Many people might think Italians drink and wash in olive oil and, to a certain extent, it’s not entirely untrue. In the same way the Brits have salt and pepper on the table, the Italians have a bottle of olive oil and, like seasoning, they add it to pretty much everything they eat. Their plates and cutlery have to be washed with extra soap because the oil has made them so greasy.
It’s not uncommon for many Italians to drink a shot of the golden liquid as though it were a shot of alcohol or, better still, their daily medicine. But why does Italy worship olive oil so much? What is good olive oil and what is the secret?
Olive oil comes from olives that are the fruit of an olive tree, simple. The olive tree is a very easy one to spot. It looks a little bit like a bush or a big version of a bonsai tree. Round, short and bushy, with hard and dry little light-green leaves. The fruits are sometimes different colors and sizes depending on the variety and they each ripen at different speeds. It’s largely green olives that make olive oil though. When the olives are right for picking, in November and December normally, they are plucked off the tree and gathered for washing. Hand-picked olives will always give the best oil because each fruit will ripen at a slightly different speed and a person can be more choosy about which go to the press that a machine can.
Having been washed, the olives are then sandwiched between stone disks to crush them to a paste. The oil that drips from the disks at this stage is called virgin oil and you might already know that it’s the best on the market. After this, further pressing gives lower grade oil. Extra virgin oil is virtually free from acidity (oleic acid) at only 0.8%. It has suffered no treatment apart from washing, filtering and then pressing.
Unfiltered extra virgin olive oil is even better if you can get hold of it. It will have sediments of the pressed olives in the bottle as it’s literally come straight off the disk. This is the best oil to use as a condiment but it doesn’t last long so drink it quickly.
Look out for bottles that have the most recent harvest dates on the label, as newer olive oil will always be tastier. It’s not like wine where it gets better with age. The younger the oil, the more fresh it is, and the better it is. Anything over a year old should be avoided.
Check the labels for stamps from the International Olive Oil Council (IOOC) as they are the industry regulators and will make sure the oil is at the right standard. 85% of the world’s olive trees are signed up to the IOOC though so they’re not that hard to find.
Spain and Italy produce the most olive oil in the world but then their fellow Mediterranean’s Greece consume slightly more than them, at 26 litres a year per person, so perhaps it’d be worth looking at Greek olive oil as well as Italian for your next shopping list.
Olive oil has many other uses other than in your pasta and salad. It has many tried and tested medicinal qualities ranging from: body lotion, soaps, ear waxing, laxatives, prevention of heart disease and then also as fuel in lamps. It also plays a large part in some Jewish and Orthodox religious customs. As the Greek poet once said, it’s “liquid gold”.