Thursday, July 21, 2011

Why olive oil should be in every cupboard

I love olive oil. I've got about 4 different kinds in my pantry at any given time. One of my favorite "gourmet" ones is a lemon-infused olive oil from a company called Pasolivo (, from Paso Robles, a lovely 45-acre spot in the heart of central California’s wine region. One day I was driving along the hilly back roads of this beautiful area, looking for wineries. I accidentally came across Pasolivo that afternoon. It was late in the day and I was running out of time (most places close at 5pm) but when I saw the sign, I had to stop. I wasn't expecting to find an olive oil farm in the middle of wine country. As I drove up the gravel driveway a dog greeted me and then went back to laying under the shade of a big tree. In I walked to the tiny but sunny tasting room and enjoyed just about every oil I tasted. 

Olive oil, historically used in the United States mostly by immigrants from Mediterranean countries and adventurous gourmets, has fortunately gone mainstream. According to some reports, in 2007 alone Americans consumed over 70 million gallons; a nearly ten-fold increase since 1982. This is good news. Olive oil has the highest percentage of heart-healthy monounsaturated fat of any edible oil. Quality olive oil also contains abundant antioxidants, substances that have been shown to provide cardiovascular and anti-cancer effects. And, of course, quality olive tastes wonderful; the vibrant green liquid has probably helped many realize that there is no need to sacrifice sensory pleasure in pursuit of healthy eating.

Eating less fat was a long-held belief for many years. Fortunately this changed when it was learned that the Mediterranean people were some of the healthiest on the planet, and the “Mediterranean Diet” touted to be one of the best in the world. Olive oil plays a big part in that, along with of course eating lots of fresh produce, beans, legumes, fresh fish, less meat, and some red wine for good measure.

The primary countries that produce olive oil are Italy, Greece, Spain, and Morocco as well as California, which also enjoys a Mediterranean climate.  Variations exist among the regions:
    • Spanish olive oil is typically golden yellow with a fruity, nutty flavor. Spain produces about 45 percent of the world's olive supply.
    • Italian olive oil is often dark green and has an herbal aroma and a grassy flavor. Italy grows about 20 percent of the world's olives. 
    • Greek olive oil packs a strong flavor and aroma and tends to be green. Greece produces about 13 percent of the world's olive supply. 
    • French olive oil is typically pale in color and has a milder flavor than other varieties. 
    • Californian olive oil is light in color and flavor, with a bit of a fruity taste.

If you are new to this tasty elixir, you might want to experiment with a few different ones until you find the one you like. In fact you may even want to buy one type for one use and another for another use. For example, I don’t usually use a higher priced olive oil for vinaigrette because I feel the true flavor of the oil will be lost when combined with acids like vinegar or lemon juice, and even some herbs. I keep the more expensive ones for drizzling over veggies or pasta, when the individual nuances of the oil can be fully appreciated. This makes them last longer, too.

So many oils to choose from! What is the difference anyway? Actually, there are many factors that can impact the taste of olive oil:  
  • Variety of olive used 
  • Location and soil conditions where the olives were grown 
  • Environmental factors and weather during the growing season 
  • Olive ripeness 
  • Timing of the harvest 
  • Harvesting method 
  • Length of time between the harvest and pressing 
  • Pressing technique 
  • Packaging and storage methods

My discovery of the Pasolivo olive farm is what I love about driving without a destination in mind. It’s these unplanned and spontaneous stops that can sometimes be even more fun and rewarding than “planned” excursions.Next time you are presented with the opportunity to do some olive oil tasting, do it. You might find your favorite that way.

More to read, if you care to:
A great explanation of the different classifications of olive oil. 
For information on the California Olive Oil Council, as well as recipes using extra virgin olive oil.
If you’re a farmer’s market go-er, look for a booth with oils from Stonehouse. They are excellent.

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