Wednesday, September 2, 2009
Traditions, Myths, Lies and Facts
Olives have been pressed for their oil for over 6,000 years
The story of the cultivation of olive trees, their fruit and the oil pressed from the olives goes hand in hand with the story of Western civilization. Olives have been pressed for their oil for over 6,000 years, although the earliest history of olive cultivation can vary with the source of your research. Did olive trees first appear in what is now Syria and then spread to the rest of the Mediterranean basin, or was it the other way around? It is thought that wild olives were collected by prehistoric peoples as early as 8,000 BC.
...source of great power, wealth and influence
We do know that this evergreen is one of the world’s oldest cultivated trees. Olives are a member of the family Oleaceae which includes flowering plants such as forsythia, lilacs and jasmines. To the Greeks it was far more than simply a food; although olives and olive oil were one of their main sources of dietary fat. The oil of the olive was also employed for body care, soap making, fuel for lamps and a host of other uses. Besides as part of their regular (and healthful) diet, olive oil was surrounded by an aura that was medicinal, mystical and even magical. It was the source of great power, wealth and influence.
…low in saturated fat and high unsaturated fat
Modern medicine is confirming many ancient attitudes towards olive oil with evidence of many health benefits that are to be had by including the oil in our diets. This is especially true with extra virgin olive oil because of the lack of processing. The benefits of olive oil are due partially to its high content of fatty acids and polyphenols, which are antioxidants. Olive oil is also low in saturated fat and high in unsaturated fat. Studies suggest that consumption of olive oil may offer protection against heart disease, high blood pressure, rheumatoid arthritis and even some cancers. Olive oil is highly digestible and helps with the body’s assimilation of vitamins A, D and K.
…ancient trees that were planted in the thirteenth century!
Olive cultivation did spread from Greece to Italy and Spain and today these three countries lead in both production and consumption. Olive trees are an iconic and inherent part of the Italian landscape and olive oil is produced in all regions of Italy except Piedmont and Valle D’Aosta. Throughout the highly diversified climates of Italy’s different regions there are an estimated 2.5 million acres devoted to olive trees. Some of these are truly ancient specimens, being several hundred years old. In fact, some of our own producers have examples of those ancient trees that were planted in the thirteenth century! A very sad fact is that there is currently a serious problem with trafficking in old specimens of olive trees. Very sad because not only are the old trees dug up, stolen and removed to the properties of unscrupulous buyers, but also because many of the trees ultimately die from the trauma.
…producers must be absolutely “fanatical” about their oil
Italy has hundreds of olive oil producers ranging from small farms to huge commercial operations. The very best oils come from small producers who have complete control over their orchard, the harvesting of the fruit, the pressing of the olives, and the storage and eventual bottling of the product. They create only a limited number of products from a specific harvest from a limited number of trees. They do not press olives for any other farmer or from any other region. Avanti Savoia’s preferred producer is a family-owned and operated farm. “Artisan” is a fair and accurate term with which to describe these unique producers. To be selected as an Avanti Savoia artisan, producers must be absolutely “fanatical” about their oil and every aspect of its production. Often, the farm has been in the family for years, and in many cases, generations. The finest extra virgin olive oils are produced from olive trees that are cultivated without the use of pesticides and some are produced using entirely organic methods. Olive trees require a long, hot growing season and in the late winter or early spring (like grapes) proper pruning.
…the experience and judgment of the picker
Traditionally and ideally, the olives for extra virgin olive oil are picked by hand at a stage of ripeness that is half green and half red/brown. The olives must not be harvested by the calendar but rather by the experience and judgment of the picker. Each olive is hand selected at the exact moment it reaches the proper maturity to produce the highest quality of flavor and nutritional value.
Ripe olives are easily bruised...
Additionally, the press and the bottling facility must be readily available, ideally on the farm itself. Ripe olives are easily bruised and must be held in small containers before pressing in order to avoid being squeezed by their own weight and begin deterioration. A controlled environment with ultra sanitary conditions is paramount. The pressing process must be accomplished in the briefest time possible.
…all authentic extra virgin olive oils are “cold pressed”
The best oils are pressed within a few hours, and certainly not to exceed 24 hours after the harvest, any delay beyond this time frame has a detrimental effect on the quality of the oil. The pressing to extract the oil must happen quickly and at a controlled temperature of (ideally) of less than 80 degrees F. This does constitute “cold pressed,” but this term is primarily a marketing device, as all authentic extra virgin olive oils are “cold pressed.” The freshly pressed oil is filtered, stored in stainless steel containers and saturated with an inactive gas until bottling. The actual bottling of the oil must be in very dark green or brown bottles. Before the bottling a scientific check must be run to verify chemical and organic characteristics of the oil. Professional experts also are responsible for tasting the oils in order to evaluate the many flavor and sensory aspects.
