Long Savored Along the Mediterranean, Olive Oil is Adding Zest to America's Diet
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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.
While most wines are made in wineries owned by the grape growers themselves, olives are typically processed at communal mills. Hence, a producer takes some risk that his olive oil may be tainted by the remnants of inferior olives from the producer who used the mill before him. The cleanliness of the mill and its equipment is essential in creating an oil without flaws.
Once the olives have been crushed into a paste, one of several methods is used to extract the oil. The most common way is to spread the paste on round mats, made of hemp or nylon. The mats are stacked and interspersed with steel plates for support. The stack is then pressed hydraulically to release a liquid that contains oil, water and fine particles of fruit. Another method extracts the liquid by a horizontal decanter, which is essentially a crude centrifuge. A third process, called the sinolea method, removes the liquid via sharp metal blades onto which the liquid from the olive clings.
Because no heat or chemicals are used in these methods, the oil extracted is said to be cold pressed, also referred to as the first pressing. Inferior oils are extracted after these first cold pressings. Regardless of which extraction procedure is used, oil and water must then be separated by centrifuge.
A harvest date on the bottle is important so that the oil can be consumed while still fresh. This is particularly important for the high-end oils such as artisanal oils, which generally command up to $50 a liter. As important as locating fresh oil is finding a reputable dealer, one who knows enough to keep oil away from its three enemies: heat, light and air.
All Mediterranean olive-oil-producing countries are members of the International Olive Oil Council and must abide by the standards set by this intergovernmental agency, based in Madrid. The IOOC classifies olive oil into several categories: extra virgin, virgin, olive oil and pomace oil. According to the council, extra virgin olive oil is oil that has been judged to have perfect flavor, color and aroma and no more than 1 percent oleic acid, a monounsaturated fatty acid. While the acidity can be measured scientifically, the more subjective qualities of taste, aroma and color--collectively called organoleptic properties--must be determined by a panel of expert IOOC tasters.
There are several levels of virgin olive oil, which have acidities of 1 to 3 percent. These oils are rarely seen in the United States, except as a component of oil simply labeled "olive oil." This oil was formerly called pure olive oil, though the words "pure" or "100% pure" may still be shown on the label. "Olive oil" is virgin oil that has been refined to remove especially high acidity and faults in flavor. To bring this oil's acidity down to its required level of 1 to 1.5 percent, it is combined with varying amounts of virgin oil. Pomace oil is made by using solvents to extract oil from olive residue that remains after pressing or centrifuge operations. It is used primarily in commercial cooking such as frying.
An olive oil known as extra light oil has no international standing as a category. The term refers to taste, not caloric content--all olive oil, regardless of the type, has about 120 calories and 14 grams of fat per tablespoon. "We did focus groups and found out that consumers knew olive oil was healthy, but they didn't like the taste. It was too heavy for them," says Monroe, who invented the extra light category at Bertolli in 1987, much to the chagrin of the international council.
Bertolli and other so-called supermarket brands such as Filippo Berio and Colavita have also been faulted by connoisseurs because bottles of their extra virgin oil contain no harvest date, making it impossible to know the age of the oil. But, Monroe counters, "We sell 10 times more oil than any other company. So the chances of our oil being fresh are greater than almost any other extra virgin oil. And filtering the oil also increases shelf life because unfiltered oil will spoil more quickly."
The third criticism leveled at supermarket oils is that they do not accurately reflect the country of origin. Some companies buy olive oil on the open market from a variety of sources, often getting their oil from Spain, the world's largest producer. If these olive oils are bottled in Italy, they can legally be labeled "Imported from Italy."
Monroe won't reveal Bertolli's proprietary blend formula, but he acknowledges that there is increased pressure to identify the origins of olive oils. However, he says, "it's almost impossible to get the oil from just one source. If you don't blend, you won't get an oil that will have broad appeal."
The taste of some supermarket oils can be surprising. In its October 1996 issue, Cooks Illustrated described a blind tasting it conducted in which Filippo Berio Extra Virgin finished fourth out of 12, ahead of three artisanal oils from Italy, one of which hailed from Tuscany.
For artisanal oils--those made by small producers with minimal mechanization--Italy, specifically Tuscany, is the standard. "Tuscany is always a force to be reckoned with. It's been around so long. And people crave that peppery, herbaceous taste," says Betty Pustarfi, who owns Strictly Olive Oil, a California company that sells olive oil and conducts tastings and seminars. But Pustarfi has been seeing better oils coming from southern Italy, especially Apulia, the largest oil-producing region in Italy, as well as from Calabria and Sicily. "The Apulian oil has that coastal tang that somewhat duplicates the Tuscan pepperiness. It's more mellow and viscous, so it has a longer finish," she says.
For years, growers in southern Italy, as well many growers from other major oil producing countries, such as Greece (the number three producer) and Spain, sold their oil in bulk to large blenders and packers. "In these poorer regions, the big producers would come with a big bucket of cash and offer to buy the farmer's entire crop. So the growers didn't have to worry about marketing," says Peggy Knickerbocker, author of Olive Oil, From Tree to Table (Chronicle, 1997). But now many of these growers are bottling their own oil because, as Dick Rogers of Rogers International Ltd., an olive oil importer in Maine, notes, "These small growers look at a Dean & DeLuca catalogue and say, 'Wow, they're selling oil like mine for 50 times what I sell it for.'"
