Our neighbor, an elderly farmer, speaks lovingly about the olive oil he makes from his trees. He likes to call it “a fresh-squeezed fruit juice,” because it’s the only vegetable oil that comes from a fruit, and not from a seed or a nut. This fresh-squeezed fruit juice has been a key ingredient in the Mediterranean Diet since the late Bronze Age.
Olive oil contains a remarkable range of nutrients and has many healthful properties. In fact, recent medical research has shown it to be beneficial against conditions ranging from coronary heart disease to Alzheimers to colon cancer. But only one kind of olive oil has these characteristics: extra-virgin olive oil, the highest grade, which is made from fresh, healthy fruit that’s been expertly harvested, pressed, extracted and bottled.
Harvesting olives is a lengthy and labor-intensive job that in our part of Italy begins this time of year, in the cold days of late November and December. Although there are mechanical ways to pick olives, much of the work is by hand, and it’s hard. To produce one liter of oil you need over 5 kilos of olives, sometimes more. Olives must be picked when they reach just the right level of ripeness, and milled within hours, before the olives start to decompose.
With all this labor to pay for, making extra-virgin olive oil is pricey. Even in an oil-producing region like ours, a bottle of extra-virgin bought in a store can’t cost less than about €10 ($14).
In fact, lots of olive oil is sold in stores at half that price, or less. Most of it is labeled “olive oil.” This is an inferior grade to extra-virgin, made from over-ripe olives that have fallen from the trees and collected in nets on the ground, where they’ve started to decompose. The oil extracted from these olives can’t legally be sold as food, only as fuel (it’s called lampante, or “lamp-oil”). So it’s taken to a refinery, where it’s industrially treated, then mixed with a dash of extra-virgin olive oil, and sold as “olive oil”.
Then there’s “pomace olive oil,” which, despite its name, isn’t olive oil at all. It's extracted with solvents from the crushed olive pits, skins and flesh left over from the milling process. Not only does it have almost none of extra-virgin oil’s health benefits, but it also often contains toxic substances. It’s to be avoided at all costs!
You should definitely pay a little more for extra-virgin olive oil: in olive oil, even more than in most other foods, you get what you pay for. (You can read a more detailed discussion of olive oil production, trade and fraud here.)
We live in a prime olive growing area, and my family is the proud owner of an olive grove consisting of … well, only one olive tree! We’ve been putting off the idea of an olive grove until we have our own land. But we’re lucky enough to know the best local producers, and we buy our extra-virgin olive oil, made from the local Taggiasca variety, which has a delicate fruity taste, directly from them – buying from a known source is the best way to make sure you’re getting quality oil. Also, as part of our efforts to forage whatever we can eat from the wild (like the chestnuts I posted about earlier), each November we head out to pick some olives from the old, overgrown, abandoned olive trees that grow on hillsides around our house. I put them in brine for several months to cure them. Meantime, we dream of the day when we’ll produce our own extra-virgin olive oil.