipoproteins (LDL), or "bad" cholesterol, but also reduced the high-density lipoproteins (HDL), or "good" cholesterol--to monounsaturated fats, which reduced the bad cholesterol and raised the good cholesterol. Olive oil is 77 percent monounsaturated fat, the highest among all oils, with only a 9 percent polyunsaturated fat quotient.

At about the same time Americans were discovering the health benefits of olive oil, we expanded our love affair with Italian food. We embraced more varied and sophisticated Italian regional cooking, particularly the cuisine of Tuscany. Then, we went beyond Italy, and anything from the Mediterranean region became chic. Hence, the Mediterranean Diet became a nutritional staple because it focused less on animal protein and more on grains, fruits and vegetables--all liberally laced with olive oil.

Not surprisingly, this was all rather amusing to Mediterranean inhabitants, who had been eating this olive-oil-lubricated diet for centuries--from Lisbon to Lebanon, from Tuscany to Tunisia. The Mediterranean basin produces 98 percent of the world's olive oil. No one knows who squeezed that first olive to extract its perfumed juice, but it is generally accepted that olive trees were discovered simultaneously in Asia Minor, Crete and the Greek islands of the Aegean. Around 3000 B.C., the Phoenicians, Syrians and Palestineans were the first to cultivate the olive tree. Traders transported the tree, its fruit and its oil across the Mediterranean.

The olive tree, botanically known as olea europaea, is an evergreen with silver leaves reminiscent of sage leaves. The trunk is smooth and gray when young but becomes gnarled and cracked with age. Deep roots enable it to withstand extreme conditions of heat and drought. However, like wine, it is sensitive to cold, although much more drastically. A deep freeze in 1985 decimated many olive trees and affected grape vines in the Mediterranean, especially Tuscany.

There are striking similarities between grape vines and olive trees and the liquid their fruit produces, one reason why you'll see many of the finest wine estates in Italy, such as Frescobaldi, Antinori and Badia a Coltibuono, producing world-class oil as well. Both fruits thrive under adverse conditions, primarily poor soil and the absence of water. Both are products of their terroir--the combination of climate, soil and site selection. Both vary depending on the varieties planted and how the oils they yield are blended. And both benefit from harvesting that is done by hand at precisely the right moment.

But there are differences as well. The main one is that while some wines can age for years, even decades, olive oil has a limited shelf life, no matter what the quality. Even under optimum storage conditions, olive oil should be consumed within two years of the harvest, ideally within 18 months of the harvest. Olive oil never gets better with age, although sharp, peppery oils, such as those from Tuscany, will mellow with time, something that, depending on your taste, may or may not be an improvement.

The olive harvest begins in late autumn and early winter. In cooler areas such as Tuscany, olives are picked while still green and slightly underripe to avoid killing frosts. Harvests in warmer climates produce riper olives, from purple to black. (Black olives are simply green olives that have ripened.) Hand harvesting is done on smaller estates where the olives are destined for artisanal oils that will command higher prices.

Mechanical harvesting is increasingly employed, usually in the form of tractors with vibrating claws which shake the branches of the trees until the olives fall. Olives may also be harvested by hitting the branches with sticks. When the olives are not hand-harvested, nets or tarps are often stretched under trees to catch the fruit so it doesn't bruise from hitting the ground.

As with grapes, olives must be processed as soon as possible after picking. If left to sit, particularly in warmer climes, olives will ferment and impart rancidity and other undesirable flavors to the oil. Once washed and cleaned of leaves, the olives are crushed into a thin paste by huge granite stones, an ancient method that is still the most commonly used.

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