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Olive Affair

written by Katy Fentress 3rd October 2017

Your guide to almost everything you ever wanted to know about olive oil but were too afraid to ask.

What is Olive Oil and where does it come from?

Olive Oil is a green liquid fat that is obtained by pressing the fruit of the Olea Europea (that’s the olive tree to you and me) that traditionally grows in the Mediterranean basin.

When we refer to the Mediterranean basin we refer to a series of countries that are situated in Africa, Asia and Europe. In Africa, to the south of the Mediterranean sea, the countries that make up the basin are part of the Maghreb and include Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. In Asia, to its east, the countries that are considered to be part of the Mediterranean basin are Turkey, Syria and Israel. In Europe, Spain, France, Italy and Greece are perhaps the most well known Mediterranean producers of olive oil worldwide.

Olive oil

Why is Olive Oil such a big deal?

Olive Oil is one of the seven species that are mentioned in the Hebrew Bible as being the special products of the land of Israel. According to the sacred texts, after the great waters receded and Noah and his merry band of animals were saved, the olive tree was the first whose branches and leaves burst back into life. Historians agree that the olive tree was first cultivated around 5000 BCE in Israel and that from the Greek and Phoenician time onwards, it was one of the most successful industries of antiquity.

The ancient Romans considered it an important trading commodity and they dedicated themselves to domesticating the trees and spreading their cultivation to the edges of their empire. The oil was considered so valuable, it was collected as a tax from the provinces and then brought back to Rome where it was redistributed amongst the city’s population. The use of an olive branch as a symbol of peace dates back to ancient Greek mythology while, according to Christian mythology, during the great flood Noah sent a dove out to look for land and it came back with an olive leaf in its beak.

What is it used for?

Olive oil is no longer as widely used during religious ceremonies as it was in ancient times. Today instead, it is mainly used for cooking, as a condiment, in cosmetics, soaps and as a fuel for traditional lamps.

olive oil over spoon

What are the benefits of Olive Oil?

One of the cornerstones of the Mediterranean diet, which continues to be prescribed for good health by doctors and dieticians worldwide, olive oil is associated to a long list of health claims. While it is never possible to pinpoint one hundred percent what is behind certain populations’ level of wellbeing, by and large the medical community agrees that people who consume a diet rich in olive oil (which is mainly monounsaturated fat) are less likely to develop cardiovascular diseases, hypertension and strokes than people who consume a diet high in saturated fat.

Other benefits that studies indicate could come from a diet high in olive oil are reduced breast cancer risk, balanced cholesterol, limited heart disease risk and reduced possibility of stroke.

Different Kinds of Olive Oil

Olive oil comes with different classifications depending on how the olives were picked, how much of the plant is used, what the extraction process was and whether or not it has been refined. At the top of the scale we find:

Extra Virgin Olive Oil which is unrefined, uses only the oil that was accrued from the first press of the fruit and is extracted without altering the temperature or using chemicals. Extra virgin olive oil is  best used raw on foods and is tastiest when it comes from a single olive estate.

Virgin Olive Oil is slightly inferior to its extra virgin relative and has a slightly higher level of acidity.

Olive Oil: This is a refined oil that has had its flaws removed thus making it clear in appearance. It has a neutral taste and little aroma, flavour and colour. It is good for cooking as it has a higher smoke point but lacks the nutrients of the extra virgin varieties.

Olive Pomace Oil: The lowest grade of olive oil is produced by taking the residue of the olive pulp, leaves and seeds and subjecting them to a chemical extraction process that uses a combination of solvents and heat. It is considered a very low quality oil that can be used for cooking but is more often used as a combustible.

The Olive Oil Scandal:

In 2011 the American Thomas Mueller published a book by the name “Extra Virginity” in which he argued that large swathes of the Italian olive oil industry were defrauding customers by selling lower grade oil of uncertain provenance under the banner of “100% Italian”, “Extra-Virgin” and “Cold pressed”. In 2015 a Magistrate from Northern Italy began an investigation into seven of the country’s biggest olive oil brands— Antica Badia, Bertolli, Carapelli, Coricelli, Primadonna, Santa Sabina and Sasso – for fraud and misleading labelling. Later that year, in Southern Italy, police officers raided a series of olive oil companies and discovered 7,000 tons of oil that had been marked as Italian but that prosecutors alleged was imported from Syria, Turkey, Tunisia and Morocco.  

Choosing Olive Oil:

The best Extra Virgin Olive oils will come from single estate brands so try to get something that is labelled as having been grown and produced in one country. Always try to get oil that is in dark glass or metal containers and that is being stored in a dark cool place. Olive oil is perishable and air and light are its biggest enemies. While for cooking most olive oils available on the Kenyan market are fine, when it comes to something to dress your salad, meat or vegetables with, try to go for smaller brands which aim for quality rather than quantity.

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