Whether you’re drizzling it over a salad, using it as a flavourful finishing touch to a dish or serving it beside a basket of crusty bread, olive oil is guaranteed to add a palatable punch to all of your cooking. Recognized for its taste as well as its healthful properties, olive oil is a much-beloved staple in most Italian kitchens.
Olives are one of the world’s oldest fruits, having been enjoyed for over 6,000 years. Its trees which can range from 10 to 40 feet in height have been cultivated for over 2,000 years. Bitter and tough, when they are first plucked, olives are first soaked in a wood ash treatment and then cured in either oil or salt. For added flavouring, they are packed with herbs, vinegars and oils.
The preparation and exportation of Italian olive oil can be traced all the way back to the 1st century A.D. Its main production was carried out in regions such as Umbria and Tuscany. When the Romans conquered the areas, they became captivated by olive oil, gradually spreading its production throughout their empire from Spain to Northern Africa. Nowadays, Italy is considered one of the principal producers of olive oil. And while technology has helped to make major advancements in most industries, the production of olive oil hasn’t changed that much. Some olives are still plucked by hand and some plantations can be traced back over 1,000 years.
Choosing an olive oil that pleases your palate is a lot like choosing wine. Along with evaluating its scent and its colour, which can range from pale almost-transparent champagne to deep yellowy green, you’ll want to determine which flavours please you the most. Your selection will also depend largely on whether you are planning to cook with it or serve it directly out of the bottle with toasted bread or on a salad. The tastes of olive oils can be classified into three distinct categories. Mild oils have a sweet, light taste. They are perfectly paired with mild cheeses, grilled fish, raw vegetables and carpaccio. Fruity oils have a slightly more pronounced taste and are perfectly balanced with cooked vegetables and grilled meat. The strongest tasting olive oils are distinguished by a slightly spicy flavour; this is best paired with heartier flavours that
you might find in aged cheeses and thick, hearty pasta sauces. Rather than relying on one oil, think about stocking a kitchen with a few selections, so that there is always an oil that will suit your needs.
In terms of quality, extra-virgin oils are always rated the highest. Virgin olive oils are those that have been produced solely by physical means (washing, centrifugation and filtration) and have not been altered chemically. For an oil to be considered part of the extra-virgin variety, the oil must have to have been obtained by being cold-pressed. This method only uses pressure to obtain the oil and results in a product with natural, low acidity.
Unlike wine, olive oil does not age well. Producers of olive oil generally try to press their olives as quickly as possible after they have been picked in order to cut down on the acidity that would be produced if the fruit started to ferment. Once this occurs, both the flavour and the aroma of the oil will be affected. Once you’ve purchased your oil, make sure to use it within a year. The oil should be stored in a cool, dry place and not come into contact with direct light.
While adding plenty of flavour to dishes, olive oil has also won the approval of nutritionists who consider it to be a healthy addition to a balanced diet. Along with lowering cholesterol, olive oil can help reduce the risk of heart attacks and lower the incidence of gall stones. Historically, olive oil has also been appreciated for its beautifying effects. Greeks and Romans used to moisturize their hair and skin daily with the oil, in order to get a healthy glow. The Italians worked the oil into ointments, using it to treat everything from insect bites to headaches and upset stomachs.
Whether you’re using it for health reasons or to enhance your cooking, it’s guaranteed that olive oil will soon become a staple that you can’t live without!
written by Shauna Hardy