cucina bene; mangia bene (enlightenment on evoo – part one)
I have always had a love of olives and over the years, I have become more aware of the health importance of using olive oil in our daily diets. Last year I came across an interesting article on the web about some of the business issues involving the Olive Oil Industry today and how some of the imported products coming ashore either do not meet the international standard for Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO) as labeled or have been intentionally adulterated with other seed or nut oils to cut production costs for the manufacturer. Unfortunately, there is a side to this industry that is slippery and the uninformed consumer can be taken advantage of in a deceitful way.
What caught my eye about the article was the viewpoint that up to modern times, people living in the Mediterranean were able to harvest and press their own olive oil, thereby maintaining the maximum health properties of their locally produced oil. With olive oil, freshness is the key factor as it does not age well. It is generally believed that even premium EVOO has a short shelf life of about two years or less. But today, with so many choices available on the consumer market, it is harder to accomplish the goal of sourcing good tasting oil that still has maximum health properties in it.
So to start 2011, I decided that I wanted to re-examine the choices we were using for EVOO and to learn how we could source beneficial olive oil possessing great flavor as well. I ordered four specialty books on the subject of olive oil and have reviewed lots of web pages over the past month. I plan to write a series of posts on this subject as I am finding out that this simple food ingredient is quite complex and that buying good olive oil can be still obtained with a little bit of knowledge and commitment.
So to get things started, let’s review some of the basics about olive oil:
Olives are a fruit and there are many types or cultivars of the olive tree. Each cultivar has its own distinct characteristics and the harvested olives carry with it unique chemical compositions and tasting profiles, just like different kinds of apples for example. So when you purchase EVOO, the olive oil is generally a blend of various olive cultivars marrying diverse flavors, and also containing different shelf life properties, often referred to as the oil’s stability. The olive oil represents the blending mastery of the producer, just like people who craft artisanal apple cider or wines. The goal of any master blender is to create a harmonious combination of good tasting olive oil with excellent shelf life properties.
There are some ancient olive mills still in use today, but the vast majority of olive oil is mechanically processed under several main processing techniques. Depending on the geographic area, olives are harvested in the autumn, sometime between September and January. Part of this decision is based on weather, especially in trying to avoid any frosts that could damage the olive fruit. Another vital aspect to producing a premium olive oil is when to harvest the fruit, whether to pick it in a green or underripe state, or to harvest the olives when more mature.
The color of olive oil does not define the exact taste profiles of the oil. Colors can range from emerald green to yellow. More important to the taste is how the olives are processed and the blending talents of the olive miller. On a basic level, olives picked underripe will taste bitter, pungent, and intensely leafy-herbal whereas ripe fruit will tend to taste flowery, sweet, buttery, and more nutty-fruity.
Olives can be harvested by a number of techniques including picking by hand, trapping the fruit with nets, or using mechanical means like tree shaking equipment. No matter how the olives are harvested, it is very important not to bruise the fruit at the tree or in transit to the olive mill. Olives are very susceptible to oxidation which creates off flavors in the oil so the producer’s attention to this task is very important.
Another very important aspect of olive oil production is the time it takes to harvest the olives and then mill them. Due to similar oxidation concerns, most premium producers will harvest and process the olives within 24 hours of picking, and in some cases, the olives are brought to the mill and processed immediately. Time is of the essence here in maintaining high quality!
Once at the mill, the olives are inspected and in some cases, the grower is paid for their fruit. The olives are washed and cleaned, and any tree debris like leaves and stems are removed. The olives are put under a stone grinder and turned into a paste. The paste is put into a hydraulic press where the oil is squeezed out mechanically.
Another approach is to put the olives into mechanical hammer mills for creating the paste. The olive paste is put into a malaxator where it goes through a series of mixing processes, which agglomerates the oil globules. The olive paste is transferred to a horizontal centrifuge, where it is separated into oil, olive water and the residual pomace (pulp, pits, etc.).
The oil goes through the final step within a vertical separator which further separates the oil and the olive water. The oil is then stored individually by the cultivar type.
After the initial processing, the oil is left to settle out for up to a few months before it is blended into a final product. The master blender will taste the stored oil and begin the process of creating their particular olive oil blends. One exception to this approach is early harvest or new oils, a seasonal delicacy well worth trying. These types of early oils are created using the very first days of the harvest leading to very pungent tasting oil with excellent health properties. While a wonderful taste treat, the new oils have a very short shelf life of just a few months and should be consumed right away.
Flavored oils are made in a variety of ways as well. The best tasting method is when the fruit/herbs (like lemons, oranges, tangerines, Italian herbs) are processed together with the olive paste during the initial crush. The oils in the fruit/herbs marry with the olive paste to produce a more genuine and cleaner taste. Other approaches infuse the flavoring after the olive oil has been blended. A good example of the initial crush approach is the Agrumato Lemon Oil.
In my next post, we will explore how olive oil is classified and some tips for buying olive oil as well. Bruce-