The History of Olive Oil Is Fascinating
Homer called it “liquid gold.” In ancient Greece, athletes ritually rubbed it all over their body. Its mystical glow illuminated history. Drops of it seeped into the bones of dead saints and martyrs through holes in their tombs. Olive oil has been more than mere food to the peoples of the Mediterranean: it has been medicinal, magical, an endless source of fascination and wonder and the fountain of great wealth and power. The olive tree, symbol of abundance, glory and peace, gave its leafy branches to crown the victorious in friendly games and bloody war, and the oil of its fruit has anointed the noblest of heads throughout history. Olive crowns and olive branches, emblems of benediction and purification, were ritually offered to deities and powerful figures: some were even found in Tutankhamen’s tomb.
Cultivating the Sacred
Olive culture has ancient roots. Fossilized remains of the olive tree’s ancestor were found near Livorno, in Italy, dating from twenty million years ago, although actual cultivation probably did not occur in that area until the fifth century B.C. Olives were first cultivated in the Eastern part of the Mediterranean, in the region known as the “fertile crescent,” and moved westwards over the millennia.
Beginning in 5000 B.C. And until 1400 B.C., olive cultivation spread from Crete to Syria, Palestine, and Israel; commercial networking and application of new knowledge then brought it to Southern Turkey, Cyprus, and Egypt. Until 1500 B.C., Greece—particularly Mycenae—was the area most heavily cultivated. with the expansion of the Greek colonies, olive culture reached Southern Italy and Northern Africa in the eighth century B.C., then spread into Southern France. Olive trees were planted in the entire Mediterranean basin under Roman rule. According to the historian Pliny, Italy had “excellent olive oil at reasonable prices” by the first century A.C, “the best in the Mediterranean,” he maintained.
In the land of the Hebrews, King Solomon and King David placed great importance on the cultivation of olive trees; King David even had guards watching over the olive groves and warehouses, ensuring the safety of the trees and their precious oil.
Olive trees dominated the rocky Greek countryside and became pillars of Hellenic society; they were so sacred that those who cut one down were condemned to death or exile. In ancient Greece and Rome, olive oil was the hottest commodity; advanced ships were built for the sole purpose of transporting it from Greece to trading posts around the Mediterranean.
The belief that olive oil conferred strength and youth was widespread. In ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, it was infused with flowers and with grasses to produce both medicine and cosmetics; a list was excavated in Mycenae enumerating the aromatics (fennel, sesame, celery, watercress, mint, sage, rose, and juniper among others) added to olive oil in the preparation of ointments.
Olive trees have an almost titanic resistance, a vital force which renders them nearly immortal. Despite harsh winters and burning summers, despite truncation they continue to grow, proud and strong reaching towards the sky, bearing fruit that nourishes and heals inspires and amazes. Temperate climactic conditions, characterized by warm dry summers and rainy winters, favor plentiful harvests; stone, drought, silence, and solitude are the ideal habitat for the majestic olive tree. Italy and Spain are now the most prolific producers of olive oil, although Greece is still very active. There are about thirty varieties of olives growing in Italy today, and each yields a particular oil with its own unique characteristics.
Olive Oil Properties
Sun, stone, drought, silence and solitude: these are the five ingredients that, according to Italian folk traditions, create the ideal habitat for the olive tree.
We treasure extra-virgin olive oil for its nutritional and salutary virtues. La Cucina Italiana reports that extra-virgin olive oil is the most digestible of the edible fats: it helps to assimilate vitamins A, D and K; it contains so-called essential acids that cannot be produced by our own bodies; it slows down the aging process; and it helps bile, liver and intestinal functions. It is also valued for its culinary virtues and organoleptic properties as well: flavor (sapore), bouquet (aroma), and color (colore)
Climate, soil, variety of tree (cultivar) and time of harvest account for the different organoleptic properties of different oils. Certain extra-virgin olive oils are blends of varieties of olives; others are made from one cultivar.
The European Community gives the following parameters:
Extra-virgin olive oil with perfect taste is oil of the highest quality; it has a minimum organoleptic rating of 6.5 out of 10, low acidity (1% or less), and is untreated. Olive oil has a minimum organoleptic rating of 5.5, a maximum of 2% acidity and is untreated. The production of all other olive oils involves treatments.
