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Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Nectar Of God: Olive Oil

It has an almost teasing fragrance, blending its natural piquancy with a sort of warm fruitiness “too diffident I prefer a sharper taste”. No this is not the elegant drivel at a wine testing! This was part of a passionate conversation between two friends of mine, discussing the quality of the olive oil produced from their respective olive groves! One lives in a hamlet in Umbria, while the other has a home in Tuscany. Both these regions of Italy have for long vied with each other as producer of the best quality olive oil in the country and perhaps also among the best in the world. So, it was not surprising that the post launch conversation between my friends soon turned playfully challenging, and my service required to be one of two other judges in a friendly competition to crown the best olive oil! Anything to get a free bottle of freshly squeezed oil, I readily agreed.

      But all the while I was chuckling at the irony that, of all people to sit on judgment on what in italy is considered almost in nectar of the god, it should be someone like me, who was raised like many of her other compatriots, I am sure to believe that olive oil grew in tins on bathrooms shelves, which is murky contents being useful mainly as a pre-bath body lotion!
       Not that olive oil can not be used for such humble purposes, but in the lexicon of olive oil lovers, the only oil fit for able-top consumption, is the extra virgin olive oil the champagne of oils!

Olive Oil
Green Olive Oil

Olive Oil tree

Olive Oil Nut
        So, what is extra virgin olive oil? This is the highest grade of oil which is measured against certain acidity level. Extra virgin is the first press extraction of olives, and should not have an acidity level of more than 1%, or 1gram per 100 grams of oil. Some really fine olives have acidity levels lower than this. It must also have perfect aroma, flavor and color, determined from testing panel of experts far more specialized and rigorous and what I and my other friends constituted as we merrily accepted bottles of our friendly contender’s home grown products to take home to test in the fullness of time.
       Although colour is not the only best determining feature , and many fine olive oils can be any shade of green and gold, normally, better oils have a greener color. This denotes that oil comes from green olives which in turn means that the olives were picked before being allowed to ripen on the branch. This ensures a number of desirable and the distinguishing features, one of them being piquancy.

       One fact to clarify here is that difference between green and black olives, which quite simply is that black olives are really green olives that were allowed to smaller quantity of oil than black or ripe olives, but the quality is superior, and its color more green than gold.

        But all olives black or green, destined for extra virgin oil, get the best treatment, the kind of treatment reserved for the fines grapes in a fine winery. The olives would be harvested early( early November to late December), and most importantly they would be hand picked. Brushing of their skin can ruing the fruit and adversely affect the oil, thus olives are normally not knocked down from branches with sticks, nor are they ever picked up off the ground, as both these methods diminish the quality of the oil being produced. During harvest time many groves employ ‘pickers’ and farm hands. These days many Bangladeshis and other immigrants are thus temporarily employed. Any oil with the word “virgin” must be made from the first pressing and obtained through the mechanical or physical processing of olives. Just virgin olive oil ( not extra virgin) is also very good oil, but with are higher acidity levels, through lower than 3.3%. Oils with more than that are considered unsuitable for human consumption but used for refining.

      Other oils, including what is termed pure olive oil are a low cost blend of refined and virgin oils. Refined oils are those that are made from damaged olives or from virgin oils whose flavor or some other property had to be corrected by chemicals such as Lye.

       We will be going into the benefits extra virgin olive oil, but before that, it can not be over emphasized how light and heat are the death of a quality extra virgin oils. So, to derive the maximum benefits from it, it must be remembered that this oil should be kept in a cool dark place and should not be used for cooking or frying! It should only be drizzled on food, whether breads and salads or pasta, cooked fish and meats. The other grades of olive oil can be used to cook with, but should never be brought to smoking temperatures, or it loses its particular giving properties.

     Most people now are aware of the many benefits of olive oil, that being a mono-unsaturated fat it is most effective agent for lowering blood cholesterol levels. In Mediterranean countries where olive oil is a staple, it is not surprise that the rate of coronary disease is very low.

        Apart from its benefit to the circulatory system, it has a salutary effect on the digestive system. It not only aids digestion but is so easily digested that it is one of the first foods that Italian pediatricians introduction into the diet of babies. It stimulates appetite; by curbing excessive acid levels it helps against ulcers and gastritis; helps in the effective working of bowels; and also reduces risk of gall stones by stimulating bile production. Last, but not least, it prevents calcium loss.

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Olive Oil Tree

Olive Oil
         Olive oil is also excellent for the skin and hair,  and for healing wounds. Thus, whether it stands on our bathroom or kitchen shelf, reposes on our dining table or is tucked in side a medicine cabinet, whether it slathered on our bread, salad, grilled fish  or our bodies, to day as ever the gift of a wise and peace-loving goddess spreads its beneficial shad over us.

 As I stand under the peaceful gray green light of my Olivo. In the back garden, I wonder if we have emptied Athena’s tree of all its benefits and secrets, or do the extended olive branches have other lessons to deliver in a troubled world?