SICILY AND THE OLIVE OIL: Think of olive oil as freshly squeezed juice from the drupe (a fruit with pit). Like a juice, it conserves the flavor, aroma, and vitamins of the olive fruit. Olive oil is uniquely the only vegetable oil that can be enjoyed immediately after being freshly pressed. The distinctive flavors and aromas of olive varieties are expressed in their olive oils (when made properly), just as flavors and perfumes of various grape varietals are expressed in their wines. Sicilian olive oil tends to have a strong flavor with a bit of spice and aromas of grass.
Olive oil is essential to the Italian and Sicilian diets. It is commonly seasoned with hot pepper, garlic, basil, rosemary, freshly cracked pepper (and fantastic for dipping hot, fresh bed) in addition to its many other uses (cooking, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, soaps, traditional oil lamp fuel). While many consider Tuscany as the top producing region of olive oil in Italy, Sicily is working its way up the ladder and becoming a valid competitor. Of all of the regions in Italy producing their own homemade olive oils, Sicily has most probably been at it the longest (going back to the introduction of olive trees by the Greeks).
Sicily currently has four certified DOP olive growing regions and is waiting on certification for two other areas. Sicily commits thousands of acres of land to growing olives and the high quality olives produced are a result of fertile, volcanic (in parts) soil. While Carolea, Nocellara, and Biancolilla are the most widely cultivated olive varieties in Sicily, one can also find
Crasto, Ogliarola Messinese, Cerasuola, La Minua, La Cavaleri, Tonda Iblea, Moresca, and Castiglione. The best pressing olives are Castiglione, Biancolilla, and the Nocellara varieties.
Native to the Mediterranean, olive trees originated in present day Turkey and Neolithic people are thought to have gathered the wild olive fruits. While it is unclear when acutal cultivation of the oil tree began, references in the Bible, the Iliad, and the Odyssey all imply its domestication without directly discussing it (compared to ancient accounts specifically referring to wine cultivation). Some claims denote Crete as the location of the first olive cultivation (archaeological evidence of olive oil dates back to 3500 BC, while oil procurement is thought to precede 4000 BC) while others name the Canaanites (modern day Israel) as the first producers of olive oil around 4500BC. It is clear that olive oil was important in Syria, Egypt, Crete and Canaan, being imported and exported and important for commerce and wealth—it was a staple of Minoan, Syrian and Egyptian life. It is the Hebrew Bible that holds the details of the first recorded olive oil elicitation during the Exodus from Egypt. Oil was extracted by hand-squeezing the olive fruit. Olive oil, or “liquid gold,” as Homer called it, was also an essential part of ancient Greek and Roman life. Aside from being eaten, olive oil was the basis of magic, medicine (heart ailments, stomach aches, hair loss, excessive perspiration), religious rituals, cosmetics (soap, lotion, perfume), and lamp and furnace fuel. Athletes and warriors would slather their bodies in oil for competitions and battles. It was also common to anoint oneself at the gymnasium and after bathing. This luxury of the wealthy was also used to routinely polish statues of the most important deities. One can still find ancient olive oil presses in use today in parts of the Eastern Mediterranean.
Present Day Consumption
Locally produced olive oil is generally considered superior in countries that produce olive oil with 93% of European olive oil production coming from Spain, Italy, Greece & Turkey. Globally, Greeks are the biggest consumers of olive oil, followed by Spain & Italy, Tunisia, Portugal and Syria, with consumption on the rise in trailing Northern Europe and North America. However, U.S. demand for olive oil has exploded in the past decade and the U.S. is now the major importer of Italian olive oil.
The Olive Tree
Olive trees are in the same family as lilacs, jasmine & ash trees. They are very resistant trees and grow to be very old. Sardinia, Italy, boasts the oldest tree (according to some) at either 3000 or 4000 years old. Other trees with better established ages are a 2000 year old tree in Crete (age measured by tree rings) and a 1600 year old tree in Croatia. Olive trees withstand drought well (like cacti, olive trees have very extensive roots) and thrive in calcareous soils (they are more prone to disease in “rich” soils) and coastal climate conditions. Even the oldest olive trees can remain productive as long as they are regularly and properly pruned. Pruning is essential as it preserves the flower-bearing shoots while keeping the tree at a manageable height.
