Highly honored in Greek mythology, the creation of the olive tree was believed to be the deed of ancient Athena, goddess of wisdom and justice. Legend says that in a dispute with Poseidon, god of the sea, it was agreed that the one to give the most precious gift would claim the newly founded city. And while the God of the Seas created a spring of salt water, Athena struck her spear and an olive tree rose from the ground. The olive tree was considered to be the winner. And not surprising – olive trees would provide delightful nectar that could be used to prepare food, give light and heal wounds and diseases for centuries to come and ita golden nectar is still one of the most highly valued products.
Olive oil is the star of the show in my kitchen – it elevates the flavours of just about everything and helps simple foods sing. I read somewhere that if olive oil was starring in a movie, it would get the Best Supporting actor award. Not only does olive oil adds amazing flavour to everything from vegetables to fish, it is also full of good monosaturated fats – with high amounts of potent anti-oxidants – and further helps extract and absorb all the minerals and nutrients from the food (as these often do not dissolve unless they are consumed together with fats).
However, it is important to remember that not all olive oils are made equal. Not only can the oil differ significantly in terms of quality and nutrients, it also doesn’t only have one face – it can be mild and floral, earthy and peppery, or with a hint of citrus fruit. It is a real experience tasting olive oils (which is recommended to do with plain chickpeas to make the olive oil flavour sing) and once you experience how good some of the extra virgin olive oils can be, you will never look back.
But before looking at the flavour pallet of olive oil, lets take a step back and see how olive oil is made. The craft of turning olives into oil has been honed in the Mediterranean region over thousands of years, and the techniques have been passed down from generation to generation. The traditional method of extracting olive oil from the fruit is virtually the same today as it has been for thousands of years. Olives are harvested by hand and collected in nets placed around the foot of the tree. Ideally, after they are harvested, olives will only be stored for a day before they are taken to the mill to be crushed (traditionally, giant stones weighing several tons are used to crush the olives and pits into mash). The entire milling process must be done at a very low temperature in order for the nutritious elements, color and flavor to be preserved. The olive mash is then spread onto thin mats which are stacked and placed into a press. As the press applies several hundred pounds of pressure, oil and water from the mash seep out of the mats into collection vats.
As in the traditional method no heat is applied in the pressing, olive oil is refereed to as “first cold pressed” (pure, unrefined and unprocessed) but can so be called “extra virgin” or “virgin”. On average, it takes 1,400 olives to make one bottle of olive oil and a large tree during a good harvest year can yield enough olives to produce five bottles of olive oil.
Note that ordinary “olive oil” is actually a blended oil product that start with low quality virgin olive oils that are refined using mechanical, thermal and/or chemical processes. The resulting refined olive oil is largely colorless and tasteless and is blended with a percentage of quality virgin olive oil to provide color and taste. Light or mild olive oil is also a variation of a highly refined olive oil, with less quality virgin oil added than that typically used to blend olive oil in order to achieve a light taste and colour.
Unlike wine, olive oil does not improve with age. As olive oil gets older, it gradually breaks down, free oleic acid is formed (extra-virgin oil only has 1% of it when it is produced), the acidity level rises and flavor weakens. While olive oil remains at its peak for about two or three months after pressing, extra-virgin oils keep better because they have a low acidity level to start with and you still can get the best quality and flavour from your olive oil if you use it within a year (max two) of pressing. (Notice that olive oil mostly comes in dark green bottles to filter the UV lights and protect the precious liquid inside). Longer than that and more is at stake than just flavour – research shows that the nutrients in olive oil also degrade over time.
To me, the best thing about olive oil is its taste though. It is utterly unique, giving Mediterranean regional cuisine its distinctive character. And while every Mediterranean country had a slightly different colour and flavour combination (with French olive oil typically pale and mild, compared to the strong flavour and aroma of Greek olive oil, for example), it is the Italian olive oil that holds a special place in my heart with its dark green colour and herbal and grassy flavour.
Every trip to Italy is always accompanied by beautiful addition of liquid gold to pretty much anything – from raw vegetables to an infinite number of antipasti, sauces, pastas, fish and meat, as well as numerous vegetable dishes. Olive oil enhances the taste of just about anything it accompanies. It adds delicate flavour, aroma and texture to almost every ingredient it is combined with. In salads it not only adds flavour, but also pulls nutrients out if raw vegetables. It adds body and roundness to soups and sauces. It adds peppery aroma to meat dishes or fragrant element to delicate seafood. In central and southern Italy, every region, every farmyard and even every hill has its own particular olive oil – some have a delicate taste, some are full-bodied, some could almost be described as tangy or spicy.
For most Italians, olive oil is as essential to their diet, their lives and sense of well-being and defines their cuisine.
I also can’t imagine food without this golden liquid and a wide variety of extra-Virginia olive oils accompanies every meal in our house. One doesn’t need a recipe to be able to add beautiful flavour of olive oil to almost anything – just a drizzle will elevate any dish to a new level. However, I also wanted to share with you a quick recipe for simple gluten-free olive oil and coriander seed crackers – which are a great snack and can be used for dips or eaten straight with a drizzle of yet more olive oil.
1/2 almond meal
1/4 cup flaxseed meal
1/4 cup hemp seeds
1 free-range egg
1 tbsp of coriander seeds, gently dry fried to release their flavour
4tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
a pinch of flaky sea salt
Preheat over to 180 degrees Celsius.
Mix all the ingredients together and roll out between two pieces of waxed paper until they dough is a few millimeters thick. Slice into crackers and sprinkle with a little more salt and a drizzle of olive oil before putting into the oven for 10-15 mins. Keep an eye on the crackers as to not burn them – the thinner they are, the less time they will need to cook. Let them cool down before breaking. Store in an airtight container. They never lasts more than a day in our house, but I think they should keep for about 4-5 days.
I like to enjoy mine with a drizzle of olive oil or as an accompaniment to favourite dips. Or simply plain as a snack on the road.