“Except the vine, there is no plant which bears a fruit of as great importance as the olive.” Pliny (AD 23-79)
What is the difference between Northern and Southern Europe? In the north, they cook with butter, in the south, with olive oil. In what is otherwise known as the Mediterranean diet, olives, and the oil extracted from their flesh, has provided the main source of fat to countries like Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece and Southern France for thousands of years.
While production of Olive oil is slightly more recent in Australia, since the end of the 19th century, the industry has grown steadily in many parts of the country, and luckily for us, this includes the lovely valleys of the Hunter.
As an unripe fruit, the flesh of the green olive is made up of sugars and acids. As the fruit turns from green to purple and eventually black, sugars and acids are slowly converted into oils. It is in its blackest ripest form that the olive contains the most oil and thus, has a very different flavor to its unripe counterpart.
After being traditionally picked by hand, the olives are then crushed mechanically and the oil is then separated from the crushed flesh by centrifugal force. Ideally, the olives should go from the tree to the press within 12 hours for the fruit to be at its best.
To qualify as ‘virgin’ olive oil, the oil must only be extracted mechanically (ie. without the use of chemicals) and processed at a temperature which will not affect the flavor, clarity and quality of the oil.
Olive oils are then classified according to a strict code.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil: Highest quality rating, perfect flavour and a free acidity level of less than 1 percent. Should only be used to finish dishes, as a drizzle or in a dressing.
Virgin Olive Oil: Minor detectable flavour and aroma defects and a free acidity level lower than 2 percent.
Semi-fine Olive Oil: Virgin oil with detectable flavour and aroma defects and a free acidity level lower than 3.3 percent.
Olive Oil: A blend of chemically and mechanically extracted oil. Extra light olive oil is likely to contain mostly chemically refined olive oil.
Saturated? Polyunsaturated? Monounsaturated? what does it mean?
Saturated fats are solid at room temperature, like butter for example and are generally from animal origin. They contain LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol – or bad cholesterol responsible for heart and artery blockages.
Polyunsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature and come from plant origins (eg. sunflower). They help lower levels of LDL, the harmful cholesterol.
Monounsaturated fats are also liquid at room temperature and come from plant origins, including olives, avocados and walnuts. In addition to reducing the levels of ‘bad’ cholesterol, these fats also increase the levels of ‘good’ cholesterol, or HDL (high-density lipoprotein) cholesterol.
Buying and storing oils
Unlike wine, oils do not improve with age. Vulnerable to heat and light, oils are better stored in a dark cool cupboard. For that reason, it’s better not to buy it in bulk and from cans, dark bottles or ceramic containers. Once opened, a bottle of extra virgin olive oil will keep for a few months before becoming rancid.
Why origins matter
Describing a wine as red or white gives little indication of how it will taste. The same applies to EVOO which varies greatly, from strong and peppery to soft and subtle depending on where it comes from.
While all olives like sun, those that are exposed to harsh sun and dramatic temperature shift will result in a more pungent oil than the olives that have benefitted from a milder, more even climate.
Try a French oil for sweet, rounded flavors, and a Greek one for something punchier and slightly bitter. Italy produces a full range depending on the region, from peppery to fruity and sweet. For Spanish oils, go North for light sweet oils and south for something more pungent.
In Australia, our oils can range from buttery and sweet, to woody and warm.
For oils produced in the Hunter, look for Pukara Estate (available from TEI Newcastle), Tintilla estate, Fuchs and many more here.
Which oil should I use?
That’s a tough one to answer but depending on what you are doing with it, choosing the right oil for the job can make all the difference.
For cooking: Olive oil will lose its flavor when heated at a high temperature so choose an economical version.
For dressings: This depends on what you prefer but since you’ll be getting the full flavor, this is a good time to experiment and be bold. Few salads can’t handle a good swig of feisty olive oil.
suggestion: Cobram estate Picual, Citron or premiere.
As a dip: It’s pretty popular to serve olive oil as a dip along with dukkah and sourdough. This is all about showing off and enjoying the strong unadulterated flavor of the oil.
suggestion: Cobram estate Hojiblanca, The Little General EVOO
In desserts: Yes, you read that right. Olive oil has the amazing ability to make a cake deliciously moist, a pastry beautifully golden and a chocolate mousse delightfully smooth. But in this case, a lighter, fruity flavored oil is best so the flavor doesn’t spoil the taste of your dessert.
suggestion: Cobram estate picual EVOO.
The Essential Ingredient Newcastle stocks a wide range of Olive oils. Come in and ask one of our staff to help you choose the right one for the occasion.