Growing a new olive tree, however, is an exact science. Trees resulting from suckers or seeds produce poor olive yields. New trees must be budded or grafted onto other trees to be successful. One effective method is to cut branches into 1m lengths and plant them in highly fertilized ground allowing them to vegetate quickly. In Italy, it is more common to remove buds from the stems and plant them which usually quickly sprout shoots.
The olive tree produces the olive fruit that can be cured and eaten alone (after treatment with lye or brine or after being fermented. They can be eaten raw but are terribly bitter!) or converted into olive oil. The leaves can be used in medicinal teas. Thousands of olive cultivars (varieties) exist—at least three hundred can be found in Italy. Many of these cultivars are sterile, so they must be paired and planted with another variety that can fertilize the first (like Frantoio and Leccino).
A Few Important Global Cultivars
-Manzanillo is grown world-wide. It has a purple-green skin, thick flesh, and full flavor.
-Frantoio & Leccino are main contributors to Tuscan olive oil, but can be found in other countries. Leccino with a sweeter, mild flavor and Frantoio a bit fruitier with a lingering aftertaste.
-Arbequina is found in Spain. It is small and brown and used both as a “table olive” and for its valuable oil.
-Empeltre is also found in Spain. It is a medium, black olive and, like the Arbequina, is a “table olive” and as the base for a valuable oil.
-Kalamata is named for the city in Greece. It is considered a large, black olive (even though it often looks purple in color) and used as a “table olive”.
-Koroneiki is another Greek olive. It is small and difficult to grow, but it’s worth the effort as it has a high oil yield and produces an extraordinary oil.
-Pecholine (Picholine) is an oblong, mild and nutty, medium green olive coming from southern France.
-Lucques is almost identical to the Pecholine, except it is slightly larger. Also comes from southern France.
-Souri is a high oil yield olive from Lebanon with a tremendously aromatic flavor.
-Nabali is a Palestinian variety producing some of the world’s finest olive oils.
-Barnea is a hybrid bred and grown in Israel to resist disease and be high yielding. It is used for table olives as well as oil and has a pronounced flavour with a hint of green leaf. Also grown in Australia & New Zealand.
-Maalot, like Barnea, is an Israeli hybrid. It is a round, medium sized olive with a fruity flavour and is mainly used in oil.
-Mission olives were originally grown on California Missions and now throughout the state. They are the typical, black American olive used as a “table olive”.
For the Mishkan service during the Exodus from Egypt, olive oil is the only fuel that can be burned in the seven-branched Menorah. This practice carried over to the permanent Temple in Jerusalem. Only the first drop of oil squeezed from the olive was blessed by priests for exclusive use in the Temple (thus the origins of the term “pure olive oil”) and was kept in special containers. After Antiochus IV desecrated the Temple in Jerusalem, the Maccabees revolted and were victorious over the Seleucid Empire. The re-dedication of the Temple followed this victory, but the consecrated olive oil used to fuel the eternal flame in the Temple was only enough for one day. Amazingly, the oil lasted for eight days—enough time to press, prepare and bless new olive oil. The celebration of Hanukkah marks the re-dedication of the Temple and recalls the "miracle of the container of oil." While oil is preferred to light the Menorah, candles may also be used.
Oil has also been used in Jewish Tradition to anoint the Kings of Israel. (King David being the first and King Tzidkiyahu being the last). There is also a “bad breathe remedy” in the Talmud involving olive oil, water, and salt.
The Greek word christos, from which “Christ” is derived, means “the anointed one”—anointed referring to being anointed with (olive) oil.
- -Chrism or Holy Chrism: Is the name Christians give to “Holy oil” or “Blessed oil”. It is usually made from olive oil, but can be substituted with other plant oils in the absence of olive oil. It is often scented with balsam (in the Catholic church) or, in the Orthodox church, a variety of aromatic essences (after the oil described in Exodus 30:22-33 used for anointing).
- -Roman Catholic/Anglican/Lutheran: For many of the seven sacred sacraments of the Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran churches, olive oil is used in some form or another. The Oil of Catechumens (made from olive oil) is used to consecrate those being baptized. The Oil of the Sick is used to bless those receiving the sacrament of Extreme Unction/Anointing of the Sick/Last Rites. Perfumed olive oil called Sacred Chrism is used to bestow the sacrament of Confirmation, as well as in the Baptismal and Holy Orders (ordaining of clergy) rites and in the blessing of altars, churches, and historically, monarchs. There is the Mass of the Chrism, on Holy Thursday, when the chrism (along with oil of catechumens and oil of the sick) is blessed by the bishop.
