Is it possible for anybody to think of the Mediterranean region without olive trees? Those trees, with the silvery green leaves, give us that unique fruit which has added a superb flavor to the cuisines of the Western Civilization.
From the Greek mythology we know that Zeus conducted a competition, challenging the gods and goddesses to see who would create the most useful gift. Athena created the olive tree with its delicious oil, that was used to give comfort and meaning to life. Athena became the patron of Attica and her gift, the olive tree was planned at the Acropolis.
The victors of the ancient Olympics were crowned with an olive branch and were given olive oil in a special vessel, known as “lecithy”. The branch and oil were symbols of goodness and nobility. To this day Christian churches and Jewish synagogues are using it for their ceremonies.
It is “liquid gold”.
Extra virgin olive oil comes from the crushing of the olives, and then from the subsequent pressing of the olives, come all these different grades. In Greece, Italy and most of the Mediterranean regions, the olives are harvested in the late fall. The olives have the tendency to bruise when they fall on the ground, bruising can cause oxidation and fermentation of the fruit. This results in high acidity, effecting the quality and taste, and that is why hand picking the olives contributes to the high cost.
The Greek olive oil is fruity and complex. Nets are placed underneath the olive trees, so the olives fall on a smoother place when the branches are stripped of their fruits. Then they are placed usually in wicker or stainless steel containers, that are then placed in trucks and transferred to the mill. There the olives are washed and deleafed and then crushed by gigantic stones that have been used for hundreds of years. The oil that comes from this kind of process-the first press through cold press-is known as extra virgin olive oil. The color, consistency and flavor is due to different varieties of olives, the weather and the location. A critical factor to the quality and taste is cleanliness. After each process, these stones have to be washed.
I still nostalgically remember going to the mill when I was a young girl in Sparta, in the south of Greece, bringing a loaf of peasant bread that my mother had made, and the workers in the mill, sliced it, toasted it and dipped it in the fresh, warm, green oil; then sprinkling a little sea salt on it and passing it around to all of us. Every bite was heavenly delicious.
The most distinguished oils are made by small producers.
There are a few grades of olive oil: Extra virgin, Virgin, Refined, Pure, Pomace, Light and Extra light.
Extra virgin: This comes from the first press through the cold press and the acidity is less than 1%. The extra virgin olive oil is the best and very high in vitamin E.
Virgin: Is the oil that is made from olives that are a little more ripe than the ones used for the production of extra virgin olive oil.
Refined: Is the one that is made by refining the virgin olive oil. It doesn’t have much of a taste and the acidity is higher than 3%. The flavor is not good and it has a not so pleasant smell.
Pure: It comes usually from the second press or is chemically extracted from the left over of the first press. It is also called commercial grade. The color is very light and the taste is very bland. It is called pure because of the fact that there are not other oils mixed in.
Refined-Pomace oil: Both oils are chemically processed and they are bad for you.
Light and extra light: Is a mixture of refined olive oils chemically processed.
The health benefits are great. Extra virgin olive oil contains Anti-Inflammatory ingredients. It is highly protective against heart disease. The high content of mono-saturated fats and antioxidants, results in the significant drop of LDL cholesterol (bad cholesterol) and greatly improves the HDL (good cholesterol), both preventing atherosclerosis and arteriosclerosis. Another important benefit is its ability to lower blood pressure.
Olive oil is the super food of the heart. Due to the mono-saturated fats, antioxidants and phenolic compounds, there is a variety of protective effects.
Extra virgin olive oil may cost a little more, but is a great investment to your health.
There is an abundance of poly-phenols in extra virgin olive oil, that have protective effects to osteoporosis, colon cancer, breast cancer, belly fat that is associated with insulin resistance, which increases the risk of diabetes. Its phenols also help prevent bone loss. The higher the level of phenols the greater the protection. Also supports Gastrointestinal health.
The best is the extra virgin olive oil with countless health benefits. Keep it stored in a dark place and tightly sealed. Light is an enemy of the olive oil. When you taste it, simply look for a fruity smell, bitterness in your mouth and a peppery taste in your throat.
The extra virgin olive oil not only increases your health, but your enjoyment of meals throughout the day. Dip your artisan bread in it with sea salt and pepper and a little bit of garlic for a very satisfying experience.
Cook with extra virgin olive oil for better taste and health and always remember the ancient Greeks who said: “Healthy bodies, healthy minds”.
Take care of your health and your family’s.