Since immemorial times, no other plant has been so revered as the olive tree. It has been sung by poets and immortalized by painters and all kinds of stories and legends surround it. It has been one of the pillars of the Mediterranean diet for centuries, although no one knows exactly when its fruits began to be used by man.
Pillar #2: Olive Oil
What we do know is that olive oil was already stored in the Stone Age and that the primitive inhabitants of the island of Crete had established an active trade in olive oil with Egypt and Syria. Proof of this are the amphorae and small boards found in archaeological excavations in the Palace of Knossos in Crete.
We have to credit the Phoenicians for spreading the olive tree around the entire Mediterranean basin. Olive trees became so highly respected, that in Ancient Greece a law was enacted in which people were sanctioned with harsh punishments if they cut down more than two olive trees.
Myths and legends of olive oil, the “liquid gold”
In the fifth century A.D., Phidias, the Greek sculptor, carved a frieze in the Temple of the goddess Athens, the famous Parthenon on the Acropolis of Athens. This frieze tells the myth of the founding of Athens which, together with Sparta, was one of the two city-states most important in the former Helade.
This is how the myth goes:
Athena and his brother Poseidon, god of the sea, were constantly fighting among themselves to seize power of this region. To put an end to their bloody clashes once and for all, the gods decided to organize a competition in which each of them should be able to demonstrate what they could do for the community.
Poseidon stuck his trident into the ground which gave rise to a spring of salty water. Athena planted an olive tree. It became a majestic tree and its fruits provided man an aromatic liquid which was used to cure diseases, take care of the body, and as food. Zeus, as the supreme judge, decided for Athena and made her the protective goddess of the Attica region. And that’s how the capital of Attica was name Athens. Since then, the olive tree has been the symbol of life.
The olive tree is cited several times In the Bible. For example, the dove released by Noah after the Universal flood, came back to the Ark with a sprig of olive tree. Moses anointed the Ark of the Covenant and his children with olive oil, and the Kings of Israel were also anointed with the Holy oil.
Olive oil in the kitchen
In the ancient world, the olive oil was used mainly for lamps, for medicinal uses, in cosmetics and anointing, but it didn’t get into the kitchen until the methods used for obtaining the oil were perfected and a better quality was obtained.
And it is precisely in the food area where olive oil properties shine the most, stressing the characteristics of the Mediterranean cuisine like no other ingredient whether it is used for cooking or as a salad dressing.
Although I discourage frying, if you do so, be sure to use olive oil. This oil forms a crust on the surface of the food that impedes the penetration of oil. As a result, food fried in olive oil has a lower fat content than food fried in other oils.
Are all olive oils equal?
As is the case with many other natural products, we find different qualities of olive oil. The quality of olive oil is determined by the type of olives, the soil, the climate, the time of collection and when the olives are processed. In the culinary language we distinguish different grades of olive oil, using the terminology established by Italians.
Extra virgin or refined olive oil?
Thousands of years ago, the olives were crushed by hand in spherical stone basins; today, in a similar method, olives (with pits) are pounded and crushed using mechanical techniques. The oil produced in such a way (cold) is the extra virgin olive oil, the natural juice from the olives. It preserves the unique flavor, smell, and healthy properties of the fruit.
The solid residue that remains after the first extraction is sent back to the press to be beaten again and be exposed to different heat levels and chemical procedures. It is neutralized with sodium hydroxide, passed through charcoal filters, and extracted with hexane at low temperatures.
The resulting oil lacks color and aroma, and has lost most of its antioxidant properties. That’s why these second extractions are not recommended for consumption. With time, the use of oils that have been subjected to chemical agents may have a toxic effect on our bodies.
Buying extra virgin olive oil, cold press, may be a little more expensive, but in the long run you may save a lot of money and a lot of grief. A nine-month study at the University of Granada in Spain compared the effects of extra virgin and refined olive oils on the levels of LDL oxidation in men with blood vessel disease (decreased blood flow to the arms and legs due to the thickening and narrowing of the blood vessels).
The participants consumed extra virgin olive oil for the first three months. During the next three months they did not consume any olive oil. For the final three months they were given refined oil. The results showed that the amount of LDL oxidation was significantly lower after the patients consumed the extra virgin olive oil than after they consumed refined olive oil.
Why is olive oil so valuable?
Fats are not all equal. The decisive factor in the assessment of a nutritional fat is its composition. Fats are made of various substances of which the most important are the fatty acids and here we must distinguish between saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids.
Scientific studies conducted in the area of fats indicate that the ideal composition of a fat should be at least half monounsaturated fat, a fourth saturated fat, and the remaining fourth polyunsaturated fat. Olive oil is an irreplaceable source of fat for two reasons:
- The main fat in olive oil is monounsaturated, the best kind of fat for the heart since it does not get stuck in the arteries.
- Olive oil contains a large number of powerful antioxidants.
Although it may vary slightly, the average fat composition of olive oil is as follows:
- Oleic acid, monounsaturated: 65 to 80 percent of olive oil
- Linoleic, polyunsaturated: 9 to 10 percent
- Linolenic, polyunsaturated: 0 to 1.5 percent
- Saturated fat: 10 percent
In addition to an optimal proportion of fatty acids, cold pressed olive oil contains many nutrients such as vitamin E and various secondary plant substances that prevent the oxidation of cholesterol in the blood.
What to look for when buying olive oil
Here are a few facts that will help you in choosing a high quality olive oil:
- Buy “extra virgin olive oil, cold pressed.” This is the oil obtained from the first pressing of the fruit and conserves all the vitamins and antioxidant qualities of the olives. Refined olive oil loses most of the original antioxidants during the refining procedures.
- Extra virgin oil can be filtered or unfiltered. Filtration is the process by which microscopic bits from the olive have been removed. Unfiltered oil would be cloudy until it settles to the bottom; it has a deeper flavor because of the fruit.
- Rancidity speeds up when the oil is exposed to light and heat. Buy olive oil in bottles that are dark in color and keep the oil container in the dark, at room temperature.
- The color of olive oil is dependent on the pigments in the fruit, such as chlorophyll and carotenoid. The color of the oil is not indicative of its quality unless it’s light as a result of having been refined with chemicals.
- Olive oil does not get better with time. Do not buy very large containers unless you have a large family.
- Check the oil’s acidity on the label. Acidity in this case does not refer to the usual meaning “acid” but to the proportion of mono-, poly-, and saturated fat contained in the oil. Guidelines for acidity are as follows:
- Extra virgin olive oil, with a low degree of acidity, less than 1.0 percent, is a guarantee of a healthy fruit. This classification is based on the European Union standards.
- Refined olive oils include classifications such as “fine virgin oil” with acidity between 1 and 2 percent.
- Ordinary virgin olive oil has an acidity range between 2 and 3.3 percent.
As prevention, nutrition authorities recommend 2 to 3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil a day. People in the Mediterranean countries use more, but they also walk more.
All oils have 120 calories per tablespoon. It is important to remember that olive oil should always replace other sources of fat such as butter and margarine, and not be added to. Butter is rarely consumed in the traditional Mediterranean region and margarine was completely unknown in the area until recently.