Some …oils are blends and others are made with a single cultivar
As in the growing of grapes, climate, type of soil (terroir), variety of olive (cultivar) and the time of harvest account for the different organoleptic (flavor, bouquet and other sensory) properties of different oils. Some extra virgin olive oils are blends of several varieties and others are made with a single cultivar. Avanti Savoia markets olive oils made from blends (Montecroce, Pruneti, Colonna and Le Magnolie) and oils from only one cultivar (Marcinase from Coratina olives, Cassini from Taggiasca, and Geraci using Nocellara del Belice).
Freshness therefore, becomes a huge issue…
Extra virgin olive oil and wine also share the same “enemies:” heat, oxygen and light. Olive oils have a relatively short shelf life and once the bottles are opened and exposed to oxygen, the oils will naturally begin to break down and lose both their organoleptic and nutritive properties. Freshness therefore, becomes a huge issue, although older oils can still be excellent cooking oils. Storage after purchase is also important. If possible, extra virgin olives oils are best stored in a cool, dark place like a cabinet. Do not store or display your oil on or near your stove or on a window sill.
…a balance between peppery or pungent, bitter and fruity
The flavors of fine extra virgin olive oils can also be just as complex as in the nuances in fine wines. Generally this is considered to be a balance between peppery or pungent, bitter and fruity. Other sensations can run the gamut of flavors, again just like wine tasting; mild, intense, rich, delicate, full bodied, buttery, vegetal, nutty, floral, grassy and many other adjectives limited only by the taster’s sensitivity (and vocabulary)! Excellent extra virgin olive oil is neither bland nor neutral, although it is true that different oils are best suited to different culinary uses. Colors may range from green to golden to pale yellow, although color itself is not an indication of the oil’s overall quality. In fact, at official IOOC tastings, samples are served in dark colored glass so as not to influence the tasters.
Different standards for quality and flavors are set by several different organizations.
The European Community (EU):
Extra virgin olive oil of the highest quality and is considered to have the most perfect taste. In an organoleptic rating system of 10, it has a minimum rating of 6.5. This excellent extra virgin olive oil has very low acidity (1% or less), and is untreated.
Olive oil has a minimum organoleptic rating of 5.5 and a 2% maximum acidity and is also untreated.
All other olive oils involve production techniques that include treatments.
International Olive Oil Commission (IOOC)
The IOOC recognizes two categories; Olive Oil and Olive Pomice Oil. The Olive Pomice Oil is not fit for human consumption and so we will not delve into it here.
The IOOC requires that Olive Oil must not be adulterated with any other type of oil; further it must be obtained solely by mechanical means that do not alter the oil and pass tests for genuineness and purity. The IOOC divides Olive Oil into three types, although it is only the first two that really concern us.
Extra virgin olive oil is judged to have zero defects with less that 0.8 acidity. It is the highest rated.
Virgin olive oil is ranked slightly lower than Extra virgin with defects not over a specific level and less than 2% acidity.
There is a third rating, Ordinary virgin which is inferior oil used for industrial purposes and not even approved by the EU for bottling.
United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has an antiquated grading system and the US is not a member of the IOOC. Therefore the IOOC’s standards have no legal standing in the US, which means deception and fraud are unfortunate possibilities. Labeling descriptions and terms offer no guarantees either. Remember that “first pressed, cold pressed extra virgin olive oil” is simply a marketing term. All extra virgin olive oil is by definition the first pressed and it is processed cold. There is no second pressed extra virgin oil. Labels proclaiming to be 100% olive oils or “Pure” olive oils are often processed blends. “Light” blends refer to a lack of flavor not calories, as all olive oils contain the same 120 calories.
Avanti Savoia’s extra virgin olive oils
In the July 2008 issue of Cook’s Illustrated an article on olive oil states, “Is the supermarket the best place to buy your extra virgin olive oil? Unfortunately, we’d have to say no.” Authenticity can only be assured by purchasing from very reliable companies that have personal and authentic ties with the actual producers. Vito De Carolis is an Avanti Savoia Partner and our resident olive oil expert. Vito is a native of the city of Turin and extremely familiar with producers of fine Italian olive oils. For years Vito scouted the country for the best extra virgin olive oils for his own personal consumption and now he does the same for you. Vito has personally visited each of our producers during their harvest and observed their practices in great detail. This experience allows us to provide our customers with what we consider the “best of the best.” This also enables us to offer our products with 100% assurance of quality and authenticity.
In a now famous article a couple of years ago, The New Yorker alleged that because regulations can be so lax, fraud is rampant. This is especially true with bulk producers who adulterate their oil and take advantage of the possibilities of inaccurate labeling. A label can suggest that oil was bottled in Italy and is a product of Italy, but does not have to mention that the olives were not grown or the oil not produced in Italy. Remember “Caveat emptor,” let the buyer beware!
…olive oil “fanatics”
At Avanti Savoia, we are proud of our status as olive oil “fanatics.” We will continue to search Italy for this “culinary treasure” and go to great lengths to bring you the finest extra virgin olive oils at the very best price. Live long, love well and enjoy extra virgin olive oil.