Even the earliest testimonies of the Hebrews, Egyptians, Greeks and Romans tell of the olive tree. Already in 6000 BC the olive served as food for the Cretans. From Crete, the olive is said to have come to the Greek mainland and from then on played an important role not only in the kitchen and cosmetics, but also in mythology. As a sign of victory, the Olympians were wounded by a wreath of oil branches.
Homer and Aristophanes report that in ancient Greek cuisine almost all dishes were prepared with olive oil. The philosopher Democrit even claimed that one would be a hundred years old when one uses “inward honey and external oil”, and the Roman naturalist Pliny stated: “Two liquids are pleasing to the human body, inside the wine and outwardly the olive oil, both of which come from trees, but the oil is the more necessary.” The body was rubbed with olive oil, often fragrances were added. In Rome, the use of olive oil was so widespread in all strata that its own cultivation was far from sufficient and the oil had to be imported from more distant provinces. The extent to which this was done is demonstrated by the Testaccio Hill near Ostia, which consists only of the shards of broken oil vessels. More recently, olive oil has been the preferred oil, especially at royal farms. Poets and painters such as Goethe, Kästner and van Gogh placed monuments to the olive tree in their works.
The olive tree, together with wine, figs and citrus fruits, shapes the face of the Mediterranean cultural landscape. More than 150 different olive tree species now provide a variety of tastes similar to that of wine. In the temperate Mediterranean climate, olive trees find ideal living conditions. They need a lot of sun, sufficient rains in autumn and can tolerate at most a few days below 0° C in winter. They survive the dry summer months with the help of their roots reaching up to 6 m in the soil, they can exist on the most meager soils. With careful care, they can grow to a few hundred years old and reach a high of up to 20 m. The first fruits are borne by the young tree after about 4-9 years. On average, an olive tree carries about 20 kilograms of olives per year, which will yield about 3-4 liters of oil. The timing of the harvest must be carefully matched, because the degree of ripeness of the fruit depends on both the quality and quantity of the oil obtained. The fruits are ripe for harvest when their green turns into purple, depending on the location and type of the tree, this is between November and February.
The extraction of oil
In many regions, the olives are still harvested by hand in painstaking work. In some places, the olives are beaten by the tree with long poles and collected in nets. The sensitive fruit must not be injured during harvesting, otherwise the quality of the oil will suffer. A maximum of two to four days should elapse between harvesting and pressing. First, the olives are freed from branches and leaves and carefully washed. They then enter the so-called “Kollergang”, a large basin in which high-edged millstones rotate. Here they and their stones are ground into porridge for 20-15 minutes. This porridge is distributed on round mats, which are stacked into a tower and hydraulically pressed. The draining liquid enters a centrifuge, where the amniotic fluid is separated from the oil.
Depending on the location, climate, soil, type of tree and degree of ripeness, the oil tastes fruity or earthy, spicy or mild, racy or fine or even tender. No other oil has such a variety of flavours. In addition to the typical olive taste, the oil can also taste apple- or almond-like, nutty, like green tomatoes or blackcurrants. The label usually says little about the taste of the content. In order to find out your personal favourite taste, you have to try, and this is usually possible with the oil growers. Connoisseurs enjoy oil tastings like other people wine tastings. And as a rule, the oil bought directly from the farmer is the best, even if – because of the high production costs – it is usually much more expensive than mass-produced oil from the supermarket. The inexpensive oils are quite suitable for frying, but wherever unheated oil is used, it is definitely worth paying attention to the quality.
There are four quality levels for olive oil, three of which are precisely defined by EC directives:
Drip oil, which runs out of the crushed olives before pressing, is particularly mild and fruity. It is rare and very expensive.
Extra virgin olive oil, also virgin, is the oil from the first and gentlest pressing. It must not contain more than 1% free fatty acids, the lower the proportion, the better the oil. Good extra virgin olive oil costs about 10-15 € per litre.
Extra virgin olive oil is the oil from the subsequent pressing. It must not contain more than 2% free fatty acids.
Olive oil without further designation can be refined oil, but is usually added to the flavour of virgin olive oil. Cold pressed olive oil (extra virgin) is unopened about 18 months, natural cloudy olive oil is preserved for about 12 months. It will be consumed soon after opening.
Olive oil, an important part of the so-called “Mediterranean diet”, is very healthy. The Mediterranean diet is characterized by its variety of vegetable ingredients (vegetables, fruit, bread, pasta, legumes, nuts), which are processed freshly according to season and region as little changed as possible. The main source of fat is olive oil, wine in moderation is part of the meals. This type of diet protects against cardiovascular risk factors such as dyslipidemia, hypertension, diabetes mellitus and obesity, as well as cancers, especially colorectal cancer, as well as a number of gastrointestinal diseases such as diverticulosis and gallstones. The importance of the high intake of monounsaturated fatty acids from olive oil typical of the Mediterranean diet has been investigated in numerous epidemiological, controlled studies. The positive effects of monounsaturated fatty acids are now considered undisputed, especially with regard to the favourable influence of the serum lipid profile (lowering of the “evil” LDL cholesterol, no unfavorable effect on the “good” HDL cholesterol). A doctor who is friends with us swears to drink half a cup of olive oil every morning on an empty stomach…
And the olive oil also proves itself in cosmetics: as a very effective, nourishing facial oil, as a massage oil (perhaps enriched to taste with fragrance essences), for rubbing the body, as a hair pack (acts excellently, but: let it work before washing and then wash out very well!), as an addition to the bath water as a pleasant and nourishing oil bath.
So, when you’re in Italy, take advantage of the opportunities to try different oils. With the oil, stock up on the oil that you have found your favorite oil and store the oil at home in the cellar. The amount intended for immediate use is best stored in dark tinted containers in the kitchen, as the oil spoils faster in light. In the refrigerator, the oil becomes fluffy, which does not mean a loss of quality, but before use it should definitely have room temperature again and be clear, as it will simply taste better. Per gram it has about 9 kcal, in 100 g 12 mg of the important vitamin E is contained. Due to its natural antioxidants, it is more heat stable than other oils. But like all other oils, you should never let it get so hot that it smokes. At about 130°C, steam is produced, in which the natural flavourings develop even more strongly. Olive oil is suitable for all purposes in the kitchen: for frying, frying, as a fat addition for vegetables, on bread, on pasta, risotto and of course all salads. The “Sempre-Italia-Kochstudio” swears by olive oil!
Let us conclude with a proverb:
“Take salt like a miser,
Vinegar like a sage,
Olive oil like a waste
and mics everything like a fool!”