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What's so great about olive oil?

What's behind the health claims? Is it worth the price? How to choose? Here's a guide

Of all the gifts of heaven to man, it is ... most precious," wrote Thomas Jefferson of the olive during a 1787 tour of southern France and northern Italy. Since before written history, man has husbanded the olive tree for its fruit and oil--or fat--which along with carbohydrates and protein is one of our three food essentials. In many lands in many times, olives were the basic source of oil in volume.

Olives came to California in 1769 with the Franciscan fathers, who planted the trees as they established the missions. These trees produced seed that gave us the Mission variety, which is still grown today.

For well over a century, olives continued to be produced for oil; by 1900 some 400 commercial olive mills were at work in California. Then inexpensive edible oils from corn, cottonseed, and other plants came on the scene and began to push olive oil into the background.

But in the last few years, California olive oil has been reappearing. It's highly touted along with imported oil for its nutritional and health benefits; it has been popularized by the current interest in Italian and other Mediterranean cuisines; and, at a time when locally produced foods are prized, excellent-quality (and costly) olive oil by California makers is much sought after and holding its own alongside pricey imported oils.

In a well-stocked supermarket or fancy food store, you're likely to be able to choose from a dozen or more California olive oils.


In the 1960s at the University of Minnesota, Ancel Keys studied typical diets of people in seven countries, seeking clues to explain the diverse rates of coronary heart disease.

One of the principal differences he pinpointed was the type of fat consumed. In Italy and Greece, where coronary heart problems were much less common than they were in the United States, the total amount of fat eaten was about the same as it was in this country, but the fat consumed there was primarily monounsaturated olive oil.

At that time, the simplistic response in the United States was to switch from saturated animal fat to unsaturated vegetable ones. Polyunsaturated vegetable oils, already established in American households, seemed the ideal alternative.

But, more recent research indicates that monounsaturated fats are better than polyunsaturates at transporting cholesterol out of the body.


During the time that interest in olive oil was on the wane, several California families quietly carried on their oil-making traditions--Nick Sciabica & Sons of Modesto and Jerry Padula in Porterville for more than half a century, and Marino Garbis of Orland Olive Oil Company in Orland for more than three decades.

The Sciabicas and Padula both label and sell some of their own oil. All three pressers custom-produce oils for firms like Corti Brothers Market in Sacramento, Kimberley Wine Vinegar Works, Neiman Marcus, Oakville Grocery Co., Trader Joe's, and Williams-Sonoma.

The pressers also make oil from fruit grown and harvested by others, such as Lila Jaeger's Napa Valley extra-virgin olive oil and Oro Fino Lucque (an olive variety) from Wente Bros., in Livermore.

For limited production, Fritz Maytag, who grows olives, and Tra Vigne restaurant (Olio Santo) in St. Helena both have acquired small presses.


In California, olives grow primarily in the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys. Varieties used for oil in Europe are being test-grown in Napa and Sonoma counties.

Each variety has its own subtle flavor and percentage of oil. Fleshy olives favored for eating, like Manzanillo and Sevillano, have lower oil content than the small Mission.

An olive oil's character and quality are determined by the variety of fruit (and, in the minds of many experts, where it's grown), and how the fruit is cultivated, harvested, handled (olives are fragile), and pressed.

Olives for oil can be harvested over several months. Mature green fruit picked in early fall yields oil that is typically green with a slightly sharp to very sharp raw flavor often described as acrid, beany, bell pepperish, grassy, herbaceous, leafy, or woodsy.

Riper fruit (mottled purple-green to black-purple color) is harvested from early winter to early spring, depending on variety. It yields more oil, proportionately, than greener olives. The oil is usually golden in color, fruitier, smoother, and more velvety in flavor and mouth feel than early-harvest oils.

Olive oil made exclusively from a specific harvest period may have this information on the label. Producers often make oil from several harvests through a season, then blend them to achieve a spectrum of flavors. To many, the softening effect of late-harvest oils benefits early-harvest oils, and late-harvest oils are enlivened by the vigor of early oils.


Olives are crushed with their pits to make a thick paste called mash, which is either pressed or centrifuged to separate the oil. Traveling with the oil are solids and some watery liquid. The pressed mixture stands until the oil floats to the top and is removed. Centrifuged oil is centrifuged a second time. This oil is then aged three to six months to mellow a natural bitterness that comes from oleuropein phenolic (a glucoside that produces a bitter taste similar to that found in raw artichokes and walnuts).


Legal definitions for olive oil grades come from the International Olive Oil Council in Madrid. There are no regulatory agencies, however, so the definitions are often compromised.

Oil is evaluated by two subjective measures, smell and taste, and by the scientific measure of free oleic acids (the predominant fatty acid in olive oil). Grade differences are based on the latter. When fatty acids break away from the oil structure (which happens, for example, if water gets in the oil) they have an unpleasant taste.

If olive oil has 1 percent or less free oleic acids, it is extra virgin--the top grade. If it has more than 1 but no more than 3.3 percent of these acids, it's virgin olive oil. Pure olive oil is a blend, with no more than 3.3 percent acidity. Oils with more than 3.3 percent acidity are refined with a process that uses heat and makes them neutral in color, flavor, and aroma. To give such oils more personality, they are blended with extra-virgin or virgin oil and sold as pure olive oil or, more frequently, as just olive oil.

Because extra-virgin oil delivers the best flavors, it commands the best price. There is much unregulated temptation internationally to dilute extra virgin with refined oils, labeling the results extra virgin. Of California-produced olive oils, only extra virgin is presently sold at retail.

What about olive oils with light on the label? They have the same number of calories as any olive oil, but they are refined specifically to make them taste like mild vegetable oils.


As in selecting wine, only your own preferences really count. The chart on pages 100 and 101 will help you choose. Of our taste panelists, about half were food professionals, half novices; their reactions were remarkably similar, though preferences differed.

For the clearest impression, dip a chunk of bread into the oil and taste. For seasoning salads, vegetables, sauces, and breads, any olive oil with a taste you like is the obvious choice.

For cooking, pure or refined olive oil works well; using extra-virgin oil is extravagant, as heat lessens its flavor.

Good-quality olive oil is quite stable compared with polyunsaturated oils. Kept airtight in a cool, dark place, unopened olive oil stays fresh-tasting up to two years; refrigerated, it turns cloudy and solidifies. At room temperature, the oil clears, but frequent chilling and warming start a breakdown that leads rapidly to rancidity.

Once opened, olive oil keeps longer than polyunsaturated oils because it doesn't bind as easily with oxygen atoms, which cause rancidity. Tightly close oil for storage and keep in a cool, dark place; it should stay fresh for six months to a year. Don't add new oil to a used oil container, or to a clean, damp one. Old oil and water both speed deterioration.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Sunset Publishing Corp.
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Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Bateson, Betsy Reynolds
Date:Oct 1, 1992
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