Extra-virgin olive oil is produced in all regions of Italy, except Piedmont and Val D’Aosta. The leading producers are Liguria, Tuscany, Umbria, and Apulia. Tuscany produces such a great assortment of extra virgin oils that many do not resemble each other. In Umbria, it is so widely produced that it would be hard to imagine the landscape without the abundance of olive trees. Apulia is home to an impressive one-third of Italy’s olive trees.
The price of extra-virgin olive oil varies greatly. Two factors are influential: where the olives are grown and which harvesting methods are implemented. Certain locations yield more bountiful harvests; consequently their oil is sold for less. Olive trees planted near the sea can produce up to 20 times more fruit than those planted inland, in hilly areas like Tuscany. It is in these land-locked areas that the olive trees’ habitat is pushed to the extreme; if the conditions were just a little more severe, the trees would not survive. Extra-virgin oils produced from these trees have higher organoleptic scores.
Health Benefits Of Using Olive Oil In Your Every Day Diet
Olive oil is an excellent example of a healthy fat essential in nutritional diets where the objective is to substitute good fats for bad fats. It is a key component of the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid.
The Mediterranean diet is gaining in popularity as a tasty, heart-healthy alternative to low-fat eating. The diet is from the Greek island of Crete where Cretans and other Greeks live longer than other populations in the world. They also are 20% less likely to die of coronary artery disease than Americans are. They also have 1/3 less cancer than in the U.S. Also recommended is regular physical exercise, drinking 6 – 8 glasses of water a day and moderate consumption of wine. It is thought that purple grape juice may offer the same heart health benefits of red wine without the concerns of alcohol.
Olive Oil contains Antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds. Antioxidants are found in fresh fruit and vegetables. Because olive oil is the only oil extracted from a fruit, it retains antioxidants and vitamins that other oils don’t have.
How Does the Mediterranean Pyramid Differ from the USDA Food Guide Pyramid?
- Both pyramids recommend eating lots of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, but the Greeks ate very little red meat, and, they consumed far more plant foods – averaging nine servings a day of antioxidant-rich vegetables.
- The Greeks ate cold water fish several times a week – another heart-healthy investment since fish contain omega-3 oils that not only reduce heart disease risk but also boost immune system functioning.
- The USDA Food Guide Pyramid groups high protein foods together and does not separate out the red meat from the heart-healthy fish and nuts.
- The Greek diet contains little of the two kinds of fats known to raise blood cholesterol levels: saturated fat and trans fat (also called “hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oil” in the ingredients section of food labels).
The USDA Food Guide Pyramid does not make the distinction between the healthy fats like monounsaturated oils and the unhealthy fats like saturated (found mostly in red meats and tropical oils) and trans fats (found mostly in margarine’s, snack foods, processed peanut butter and commercial baked goods). Both recommend limiting total fat if watching weight.
What We Can Learn from the Mediterranean Diet about Reading Food Labels
Understanding the differences in kinds of fats and knowing how to read and interpret food labels can help one become a smarter food shopper. Look for snack chips without hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils (check the ingredients section). Try natural peanut butter instead of the pasty, hydrogenated kind. Alter recipes whenever possible to replace unhealthy fats with healthy fats like olive, canola or peanut oil. Use butter very sparingly or use butter flavoring. Don’t believe “Fat Free” or “Cholesterol Free” labeling means that a the product is good for you. Many of these items are made with hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils and they have “empty calories” that can raise blood triglyceride levels.
Some Disease Olive Oil Has Been Found to Be Effective Against
- Breast Cancer
- Heart Disease
- Blood Pressure
- Olive Oil Diet Reduces Risk of Type 2 Diabetes
- Olive Oil Might Help Prevent Strokes
- Olive Oil Keeps the Heart Young
- Rheumatoid Arthritis
- Olive Oil Fights Osteoporosis
- Olive Oil May Protect Against Depression
- Olive Oil Found to Help Prevent Skin Cancer
Olive Oil Is The Way To Naturally Beautiful Skin & Hair
- Skin Moisturizer – Extra Virgin Olive Oil can be applied to the skin. It will penetrate the skin and provide a shield of moisture to keep the skin smooth and soft. It is best applied to damp skin. Mix olive oil with a few drop of lavender essential oil in a bath to relax and moisturize the whole body.
