Liquid Gold

Italy is one of the world's biggest exporters of olive oil, as most people know but less well known is that it is also one of the world's biggest importers of the commodity, and much of the olive oil bottled there comes from countries like Spain.

Robin Lynam

Liquid Gold

Olive trees have existed since prehistoric times, and have been cultivated for the whole of the recorded history of the Levant, Southern Europe and North Africa. One living tree on the island of Crete is believed by some scientists to be more than 4,000 years old -- and still produces fruit.

The importance of olive oil to early Mediterranean civilizations is well documented. It was used for ceremonial and medicinal purposes, as lamp fuel, and for conditioning leather, as well as in the preparation of food. It is still used today in some of those countries for multiple purposes, including the manufacturing of artisanal soaps and cosmetics, but above all else it is a core element of what is now known as “The Mediterranean Diet”.

Diets, of course vary enormously from region to region around the Mediterranean, and so does the significance of olive oil in them, but in just about every country the viscous golden liquid is a staple, or at least an important condiment, and rightly or wrongly has received much of the credit for the perceived healthiness of the cuisines in which it features.

Whether its nature or proper uses are fully understood is another question -- particularly in Asia. In Thailand it is widely, and very definitely wrongly, believed that regular injections of it are an effective means of penis enlargement. Another popular misconception is that olive oil is unsuitable for frying because it has a low smoking point.

In fact the smoking point varies from oil to oil, but the International Olive Council (which looks after the interests of 17 olive growing countries, plus the European Union, which jointly produce the great majority of the world’s olive oil) asserts that the optimum temperature for frying most foods is between 130 and 190 degrees centigrade. That is substantially lower than the 210 degrees centigrade which it cites as the olive oil smoking point.

That figure however would apply to expensive oils with very low acidity, and can be much lower for those with higher acidity. It is also true that even extra virgin oils are unsuitable for flash frying in a wok – an important cooking technique in China -- which often exceeds the high end of that temperature range.

Different olive oils are made from different olive cultivars in different locations. Among the major varieties are Arbequina, Manzanilla and Picual in Spain, Koroneiki in Greece, and Bosana, Dritta, Frantoio and Leccino in Italy.

Grading of the oils conforms -- at least in theory -- to rules determined by the International Olive Council (IOC) by which all the major Mediterranean region producers agree to abide.

Under IOC rules “Virgin olive oils are the oils obtained from the fruit of the olive tree solely by mechanical or other physical means under conditions, particularly thermal conditions, that do not lead to alterations in the oil, and which have not undergone any treatment other than washing, decantation, centrifugation and filtration”.

There are IOC designations for oils intended for purposes other than food preparation, or as low end cooking oils (Lampante and Pomace), but three categories are used in discerning professional and home kitchens.

Extra virgin olive oil is high quality virgin olive oil “which has a free acidity, expressed as oleic acid, of not more than 0.8 grams per 100 grams”.Virgin olive oil “has a free acidity…of not more than two grams per 100 grams”. Ordinary virgin olive oil “has a free acidity… of not more than 3.3 grams per 100 grams”. In all cases the other characteristics of the oils must “correspond to those fixed for this category in the IOC standard”.

Italy is, of course, well known as one of the world’s biggest exporters of olive oil. Less well known is that it is also one of the world’s biggest importers of the same commodity, and that much of the olive oil shipped in bulk to Italy and bottled there comes from other countries – particularly Spain. “Bottled in Italy” and “Produce of Italy” are not at all the same thing.

That is not however to say that those olive oils are necessarily inferior. Spain produces some of the finest olive oils in the world, but as the Spanish are all too aware, they lack the Italians’ flair for marketing.

“The Spanish love to use olive oil for marinades and especially seafood canning. Sardines, anchovy, octopus, squid and so on,” explains Robert Petzold, chef at Hong Kong’s Boqueria Spanish restaurant. “Canned seafood is a very high end and expensive market in Spain – it’s very different to our perception of canned seafood such as tuna. It is quite a delicacy in Spain.”
Supposedly Italian olive oil, however, does not all come from Spain. It can contain oils from Greece (which also produces some excellent extra virgin olive oils), Morocco or Tunisia.

It is regrettably also true that not all that glisters is liquid gold. Bottles labeled as pure olive oil sometimes contain not just food colouring, but other oils as well. It is not unheard of for them to be cut with cheaper fluids, with none of the taste appeal or health benefits for which we all pay extra when choosing extra virgin olive oil over the various alternatives.

In February 2014 The New York Times reported “A 2010 study by researchers at the University of California, Davis, found that 69 percent of imported olive oil labeled ‘extra virgin’ did not meet, in an expert taste and smell test, the standard for that label. The study suggested that the substandard samples had been oxidized; had been adulterated with cheaper refined olive oil; or were of poor quality because they were made from damaged or overripe olives, or olives that had been improperly stored or processed -- or some combination of these flaws”.

Italy does, of course, also produce excellent and authentic artisanal olive oils, but they are exported in small quantities at high prices. In any case a lot of the best stuff is consumed locally in Italy itself, which does not produce nearly enough olive oil – extra virgin or otherwise – to meet its own domestic demand.

“Given that the olive is a fruit you should look for different degrees of fruit-flower aroma and flavour,” says Manuel Palacio Ramos, the Spanish co-owner of a Hong Kong Italian restaurant and accordingly a man who takes a pan-Euorpean view of the commodity.

“In Northern Italy you will find more butter than olive oil, which is more popular in the South. In countries like Spain, Greece or Turkey, you will find only olive oil and it is definitely a sign of authenticity when you visit a restaurant that aims to be from these countries. Olive oil is largely used by Mediterranean customers as a snack to dip bread in -- the same way other westerners use bread and butter.

“Some varieties are more astringent and acidic while others taste fruitier or even ‘sweeter’. The best way to check the level of quality in an extra virgin olive oil is the level of acidity. We use only extra virgin olive oil with 0.1 degrees of acidity -- the minimum possible in any fat.”

Whether you come from a Mediterranean country or not olive oil can be used at home as an alternative to butter, lard or vegetable oils. Its health benefits have been attributed mostly to extra virgin grade oils, but their antioxidant performance can be reduced or nullified by overheating.

Oils should be used young, because long term storage can allow them to turn rancid, and while stored should be kept in a cool dark place. Some oils will remain usable unopened for up to two years, but tests on some have shown marked deterioration in 12 months or less.

The fresher the better is a good rule of thumb – as is “Buyer beware”. It pays to read the label.


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