- -Eastern Orthodox: Like the Catholic church, Orthodox Christians use the olive oil based Chrism for Baptism, Chrismation, anointing the sick, ordination of clergy, consecrations of churches and historically also of monarchs. During holy week, Chrism is made beginning on Holy Monday and finishes with the Divine Liturgy on Holy Thursday. Chrism is carried in the Great Entrance and placed upon the altar.
- Oil lamps continue to be used in Orthodox churches and in the prayer corners of Orthodox Christian homes. These lamps contain half an inch of water and the rest olive oil, with a floating wick on top.
- -Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints/LDS (Mormons): certain denominations of Latter-day saints abide by the ordinance (sacrament) of washing and anointing (often called the initiatory) in temples as part of the Endowment ceremony. This consists of purification by water and then anointing by oil as a mode of preparing men and women to become either “kings and priests” or “queens and priestesses” in the afterlife.
Aside from being mentioned several times in the Qur’an, olive oil was also supposedly recommended by Muhammad (Muslim Prophet) for consumption, healing ailments, and anointing of the body.
Health Benefits of EXTRA VIRGIN OLIVE OIL
EXTRA VIRGIN OLIVE OIL is healthy because it’s packed with monounsaturated fat (more than any other naturally produced oil) and antioxidants (especially Vitamin E and phenols). Studies have shown that consumption of monounsaturated fats is linked to the reduction of heart disease by lowering “bad” LDL cholesterol while increasing the “good” HDL cholesterol. Recommended consumption is two tablespoons daily to replace the saturated fats in one’s diet (be sure not to simply add it to your diet and increase your daily caloric intake!).
Scandal & Regulation
Scandal: as Tom Mueller reveals in his August 13, 2007 article for The New Yorker magazine, unfortunately, the olive oil business is not exempt from scandal and crime. Mueller claims that the deep seated scandal in the Italian olive oil industry has affected large quantities of oil both sold in Italy and abroad, usually by degrading the olive oil by mixing it with other nut and seed oils. Often, the best way to detect olive oil fraud is by running basic chemical tests on the product. These scenarios usually involve the doctoring of low-grade soy or canola oils with things such as chlorophyll & beta-carotene and the use of fancy packaging. Bigger scale scams taking place in high-tech refineries, however, usually involve blending the olive oil with hazelnut oil and “lamp”-grade olive oil, both of which are much more difficult to detect when using chemical testing.
After recognizing this loop hole, the EU implemented strict flavor & aroma standards for each grade of olive oil and established certified IOCC tasting panels to enforce these standards. The real test for even the most creative criminals of the olive oil industry is whether or not they can outwit a well-trained and experienced tasting panel—not an easy feat!
Mueller goes on to describe how, at one point, “extra-virgin oils made by Carapelli, Bertolli, Rubino, and other leading Italian brands were in fact virgin or lampante” grade. Statistics provided by Paolo De Castro, the agriculture minister, revealed that out of 787 olive-oil producers investigated by the government, 205 were guilty of manipulating and falsely labeling their products.
Hopefully, as regulation of olive oil production by the EU and IOCC continues to improve, so will the quality of product making it onto our tables. Until then, we, the consumers, continue to be the final tasting panel—purchasing oil, however pure or impure it may be, that’s pleasing to our palates.
-Protected designation of origin (DOP) labelling is assigned by the European Union to ensure the quality of European produced olive oil.
- -The International Olive Oil Council (IOCC) was established by the UN to regulate authenticity, track production, and establish quality standards for olive oil world wide. It’s composed of 23 various governments and based in Madrid, Spain.
- -The U.S. does not take part in the IOCC. Instead of recognizing the classifications established by the IOCC, it uses a system of classification from 1948 (terminology such as: Fancy, Choice, Standard, Substandard)
- -While the IOCC terminology is precise, it does lead to confusion between production descriptions and label wording.
- -Olive oil is classified based upon its production method, chemistry & flavor.
The olive harvest in Sicily is generally in the winter months, beginning around November, with the first olive oils ready to taste around December. All olive oil production begins, after harvesting and thoroughly washing the olives, with converting the olives into a paste. Paste is then malaxed (softened by mixing with a thinner substance), allowing the oil to concentrate. Then, oil is extracted by pressure using a simple hydraulic press (traditional method) or centrifugation (modern method). At the end of the process, pomace, a solid substance remains, which still contains a bit of oil.
