LIQUID GOLD. IN PRAISE OF OLIVE OIL
by Wendy Hughes
Homer called it liquid gold, and Hippocrates prescribed it as the ‘great therapeutic’. Olive trees dominated the rocky Greek countryside and became pillars of Hellenic society. They were considered so sacred that anyone who cut one down was condemned to death or exile. The olive branch symbolises peace and glory, and its branches have been used to crown the victorious in games and war, whilst its trunk stands for fertility and prosperity, and the oil represents the divine essence. Whereas legend claims that Athena, the goddess of peace, wisdom and the arts, was in competition with Poseidon, the sea god, and each was asked to present mankind with a gift. Poseidon struck a rock with his trident and a spring appeared from which a horse emerged, a symbol of strength and power. Athena stuck her spear in the ground and an olive tree, symbol of peace, wisdom and prosperity appeared around the gates of the Acropolis. Athena’s gift was deemed the most valuable, and in return Athens, the most powerful city in Greece, was named in her honour. It is said that all the olive trees in Athens are descended from the first olive tree offered by Athena.
Olive oil is one of the oldest ingredients in the world and for the people of the Mediterranean it is not just food, but has medicinal and magical powers, as well as being the source for wealth and power. The oil has been used to anoint the noblest of heads, and the olive crowns and branches, emblems of benediction and purification, were ritually offered to deities – some were even found in the tomb of Tutankhamun.
Fossilised remains of a type of olive tree were found near Livorno, Italy and dates from twenty million years, but it is thought that they were first cultivated in the eastern part of the Mediterranean, the region known as the ‘Fertile Crescent.’ By 1,400 BC cultivation had spread to Crete, Syria, Palestine, and Israel and finally brought to Southern Turkey, Cyprus, and Egypt. However, Greece, until 1,500 BC, was the area most heavily cultivated, and with the expansion of the Greek colonies, olive growing reached Southern Italy and Northern Africa by 700 BC, before spreading to Southern France. Under Roman rule, Olive trees were planted in the entire Mediterranean basin, and, according to Pliny, Italy had ‘excellent olive oil at reasonable prices.’ Today olives are grown in Northern India, Argentina, Mexico, Peru, as well as the United States, but the best olives grow in the Italian Peninsula.
According to Italian folklore the olive tree needs sun, stone, drought, silence and solitude to prosper. Botanists claim that the normal life span of an olive tree is 300 to 600 years, and there are currently about 800 million olive trees, of 75 different varieties, in the world. An olive tree starts to bear fruit after two years, and does not reach full maturity for 20 years, although full production is best from 35 to 150 years, and can vary from year to year. The average tree produces 15-20 kg of olives and 4-5 litres of oil, depending on the region, per year.
The cultivation of olives has been perfected through the centuries and is now a year-round process. Olive trees thrive best in long, hot and dry summers, with the olives being harvested by hand in the autumn. The fruit is gently shaken from the trees and caught in nets to avoid contact with the ground, which could damage the fruit. From each ton of fruit, 12 to 50 gallons of oil can be produced, and the olives should arrive, at the mill, within one day to keep down the oxidation and acidity. The olives, used for oil, have to be picked when 3/4 black as if they are still green, there is not enough oil. When all black, the oil is of a poor quality.
The olives are sorted by hand, washed in fresh water to remove the leaves and twigs, then ground into a paste, which is kneaded slowly for 30 minutes to allow the small particles of oil remaining in the pulp to combine, and so make it easier to extract to oil. The pulp is then spread out on natural fibre mats, which are stacked layer upon layer in a vertical press. Any oil that hasn’t been removed by pressure can then be extracted using steams and solvents. The first pressing is made cold – no heat is used to extract the oil – hence it remains pure and rich and extra virgin. Olive oil is recognised as the most digestible of the edible fats and helps to assimilate vitamins A, D and K, and contains so-called essential acids that cannot be produced by our own bodies. It can also slow down the ageing process and helps bile, liver and intestinal functions. Olive oils are always graded according to their acidity level, after they have been purified by passing through cotton pad filters before bottling.
By law any oil labelled ‘extra virgin’ must come from the first pressing and be extracted without the use of chemicals. It contains an acidity level of not more than 1% or I gram per 100 grams. Virgin olive oil, has an acidity level of not more than 1.5%, and ordinary olive, which is used for frying or where flavour is not wanted or needed, 3.3%. Pure olive oil is a low cost blend, whereas pomace oil is the ground flesh after pressing. Pomace oil is considerably inferior and is used for soap making, or for industrial purposes. Finally oven cake is the solid remains left after pressing the olives, and the oil from this is used for technical and industrial purposes, as well as detergents.
To maintain the quality, olive oil should be preserved in dark glass bottles away from sunlight, and the bottle securely closed when not in use to prevent oxidation. Olive oil should never be refrigerated, and will go cloudy if exposed to temperatures below 45°F or 7° C.
The Jaen province of Spain is by far the largest olive oil producing area and here the Pocual olive, which produces an Extra Virgin oil that has a slightly piquant, spicy flavour is the most prevalent. Tuscany is the most famous olive growing region of Italy and from here we have a range of olive oils that are milder in taste. Interestingly, the United States of America is the third largest supplier of olive oil, capturing 11.2% of the world’s market. In the early 1700’s the olive was brought to California by Franciscan padres. As settlers moved on, so they developed olive orchards at their new settlements, thus helping to spread the olive industry. Later, it was the Californians who led the world in processing the olives when in 1899 G E Colby and Fredrick Bioletti of the University of California demonstrated to the world that the larger olives could be preserved indefinitely in weak brine when heated and hermetically sealed in glass. Within a decade Bioletti perfected a method of canning olives in tins, which, in turn, gave the growers a much better control of product supply. This led to growers all over the Californian valley planting olive groves to meet the world-wide demand. Today ‘Blessing of the Olives’ ceremonies are held in the Californian valleys, and, during this time, many presses open to the public.
FACTS ON OLIVE TREES
- The Olive tree is evergreen.
- The ancient Greeks burned olive oil in lamps as a source of light.
- It takes about 11 pounds of olives to make one litre of oil.
- The early Egyptians used olive oil to ease the movement of the great stones used to build the pyramids.
- Throughout the Mediterranean the beauty and lustre of the veined wood from the olive tree is much valued by small cabinet-makers. In Ancient times the wood was used to carve statues of gods.
- 3 to 4 thousands years ago, the Egyptians would bury olive branches and preserved and cured olives with their Pharaohs for food in the afterlife.
- There are nearly 100 references to olive trees in the Bible. The Holy Koran also acknowledges the tree, ‘that sprouts on Mount Sinai and provides oil as a condiment to the table.’