- Exfoliator – You can mix olive oil and sea salt to make a rub to exfoliate the dead skin.
- Nail and Cuticles – Rub a few drops into the cuticle area and around the nail. It will help the cuticles stay plump and moist and make your nails shine.
- Eye Makeup Remover – Use just a few drops on a cotton pad and it will gently remove your eye makeup without irritating the delicate skin around your eyes.
- Hair Care – Use Extra Virgin Olive Oil on hair and scalp. It will help control dandruff and deep condition your hair. After shampooing, massage a mixture of equal amounts of olive oil and water into your hair. Leave on for 5 minutes, then shampoo and rinse. It will benefit your scalp and give your hair shine and strength.
Fun Facts About Olive Oil
- In order to produce one quart (32 ounces) of Extra Virgin Olive Oil, 11 pounds of olives need to be pressed.
- On average, an olive tree can live between 300 and 600 years.
- The oldest certified Olive Tree is over 2000 years old.
- One olive tree can produce around four liters of oil every year for hundreds of years.
- All olives start out green and then turn black or a dark purple as they ripen.
- On average, the world consumes approximately 2.25 million tons of olive oil each year.
- Baked goods will last longer when you substitute olive oil for butter
- The annual consumption of olive oil in the United States increased from 30 million gallons to nearly 70 million gallons a year in the last two decades.
- Processing olives below 86 degrees Fahrenheit keeps their aroma and oxidation levels intact.
- There are three towns and one city in the U.S. that are named “Olive Branch.”
- One liter of olive oil is produced from the pressing of seven liters of olives.
- Of all the olive oil produced in the United States, California is responsible for producing 99% of it.
- During the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, the old tradition of crowning Olympians with olive sprays was brought back to life.
- Over 2,550 olive branches were utilized to revive this tradition.
- The flags of seven nations, four U.S. states, and the United Nations themselves all feature an olive branch. The olive tree has been the symbol of wisdom and peace.
- Greece is the world’s third largest producer of olive oil and the world’s largest exporter of extra virgin olive oil.
Greek people eat an average of 26 liters of olive oil each every year
Cooking With Olive Oil:
Olive oil has been used for thousands of years. It is the cornerstone of healthy eating and the Mediterranean Diet. It is very versatile also. Think of olive oil like wine. Use different olive oils for different purposes. Use olive oil for salads, roasting vegetables and meat, sautéing, baking or light pan frying. It is all a matter of taste.
The heating and smoke point of Extra Virgin Olive Oils may vary but as a general rule we believe it is roughly between 365 degrees F and 400 degrees F.
As a reference point, the table for the IOOCA (International Olive Oil Council) shows standard cooking temperatures:
Olive oil can be readily substituted in most dishes where margarine or butter is used. Butter and olive oil are often used together because they enhance each other’s flavors. Olive oil is also great in baking, cakes, cookies, brownies and pastry recipes. Don’t be afraid to use it.
Here is a helpful conversion chart for cooking with olive oil:
Proper Storage of Olive Oil -– Keeping Olive Oil Fresh:
- Olive oil is best keep in cool dark place away from heat (such as your stove), air (such as A/C vents) and light (out of direct sunlight). Place it in your cupboard not in the refrigerator.Note: Too much heat, air and light can cause oxidation which can make the oil turn rancid.
- It is best kept in dark green bottles.
- Do Not store in plastic, because the PVC (polyvinyl chloride) from the plastic can be absorbed by the oil.
- Avoid reactive metals such as copper or iron, because the there is a potential of chemical reaction that can make the oil unsafe.
- Stainless steel is safe, it is an unreactive metal.
- Keep the lid on tight. Cork stoppers work well.
- Use extra-virgin, olive oils and flavored olive oils within one year.
Health Benefits of Using Balsamic Vinegar In Your Every Day Diet
When oxidation happens in your body energy is produced and hampers the formation of free radicals. Free radicals are known to destroy cell membranes. They also can cause premature aging. The antioxidants found in balsamic vinegar destroy free radicals.
