Olive oil has been produced from prehistory in the Mediterranean and was first used by the Greeks, Egyptians and later the Romans. The use of olive oil permeates the culture of this area and the production and use of Olive oil has now spread throughout the world and to places as diverse as Australia and California.
The Olive tree is a very long lived plant of ancient Asian origin and can live to several hundred years in the right environments. Olive trees are slow growing plants belonging to the botanical group Sativa and is a sub species Olea Europaea and the olive tree can grow up to a height of 20 metres and is often twisted and has a cracked bark. The leaves are a beautiful pale green and the plant is evergreen and only looses many of it's leaves when subjected to extremely low temperatures.
Olive plants flourish in the Mediterranean climate with its hot dry summers and short cool winters but they do need temperatures close to zero C in the winter to induce a dormant state and they can withstand short periods of freezing temperatures, but if the temperature falls below -10 C for any length of time then the trees are likely to die. They are much less sensitive to heat and drought and can withstand long periods without rain.
It takes up to 15 years for an olive tree to reach its full capacity of producing olives and because the trees are not particularly demanding of the soil in which they grow this means that olives can be grown on poor stony soil where other plants would be unable to thrive.
There are at least 50 different varieties of olive each with its own different characteristics and only certain types of olives are suited for the production of olive oil. Most olive growing areas have their own particularly varieties of olive which are planted and in some cases these olives will not grow particulary well outside of that area.
Some producers as well as making a normal blended olive oil wil also make an oil made from only one variety of olive and the oil produced this way is termed a Monovarietal olive oil and this type of oil is becoming increasingly popular with some consumers, but as yet still only has a niche following outside of Italy. The timing of the olive harvest is an extremely critical time as far as ripeness is concerned, and the harvest occurs in late Autumn with the new olive oil ready for sale early in the following new year. Most growers want to produce the maximum yield from the tree but also as much good quality oil as possible, but if olives are left on the tree too long they will over-ripen and this will produce an unpleasant oil.
Types of Olive oil
Blended Olive oil
The vast majority of olive oils produced throughout the world are made by blending several varieties of olive together. Normally three or four varieties are used in a blend and this allows producers to standardise their oils and they can offer a consistent taste, colour and aroma. Nearly all the olive oil sold in supermarkets, deli’s and even specialist retailers are of this type and the choice of styles and countries of origin is enormous and growing as consumers increasingly demand olive oils of high quality. Unfortunately it is still quite rare to find single estate olive oils in the mainstream retailers and this shows no sign of changing in the near future.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
The top grade of olive oil is extra virgin olive oil which must have an acidity level of not more than 0.8%. Less than 10% of the production of most growers is classed as extra virgin olive oil, the remainder being classified as Virgin olive oil, Pure olive oil and olive oil. Some extra virgin olive oils even have an acidity level lower than the 0.8% and all these oils must have perfect aroma, flavour and colour. Extra virgin olive oils make up the vast majority of oil sold throughout the world to consumers to be used in food preparation and consumption. Most supermarket chains and large retailers can now offer olive oils which are produced in Italy, Greece, Spain, France and even Australia.
Monovarietal Olive Oil
These olive oils are quite rare to find on sale even in the home markets of the major olive oil producing countries. The olive oil is made from only one variety of olive, normally the variety which produces an excellent oil in that particular country, region or area. But these are truly the best olive oils that are produced and the aroma and flavour are truly exquisite and not to be missed. Monovarietal oils in Italy include varieties of olives such as Leccino, Moraliolo, Raggia, Ascolana, Frantoio, Pendolino and Sargano. Olivaverde is going to concentrate on sourcing and importing Monovarietal olive oils and where possible these will have been produced organically.
Virgin Olive Oil
This is an oil which must have an acidity level of not more than 2%, but still with a good aroma, flavour and colour. These oils are most likely to be used in cooking and are usually involved where heating of the oil is required. These days it tend not to be consumed directly by adding them directly to prepared foods and salads. The majority of olive oil produced in most countries is classed as Virgin olive oil. We at Olivaverde do not deal with virgin olive oil as this is usually of an inferior quality and many of these olive oils are widely available on the market already.
Single Estate Olive Oil
Most olive crops go straight to large co-operatives or industrial plants to be processed into olive oil of various grades and some into table olives for bottling and eating. The best oils are normally produced on a single farm or small estate by a small grower and his family and friends, these are known as single estate olive oils. These oils can be made either as a blend of the olive varieties grown on the farm or produced from just one variety which is common to that area or region. The very best olive oils are produced on a single estate, usually made from one variety of olive and these will have been grown organically.
Organic Olive Oil
The production and supply of Organic olive oil is still limited by the slow rate of uptake by farmers and estates in oil producing countries. It is still quite a rarity to see organic oils on the shelves of most retailers as the prices of organic oil tends to be up to 50% higher than most non organic oils. In most oil producing countries it takes many years to achieve the classification of an organic producer and because there is still not enough incentive for most farmers to grow olives using organic principles the oil produced this way is still quite rare.
Biodynamic Extra Virgin Olive oil
This more rare type of olive oil is always produced using organic methods of farming and harvesting. But as well as being produced organically they are also cultivated, pruned and harvested in close conjunction with the phases of the moon and the different seasons. This type of method of growing and harvesting of crops harks back to earlier centuries when farmers did not have accurate calendars and had to rely on their knowledge of the seasons to plant and harvest their produce. Very few olive oil producers make this type of oliveoil and Olivaverde is very lucky to be able able to source this wonderful and different type of olive oil from one of the best producers in Le Marche.
Tasting and appreciating Olive oil
When cooking with olive oil, save the extra virgin and more expensive oils for salads, dressings, and drizzling over simple pasta meals. You can also drizzle it over slices of crusty bread or over toasted white bread with added tomatoes to make a wonderful bruschetta. It can also be added to mashed potatoes instead of butter and this forms a wonderful alternative to many of the usual potato dishes. Extra virgin olive oil tastes wonderful on cooked vegetables or when brushed onto fish or meat before serving.
In Italy and most of oil producing countries the olive oil harvest starts in November and most of the oil is bottled in January and its normal sell by date is eighteen months after the harvest is finished. So it is important that the year in which the olives were harvested is taken into account when tasting an olive oil, because much of the oil’s characteristics are perceived through the sense of smell and the older the oil the less it will retain its aroma and taste. Also when tasting olive oil the colour of the olive oil is of no relevance to the way it will taste or to the quality of the oil. Though most people enjoy olive oil with other foods, the following steps allow us to focus only on the olive oil’s flavour;
I personally like to taste olive oil by putting five or six good Extra virgin olive oils in separate shallow white or glass containers. I then dip small chunks of white bread into each oil and this gives me a good idea of how good the oil tastes and its aroma. But for more serious tastings the following method is a good way to judge the aroma and flavour of each individual olive oil, and this method is also used by professional tasters.
- Pour a small amount of oil into a small tapered wine glass, preferably blue in colour.
- Hold the glass in one hand and use your other hand to cover the glass while swirling the oil to release its aroma.
- Uncover the glass and inhale deeply from the top of the glass, this should give you a very god sense of the aroma and flavour.
- Next you slurp the oil; this is done by sipping a small amount of oil into your mouth while also sipping some air as well. Slurping emulsifies the oil with air that helps to spread it throughout your mouth and giving you the chance to savour every nuance of flavour.
- Finish the tasting by swallowing this small amount of olive oil and also look out to see if the oil leaves a sharp taste in your mouth and if so then you will have managed a through tasting.