Olives and olive oil are such stalwarts of the kitchen that we often forget to reflect on the goodness that they bring and indeed, their role in helping to support human civilization.
Scholars believe that the use of olives predates the use of the written word. Olives made the Minoan kingdom wealthy and were packed tightly into boats with the Phoenicians. Ancient Egyptians placed them in tombs to ensure good food in the coming life and the Greeks gifted them to the Romans as their civilization subsided and the Romans’ rose.
The olive and its limbs have long been used as metaphor and lore. So central is the olive to the rise of civilization along the Fertile Crescent that it’s possible to argue that humans wouldn’t have flourished there without this substantive fruit.
• Spanish missionaries brought olive trees with them to California when they arrived in North America, planting them along the Camino Real that supplicants used to pass among missions.
• Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives hill has trees that are over 2,000 years old, yet scientists still don’t know what the trees were like before domestication. Humans have been using olives much longer than merely 2,000 years.
• An olive tree’s typical life is between 300 to 600 years, which informs the truth of the saying, ‘You plant a vineyard for your son; an olive grove for your grandson.’
• Olives and their oil have been found to contain antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
• 16 medium olives equal one serving of fruit.
Olive trees, with their characteristic silvery green leaves and gnarled bark, are evergreen trees that can grow up to 30 feet tall. They thrive in well drained soils, and are able to withstand drought, making the olive perfect for hot, dry climates. While frost and other inclement weather can kill much of the wood, the olive tree is naturally inclined to regenerate, and clearing dead wood from the tree allows a new trunk to flourish. In this manner, olive trees are able to live for many centuries. The hardiest trees are propagated or grafted; those grown from seed rarely survive long enough to fruit.
Olives are harvested mid-autumn to early winter. In our climes, the olive harvest is typically mid-October through November. We harvest HomeFarm olives by hand, the best way to avoid harming the olive or the stems. Once harvested, the fruit is rinsed and pressed into oil within 24 hours.
New oil is exactly as it sounds and is a rare treat available only after harvest. Olio nuovo is the oil that flows directly from the tap as the olives succumb to their first pressing; the freshness of this oil is paramount to its enjoyment. Once the olio nuovo is taken, the other pressed oil will be strained of fruit bits and other extraneous matter, allowing the oil to mature and age without the taint of changeable additives.
Like new wine in France’s Beaujolais region, new oil is a cause for celebration and is to be liberally and joyfully applied to foods at most meals while the bounty lasts.
Virgin and Extra Virgin
“Virgin” olive oil denotes that the oil was obtained through a mechanical means of crushing the olives within 24 hours of harvest, without the use of chemicals or other extractive methods.
“Extra Virgin” olive oil is derived from virgin oil, has a very low acidity, and is deemed to have a superior flavor with marked fruitiness to the taste and smell.
Olive Oil Fraud
Much of the costly olive oil sold in the U.S. as “extra virgin” probably is not. According to UC Davis, as much as 69% of the imported olive oil in the U.S. that is labeled as “extra virgin” is not. In fact, it may not even be olive oil — as least not totally so — but rather, inexpensive vegetable oil to which colors and flavorings have been added. UC Davis also found that domestic olive oil from single producers was real 100% of the time.
Recognizing True Extra Virgin Olive Oil
• Read the label to see not where the oil was bottled, but where it was made.
• Is there an Olive Oil Council label on the bottle? That label is a sign of assurance.
• Look for a harvest date on the label.
• Try to choose those oils held in dark bottles.
• Be prepared to spend more. A liter for $10 is indeed a deal too good to be true.
Storing Your Oil
Light and heat are the enemies of good olive oil, so protect your oil from light and heat by keeping it away from the stove and in a container that limits its exposure to the sun. Storing your oil in the refrigerator may make it cloudy but won’t necessarily change the flavor.