Olive Oil Extraction: First cold pressed or cold extraction refers to the temperature at which the oil was collected. This is controlled by the temperature of the water added throughout the process of oil extraction. (Since Extra Virgin Olive Oil comes from the initial grinding of the olives, before any water is added, it comes from cold extraction). While higher temperatures increase the yields of oil obtained from the paste, they also reduce the beneficial elements of the oil (antioxidants, vitamins, aromas) thus producing a lower grade oil. This is a matter of quality versus quantity.
Quality oil can be produced from each extraction process, but in addition to the extraction process, olive quality and the period from harvesting to extraction are also important factors in quality determination. Olive ripening is essential in olive oil production because oil from green, under-ripened grapes makes bitter oil, and from overly-ripened grapes makes rancid oil.
The process begins when olives are gathered, either by hand (quite common in Sicily thanks to a species of olive tree that grows lower to the ground than others) or mechanically. (Hand gathering of olives results in less damage to the olives). Oil must be extracted from the olives within 24 hours after gathering. Once all extraction is complete, oxygen-free stainless steel silos are used to store the oil.
Traditional Method of Extraction: First, large millstones are used to grind the olives into a paste, which stays under the stones for 30 to 40 minutes. This ensures that the olives are well ground, allows time for small oil droplets to form larger ones, and allows the fruit enzymes to produce the flavors and perfumes of the oil. It is after this first step that Extra Virgin Olive Oil is produced. (Grindstones are very effective in breaking up the olive pulp while only slightly touching the nut & skin, therefore reducing the release of oil oxidation enzymes present in the nut and skin.) After grinding, the paste is spread on fiber disks (traditionally of hemp or coconut fiber, now synthetic) and stacked in a hydraulic press, which is used to compact the olive paste and extract more oil. Water is used to increase the filtration of the oil and must be decanted or centrifuged to separate the two substances at the end. This phase produces Virgin olive oil.
Compared to more modern extraction methods, this one uses less water and therefore doesn’t wash away as many antioxidants as other processes using more water. These techniques produces high quality olive oil, but it is essential that both the discs and grindstones be thoroughly cleaned after each use, so leftovers don’t begin to ferment and contaminate the next batch of oil.
An advantage of this method is that the remaining solid by-product, pomace, is easier to manage than in more modern processing as it contains less water. Disadvantages include the necessary “waiting periods” for the olives under the stones, which disrupt the continuation of the process and can expose the olive paste to oxygen and light. In the meantime, the harvested olives must wait to be processed. Because this method is not continuous (all machinery is stopped for loading, unloading, and cleaning with the grinding mill), it is generally used (sometimes with the combination of a modern decanter) on a smaller scale in the production of high quality olive oil.
Modern Method: In the “modern” method of olive oil extraction, the olives are first crushed into a paste by using either a hammer, disc or knife crusher or de-pitting machine. The paste is then malaxed for 30 to 40 minutes so the oil droplets can combine. Aromas are created by fruit enzymes, as with the traditional process. Then, the paste is moved into an industrial decanter which centrifuges out the oil, pomace, and water. Much more water is used in this process than in the traditional method.
Disadvantages of this process include the washing out of antioxidants compared to when less water is used and a wet pomace by-product which is much harder to process industrially and dispose of. While these methods allow for more oil to be processed (and more oil to be extracted from the fruit) and in large quantities, it is expensive and often eliminates some of the beneficial qualities of the oil (like antioxidants).
Sinolea Method: Introduced in 1972, the Sinolea method collects oil by dipping metal discs or plates into the olive paste, waiting for oil to gather on the metal, and then scraping it off (all a continuous process). It relies on the surface tension between water and oil, which allows the oil to stick to the metal. This method, however, is comparatively inefficient at collecting all of the oil, requiring “modern” centrifuge processing of the remaining paste to extract all of the remaining oil. Additionally, machines are hard to clean and the large surface areas during the process can result in rapid oxidation (and therefore rancidification) of the product.
The Future of Olive Oil Extraction: As in any endeavour, the future of olive oil extraction looks to new ways of decreasing the negatives, in this case the oil degradation during the extraction process.
-Oxidation can be reduced by conducting malaxation (or waiting periods) in a controlled nitrogen atmosphere.
-Removing the pit (nut) before grinding to eliminate the release of oxidative enzymes (coming from the pit) and pieces of wood (allowing for disposal of waste by animal feeding).
-And by reducing the need to add water and therefore salvaging antioxidants otherwise washed away.
