Olive Oil 101

Take advantage of one of nature’s healthiest fats with this guide to olive oil varieties and health benefits.

| November/December 2012

  • Real extra virgin olive oil supplies superior taste, color and scent, as well as an array of health benefits.
    Photo By Corbis
  • Different varieties of olives provide different flavors of olive oil. Try a wide variety to enjoy flavors ranging from fruity to spicy.
    Photo By iStockphoto

In ancient Greek mythology, the goddess Athena planted an olive tree on the rocky hill now known as the Acropolis—tour guides claim the tree standing there today comes from the same roots. Most historians agree that the island of Crete was the site of the first olive cultivation, with the earliest olive oil press dating to around 5000 B.C. The first recording of olive oil extraction is found in the Hebrew Bible—the hand-squeezing of the fruit during the Exodus from Egypt.

Web Extra: For instructions on how to substitute olive oil for butter in baked goods and make a pecan pie with olive oil, read the article Baking with Olive Oil.

My first experience with olive oil came at the ripe age of 8, watching my favorite aunt Lou fry eggplant to layer in her famous moussaka. I asked her why her eggplant tasted so good and my mom’s didn’t (sorry, Mom!). She reached up and pulled a Wonder Bread hamburger bun out of a bag—it was 1968, the height of processed-food popularity. She poured some olive oil from a large tin with Greek letters on it into a little cup, handed me the bun, and said, “Here, dip the bread in this.” My mouth immediately welcomed the buttery, fresh, flowery fruitiness of kalamata extra virgin olive oil. She then poured some Crisco oil into another bowl and said, “Now taste this!” I made a terrible face. She laughed and said, “That’s what your mom uses!”

In 2011, I celebrated my 10th anniversary bottling Global Gardens Extra Virgin Olive Oil. At Global Gardens, I insist we be varietal-specific. As with wine grapes, the nuances of the olive fruits themselves, times and styles of harvests, and milling options make a huge difference in the taste of an oil. Every palate is different, so I encourage you to find your own taste bud tantalizers (read “Flavor Profiles of Various Oils” further in this article for tips on identifying olive oil flavors).

Olive Oil Flavor

Extra virgin olive oil should be defined as containing no more than 0.8 percent acidity—it has a superior taste, color and smell. I say “should be” defined because, sadly, many of the olive oils found on our grocery store shelves do not test as extra virgin. In an analysis of many popular brands of “extra virgin” olive oil, researchers found 69 percent of imported and 10 percent of California extra virgin olive oils were, in actuality, not, according to a study published by the University of California, Davis Olive Center. For more information about the massive fraud occurring in the olive oil industry, read The New Yorker’s Slippery Business.

The truth is found in the flavor. Many folks come into my store in Los Olivos, California, with the perception that olive oil should have no taste at all. Educating customers on the contrary is our greatest joy. Varietal bottling captures the distinctive terroir of its grove of origin, very similar to wine grapes. A pinot noir from Washington State tastes completely different from a pinot from Santa Barbara County. A real extra virgin olive oil will represent diverse fruitiness and peppery finishes ranging from mild to robust—again, dependent on the varietal and geographical location and microclimate (we have four different temperature zones on one 50-acre olive ranch).

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