Beyond the well-known green and peppery quality of Tuscan oils, it's difficult to generalize about oils from other regions of Italy, not to mention other countries. For example, the Barbera Frantoia from Sicily ($19/liter) seems to be every bit as grassy and throat catching as Tenuta del Numerouno ($19/500ml) and Laudemio Frescobaldi ($25/500ml), two of Tuscany's best. (Laudemio is a group of Tuscan estates that have banded together to monitor the quality of their oils, which are sold individually. Only a few Laudemio oils are available in the United States.) Typically, though, the more southern the oil, the riper and rounder it is. Umbria produces flavorful oils such as the mellow and sweet Dal Raccolto ($24.95/liter), and wine producer Lungarotti's oil. Ligurian oils, such as Grappolini Ca' Ligure ($12.29/500ml), though close to Tuscany, have a milder flavor because the sea moderates the region's climate.
But Italy isn't the sole producer of high-quality olive oils. France, among other countries, creates them as well. The yield, mainly from Provence, is relatively small, and sometimes a grower's entire output will be snapped up by a single restaurant, so we don't see a great deal of it in the States. French oils generally have a mild flavor profile, although the oil from A l'Olivier ($12.29/500ml), one of the more commonly available brands, tends to be grassy and herbal.
Some of those qualities, although in less overpowering form, can be found in Nunez de Prado ($16/500ml), Spain's best known and arguably its most highly regarded oil, from the Baena area of Andalusia. Nunez de Prado uses a blend of 14 olives, one of which, the picual, is the most prominent in Andalusia, the largest olive-growing region in the world. The picual produces a Sauvignon-Blanc-like character that may not suit every taste. An alternative is the less assertive L'Estornell ($19/750) from northern Catalunya, which has a smooth texture, ripe flavor and nutty aroma. Spain is probably the most progressive country in regulating olive oil, with four government-designated appellations--two in Andalusia in the southern part of the country, including Baena, and two in the northeast, near Catalunya.
Elsewhere in Europe, "Greek oils are making a lot of noise," Pustarfi says. "But you have to be careful about their pedigree. There have been a lot of changes in the past few years." Two savory Greek oils are Morea and Greek Gold. Morea ($18/500 ml) has a round, ripe, nutty aroma and rich flavor with the barest kick on the finish. Greek Gold ($17.95/500ml) has a more pronounced olive aroma and flavor.
Pustarfi also says Portugal is a comer on the olive oil scene. "Talk about a bargain! You can use these oils lavishly. And they're good," she said. "I'll take some Portuguese oils over some that try to pass as top of the line."
Also worthwhile are oils from Tunisia, the world's fourth largest producer of olives. Rogers calls Tunisian Moulins Mahjoub, "the best Provençal oil in the world."
Many believe California olive oil is where California wine was in the mid- to late-1960s. "You have to remember that others have been at it for thousands of years," Knickerbocker says. "But everyone in California is trying so hard to make a good product. I've seen great progress just since my book came out [in 1997]."
California olive oil companies fall into roughly four groups: old-time producers who use traditional Spanish olives, wineries that also make oil, negociants (those who buy fruit or oil from many sources) and newer entrepreneurs who imported saplings and planted on virgin land. Nick Sciabica & Sons of Modesto, founded in 1936, is one of the oldest and largest producers in the state. It makes blends and varietal oils from traditional Spanish olives, including mission, manzanillo, sevillano, ascolano, and nevadillo. Sciabica also makes early- and late-harvest oils from the same tree, something few Mediterranean producers do.
Then there are the winery olive oil makers such as Bruce Cohn, whose Olive Hill Sonoma Estate Oil from French picholine olives--sold in numbered, hand-etched antique green bottles--costs more than one of his highly regarded Cabernet Sauvignons. Lila Jaeger started making oil as a hobby when she found olive trees on the property of her family's Rutherford Hill winery in Napa. Jill and Chris Harrison of Harrison Vineyards gather olives from all over the Napa Valley for their Olio D'Oro blend. Napa and Sonoma olive oils have an obvious cachet, but they represent a very small percentage of California olive oils.
Ken Stutz was an olive oil negociant with his own line of California extra virgin oils who merged his company with some industry veterans and their assets to form Calio Groves, which will make primarily estate oils. Many negociants remain in California but they are small and their oils are not widely available.
Ridgely Evers and Nan McEvoy are in the fourth category. They started from scratch with imported Tuscan trees such as leccino, frantoio, maurino and pendolino. "They're not Tuscan, or even Italian, but sound California oils with European roots," says Stutz, who is also president of the California Olive Oil Council.
His group persuaded the California legislature in 1997 to require that olive oil labeled "California" be made entirely in the state. Oils with Napa or Sonoma designations must contain at least 75 percent of oil from those regions. No national standard exists for olive oil produced in the United States (Texas and Arizona have very small plantings). To fill the vacuum, the California council certifies oils in much the same way as the International Olive Oil Council, and it is having 20 tasters trained under IOOC supervision. (The United States is not a member of the international council.)
With all of the choices on supermarket shelves, one can get light-headed trying to decide which olive oil to buy. The best way to find out which oil you want at home is to employ the same method used for wine tasting. Buy four to six oils--no more or your tastebuds will be overwhelmed. Pour some of each in separate cups or small bowls. Smell each, then taste them using a teaspoon. (Remember, color is not an indicator of quality.) Try some on bread or bruschetta (toasted country bread rubbed with cut garlic). Assertive oils such as Laudemio Frescobaldi and Frantoio accentuate it, while riper, rounder oils such as the Dal Raccolto mellow the garlic. Then try some oils on fish or chicken or grilled vegetables. Gentle oils, like those of Liguria, are generally more appropriate for fish or vegetables. Freshly boiled or baked potatoes are also good vehicles for tasting oils.