How to Care for Your Olive Oil
Light, air and heat are olive oil’s top enemies.
Exposure to these makes the oil go rancid.
Keep your oil tightly sealed in a cool, dark place.
Tips for Selecting and Using Olive Oil
-Color variations in olive oil are normal (unless the oil is extremely light). Deep colors usually carry heavier flavors while lighter colors are the opposite. While most people consider olive oil to have a deep green color, olive oils may also be golden in color. (As with grapes, olives come in a variety of colors and create oils with similar coloring).
-Check the date! Olive oil begins deteriorating after one year on the shelf (unless it’s really superior quality oil).
-Purchase oil in the darkest (in not opaque) bottle possible.
-After use, always wipe the mouth/neck of the olive oil bottle cleaned. Remaining oil that begins to go rancid can distort the flavors of the entire bottle.
-Name brand or supermarket olive oil will always be inferior to smaller, farms or estates producing top quality olive oil.
-As for frying, traditionally, the lightest oil possible is recommended so the food doesn’t take on the flavor of the oil. However, you may like the flavor olive oil adds and more importantly, olive oil deteriorates the least (as compared to other oils when frying) making it a better choice.
Olive Oil Grades & Labels
-Virgin: describes oil produced physically, without the use of chemicals.
-Refined: describes chemically treated oil; chemical treatment is used to neutralize defects (strong tastes) and acid content.
-Pomace olive oil: describes oil extracted from the solid byproduct of olive oil production using chemicals and heat.
Extra-virgin olive oil: best, least processed oil from first, cold-pressing of olives; acidity of 0.8% or less; cannot contain any refined oil; deemed “superior” by taste tests; often looks opaque or “cloudy”.
Virgin olive oil: from second pressing; acidity less than 2%; cannot contain any refined oil; deemed “good” by taste tests.
Pure olive oil: usually a blend of refined olive oil with one of the virgin types.
Olive oil: blend of refined and virgin oil; 1.5% acidity or less; generally bland.
Olive-pomace oil: blend of refined pomace olive oil and perhaps some virgin oil; edible but cannot be called olive oil; used in some restaurants.
Lampante oil: inedible; name comes from ancient use in oil lamps; used in industrial market.
U.S. retail classifications:
-Fancy, Choice, Standard, Substandard
-Based on taste, aroma, acidity, absence of defects.
-“100% Pure Olive Oil”: usually lowest quality sold in stores.
-“Made from refined olive oils”: taste & acidity results of chemical processes.
-“Light olive oil”: another name for refined olive oil. (Lower fat olive oils don’t exist!)
-“From hand-picked olives”: could mean better quality, since olives aren’t damaged as they can be with mechanical gathering.
-“First cold press”: first oil from first press of olives; “cold” is important to retain the chemical integrity of the oil (which is changed when heated).
-“Bottled in Italy” or “Packed in Italy”: not necessarily Italian olive oil; some labels specify the origins of the oil used, often mixtures.
Acidity & Taste
Acidity: Acidity is measure of the chemical degradation of the oil. It is measured by the weight of free acid contained in the oil and expressed as a percentage. The more degraded the oil, the more free acids are present and therefore the more rancid the oil. Rancidity of the oil is also determined by measuring the oxidation level.
Taste: Blind taste testers evaluate the organoleptic quality or the oil—the taste, color, odor, and feel of the oil that stimulate the senses.
Olive Oil Glossary
-Acidity: the measure of the chemical degradation of the olive oil.
-Chrism: also referred to as Holy Chrism, is the name given to olive oil blessed and used as “Holy water” in Christian religions.
-Cold press: refers to the first pressing of the olives where no heat or chemicals are used to extract the oil (this yields Extra Virgin Olive Oil).
-Cultivars: olive varieties
-Drupe: a stone fruit; any fruit with an outer skin, succulent pulp, and hard inner pit surrounding a seed
-Invaiatura: refers to olive harvest, when olives turn from green to black.
-Malax: To soften by stirring with a thinner substance; regards to modern method of olive oil extraction. Malaxation.
-Organoleptic: the taste, color, aroma, and feel of the oil that stimulates the senses.
-Strippaggio: Act of deeply inhaling while sipping olive oil (or wine). Doing so covers taste buds with oil and allows the aromas to ascend into the nose—this process results in the most complete tasting of all flavors and aromas present.
-Viscosity: the thickness of the olive oil.