Olive oil is at the heart of the Mediterranean diet. It is not surprising that more than 90% of the world’s production of olive oil occurs in three Mediterranean countries: Spain (55%), Italy (25%) and Greece (15%). While olive oil – like other vegetables oils – is used for cooking, extra-virgin olive oil or “EVOO” is used in its natural state to add flavor to salads and vegetables. As Gourmet Living focuses exclusively on EVOO, most of the commentary below and in the related subsections pertain to extra virgin olive oil and its many benefits in sustaining a healthy Mediterranean diet.
There are many ways that olives are harvested and converted into extra virgin olive oil, but the process is generally the same at most manufacturers. The olives are collected by hand (very traditional) or more frequently by mechanical means. The olives are stripped of leaves and twigs and then mashed into a paste. The oil is then extracted from the concentrated paste through centrifugal force or by pressure. Found below is an instructional video showing a rather sophisticated process at an Australian producer:
While the International Olive Council sets the minimum standards to classify olive oil, extra virgin olive oil is considered as close to the natural taste of olives, because the olives are harvested and processed by mechanical means (no heat) to preserve the flavor.
Why extra virgin olive oil?
As indicated above, extra virgin olive oil tends to retain its “fruitiness” and flavor because only the best and defect free olives are used it is produced using entirely mechanical means. While extra virgin olive oil can – and is – used in cooking, the price differential between EVOO and olive oil or other vegetable oil substitutes is substantial. In general, most home and restaurant chefs use EVOO to flavor salads and vegetables. In fact, many fine restaurants serve extra virgin olive oil with bread rather than butter. Other vegetables oils tend to have a higher “smoking” temperature than olive oil and tend to work more effectively as cooking oils.
Taste and Varieties of Olives
Like wine, the taste of olive oil varies depending on the variety of grape and extraneous factors like soil and the weather on various crops. For instance, many Italians will argue that the olive oil from Sicily or some small producer in Liguria is the “best,” but conditions change from year to year and one cannot be certain that next year’s harvest will produce an olive oil that tastes identical to the one before it. To maintain a similar taste profile from year to year and – more importantly – to insure sufficient quantity, producers may blend several varieties from the same region. In many cases, this process also helps extends the shelf-life of the product.
The Extra Virgin Alliance sites some 28 olive varieties that are commonly used in the production of EVOO around the world. Olive oils that tend to have a higher level of polyphenols tend to be a bit more bitter and strong in taste. While Europeans will often opt for a more pungent taste profile, the American consumer tends to prefer something less strong. The same olive oil will taste differently in a salad than when tasted with bread, so it is wise to experiment to determine which brand or olive variety offers you the best flavor profile.
Nutrition and the Mediterranean Diet
Olive oil has always been at the cornerstone of the Mediterranean diet. While there are many exaggerated claims about the benefits of a Mediterranean diet, no less of an authority as the Mayo Clinic has concluded that:
Research has shown that the traditional Mediterranean diet reduces the risk of heart disease. In fact, an analysis of more than 1.5 million healthy adults demonstrated that following a Mediterranean diet was associated with a reduced risk of death from heart disease and cancer, as well as a reduced incidence of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases.
Clearly, olive oil is rich in polyphenols and antioxidants which have many health benefits; however, it is probably unwise to suggest that 4 Tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil a day is the silver bullet miracle health cure. The fact remains that people who consume olive oil regularly tend to eat more vegetables which is a healthy dietary practice. The Olive Oil Times cites many more health benefits – including benefits for those suffering from Type 2 Diabetes – for those who are looking for encouragement in incorporating the Mediterranean diet into their lifestyle.
How I Use Extra Virgin Olive Oil
I use extra virgin olive oil almost daily and also cook with EVOO that is less flavorful than the olive oil I will use in salads or to pour over braised vegetables. A 500 ml bottle (approximately 17 ounces) will normally last about 6 weeks. Many of the better extra virgin olive oils are capped with nitrogen to avoid having the olive oil come in contact with the air until they are opened. Good olive oil should be capped properly and stored out of the sunlight. Most olive oils have a shelf life of between 2 and 3 years, but I would recommend using extra virgin olive for cooking that has been open for over a year.