One of our parents most frequently asked questions, after “How are the girls?” and “Did you eat?” is “Do you need oil?”. They are referring, of course, to olive oil, which is shipped to them by various family members with olive groves in Greece several times a year. Liquid gold. The olive oil is kept in their garage, in the huge containers that it travelled in, and they parcel it out to us and to our brother whenever we risk running out. Our parents literally panic if we tell them that we ran out of olive oil. This is how it has always been, and because of that we tend to forget how lucky we all are to have on hand fresh, pure and authentic Greek olive oil.
Olive trees have grown in the Mediterranean for thousands of years and although Greece is third runner up, behind Spain and Italy, in terms of how much olive oil it produces, per capita consumption is actually highest in Greece. No kidding, given that olive oil finds it’s way, plentifully, into almost every Greek recipe, and is also used to manufacture things like soap and make-up. Olive oil is also an integral part of many Greek Orthodox religious ceremonies and rituals.
There are approximately 100 different types of olives in Greece, most of which are ‘oil olives’ meaning that they are used to make olive oil. Olive oil is produced by pressing whole olives and extracting the oil. In the good old days, granite and stone wheels were used to crush the olives and coax the oil out. Today, stainless steel plates are generally used, but the idea is the same. The olive is crushed until it is a fine paste. Water is then slowly added to the fruit pulp and the mixture is centrifuged, causing the pulp and water to separate from the oil (your mother was right…oil and water do not mix!).
Most of the olive oil produced in Greece is of the extra-virgin variety, meaning that it is unrefined (pure and untreated during the production process) and has less than 1% free acidity (lower levels of oleic acid); extra-virgin olive oil is considered to have the best flavour of all other olive oils and the highest concentration of vitamins and minerals. The problem however is that you can’t always believe what you read on a label. That’s right. Believe it or not there appears to be an olive oil black market. Forget money laundering and drug trafficking, there is a new breed of criminal, and they dabble in oil. Products labeled as pure olive oil have been found to contain some olive oil, but a whole lot of other, cheaper and less flavourful oils. There are ways to try to ensure that you are actually getting what you are paying for, and we think that the best way is to find a local supplier that you can trust, and who allows you to taste and sample the oil before you buy it.
Olive oil has long been praised for it’s health benefits. It is indeed very good for you. Studies have shown it to contain oleocanthal, a natural anti-inflammatory compound with properties and a profile very much like ibuprofen. Although structurally dissimilar from a molecular perspective, oleocanthal and ibuprofen act in similar ways. Also, one of the most important studies on olive oil is called the PREDIMED trial, in which it was found that higher consumption of extra-virgin olive oil is associated with a lower risk of osteoporosis-related fractures in middle-aged and elderly Mediterranean people who are at high cardiovascular risk.
You can read more about these scientific facts if you like by referring to these papers:
- Beauchamp, G. K., Keast, R. S., Morel, D., Lin, J., Pika, J., Han, Q., … & Breslin, P. A. (2005). Phytochemistry: ibuprofen-like activity in extra-virgin olive oil. Nature, 437(7055), 45-46.
- García-Gavilán, J. F., Bulló, M., Canudas, S., Martínez-González, M. A., Estruch, R., Giardina, S., … & Salas-Salvadó, J. (2017). Extra virgin olive oil consumption reduces the risk of osteoporotic fractures in the PREDIMED trial. Clinical Nutrition.
- Bernardini, E., & Visioli, F. (2017). High quality, good health: The case for olive oil. European Journal of Lipid Science and Technology, 119(1).
…but if you don’t really want to do any heavy,
boring scholarly reading, read about these fun olive oil facts instead:
Did you know that you can actually become an olive oil sommelier? Seriously! There are courses that you can take which will make you an expert olive oil taster and judger. Look out olive oil scam artists!
There are prisoners near Florence who are learning the trade of making olive oil from one of Italy’s most renowned olive oil producers. We think that is so cool!
There is a program called Olive Oil Without Borders which builds economic cooperation in the olive oil sector between Israeli and Palestinian farmers and communities. What better way to bring the symbolic nature of the olive branch to life?!