Grapes used in making balsamic vinegar contain quercetin, which is a bioflavonoid with antioxidant properties. The grapes also have Vitamin C. The antioxidant and vitamin C strengthen you immune system helping to fight infections and even cancer.
Reducing Heart Attack Risk
Balsamic vinegar is low in cholesterol, saturated fat and sodium. It is good for your blood pressure and it is heart healthy.
In ancient times balsamic vinegar was used to relieve pain. Headache and migraine sufferers can often fine relief by taking balsamic vinegar. It can also be used to treat infections and wounds as it has anti-viral and anti-bacterial properties.
Balsamic vinegar contains polyphenols. These stimulate the pepsin enzyme which is a digestive enzyme that helps break down proteins into amino acids.
Replace your mayonnaise based salad dressings with flavorful balsamic vinegar. Less fat low in calories and is known to keep you feeling full longer. Remember a little goes a long way.
Fun Facts About Balsamic Vinegar
- The beginnings of balsamic vinegar-making date back as far as the 11th century.
- It was originally used as a healing tonic to remedy all sorts of illnesses.
- Balsamic vinegar was so highly treasured that it was even used as a dowry when women got married.
- True traditional balsamic vinegar can only be produced in two regions of the world: the Modena and Reggio Emilia regions of Italy.
- Traditional balsamic vinegar is gluten-free and is high in healthy antioxidants.
10 Things You Didn’t Know About Balsamic Vinegar
From Acetaia Sereni balsamic vinegar factory, just outside Modena, Italy.
1. Balsamic is aged in special barrels made of different wood – each type of wood imparts a different taste and even the order in which the vinegar is moved from barrel to barrel impacts the final flavor.
2. To make balsamic vinegar grapes are harvested between 2nd and 4th week of September, squeezed, boiled at 80-90 degrees for 24 hours, then the final 10% or so of sediment is skimmed.
3. The vinegar spends 2 months in metal containers which are opened to relieve the pressure from fermentation from time to time otherwise they’d probablyexplode.
4. Cheaper supermarket ‘balsamic’ is usually up to 30% balsamic, that’s mixed with other vinegars.
5. The high quality balsamics start their lives in cherry tree (ciliegio) or oak barrels.
6. The mirror test – you can tell that a balsamic vinegar is of a high quality if you can see your face in it. I was invited to test this on a barrel of Pre-war vinegar dating back to 1930. The fact that this survived the ravages of the war, and wasn’t looted is attributed to the women, who traditionally worked in the production of balsamic, having secretly buried the best barrels to keep them away from the occupying forces.
7. There’s a local Italian tradition to give males a bottle of balsamic at birth, which is then kept for them until they grow up.
8. Here in Italy good balsamic is used not just as a condiment but as a medicine to aid digestion, for colds and other health purposes.
9. The mark of ‘real’ balsamic vinegar is that it is sold in a bottle which mimics the shape of the barrel on a stand.
10. The oldest balsamic you can taste at Acetaia Sereni is 25 years old. It tastes incredible!
Cooking With Balsamic Vinegar
Balsamic vinegar is not just about salads! If that is all you are using it for you are really missing out. Use it to:
Finish Soups and Sauces – add a splash at the end of cooking it brings the flavors together
In Braised Dishes – using a little mixed with the liquid give the dish a deep, rich and slightly sweet tangy flavor.
Syrup – Drizzle use over fruit, cakes, or ice cream. Even great on fried rice!
Marinade – Great for steak, tofu and portabella mushrooms. Add some onions a full dollop of mustard mixed with the balsamic and you have an easy marinade.
Soda and Cocktails – Balsamic is sweet and can be diluted in soda water for a great fizzy drink. Or mix with in cocktails for an adult beverage.
Storage of Balsamic Vinegar
Balsamic vinegar can be stored indefinitely. Once you open the bottle, oxygen is not a problem and will not cause deterioration. Store it in a cool, dark place away from heat. You may notice sediment in the bottle. This is a natural by-product of the process and is not harmful.
- Store in cool, dark area; keep tightly closed when not in use.
- Storage time shown is for best quality only — after that, the vinegar’s color or flavor may change, but it will remain safe to consume indefinitely if it has been stored properly.