All the facts you need to know

Olive Oil - History, Nutrition, Cooking

Marina Colonna - Olive oil tasting and harvest

Olive oil is the staple food of the Mediterranean cuisine. We all know it, we have all tasted it, some like it, and some don’t. 

But, do we really know it? 

As the good gourmets that we are, we have started to look into the subject and understand it through its numerous perspectives. We have searched for its history (Bronze Age), geography (originally from Persia, spread through the Mediterranean), who are the biggest producers (and the largest consumers), what are the types, what health and nutritional benefits it has, how to use it in the kitchen, and more. 

A Short History of Olive Oil

Olive oil was used since Bronze Age (around 3000 years BC). It is supposed that it was used for religious ceremonials, medicine, soap making, cosmetics, and as oil for lamps. It started being used as food only around 500 years BC.

It’s supposed to have arrived to the Mediterranean basin from Persia through Mesopotamia, and was spread by the Phoenicians to Greece, Carthage, And Libya.

There are quite a few olive trees that are a several millennial old. There’s the al Badawi olive tree in Bethlehem, of which experts estimate that it may be somewhere between 4,000 and 5,000 years old. 

The oldest European olive tree is in Greece and it’s consider to have somewhere around 3,000 years. It still produces olives.

Old olive tree

Olive Oil Cultivars

As one of the oldest varieties of plants domesticated and cultivated, there are hundreds of cultivars (varieties). Some of them are table olives (larger in size) and others (smaller in size) are specifically for making oil.

Some of the best olive oils are monocultivar, while other, with a more complex taste, are made from a combination of various cultivars.

Below you can find a list of the cultivars used to make the extra virgin olive oils in our online shop.

Statistics

Largest Olive Oil Producers

World production in 2019/2020: 3,200,000L

Spain
35%
Italy
11%
Tunisia
11%
Greece
8%
Turkey
7%
Morocco
4%
Portugal
4%

Largest Olive Oil Consumers

Per capita consumption in L per year

Olive Oil consumption per country

How Do They Call Olive Oil Where It's Produced?

The Production Process

Extra virgin olive oil is the result of cold pressing the olives in olive mills (frantoio in Italian). 

The oil is made in an oil mill and the production process goes through 5 stages:

  1. Harvesting
  2. Washing and pressing
  3. Kneading
  4. Extraction
  5. Separation
1. Harvesting

Olive harvesting is the most delicate of the olive oil producing phases. The right time for harvesting is decisive for the quality of the olive oil.

Also, the method of harvest is important. A manual harvest is preferred to a mechanical one – manual harvesting produces less damage to the tree and the fruit, thus ensuring a better quality for the oil.

Some producers push the search for quality to very high levels and harvest the olives at night to prevent the oxidation.

2. Washing and Pressing

After harvesting, the olives are washed with abundant water after which they are transferred to the oil press. 

The oil press system still resembles the pressing millstones that were being used during the Helenic age.

The more modern pressing system are using a hammer mechanism that crushes the olive against metal.

Courtesy of Colonna Olive Oil

3. Kneading

After the olives were pressed into a paste, the next phase, the kneading, consists in slowly and continuously mixing the dough.

The purpose of this phase is to allow the paste to reach a certain temperature at which the necessary enzymes will be activated, thus conferring the resulting oil its nutritional and health qualities.

4. Extraction

During this phase the solid part (the pomace) is separated from  the liquid part which at this stage is a mix of oil and water.

This phase can be performed through pressure, centrifugation or percolation.

After the first press, around 5-8% olive oil remains in the solid paste. This oil, known as refined pomace oil, is further extracted using chemical and solvents. It is flavourless and it still retains some of the benefits of the olive oil.

5. separation

During this phase the water is separated from the oil through centrifugation. 

The resulting first press extra virgin olive oil is bottled to protect it from oxidation.

The Types of Olive Oils

There three types of olive oil:

  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Virgin olive oil
  • Regular olive oil

It is important to understand the difference between each olive oil type as the health benefits and ways of cooking differ.

Extra virgin olive oil

The extra virgin olive oil is tre result of the first cold press of olives. It is considered to be the best olive oil for cooking and also the best olive oil in terms of quality and health benefits.

Due to its production process (the extra virgin olive oil is cold pressed and it’s never in contact with chemicals) the damaging of the important oligoelements and polyphenol antioxidants is prevented.

The extra virgin olive oil colour ranges from green to gold. Its aromas ranges from fresh green to fruity and it has a peppery after taste due to its early harvest.

Virgin Olive Oil

The difference between the extra virgin olive oil and its virgin variety is that, while the extra virgin olive oil has to be pure in taste, the virgin olive oil is allowed to have minor defects (unnoticeable for the untrained palate).

This type of olive oil is actually quite hard to find.

Regular olive oil

The regular or refined olive oil is a mix of extra virgin olive oil (15-25%) and refined olive oil obtained through methods where chemicals and heating are involved during the extraction process.

Due to its production process it has fewer health enhancing capacities while still being a rather healthy choice for cooking.

Nutrition Facts and Health Benefits

1 tablespoon of olive oil contains 13.5g of fat (saturated fat: 1.9g, polyunsaturated fat: 1.4g,  monounsaturated fat: 9.8g), 0g of carbohydrates, and 0g of proteins.

1 tablespoon of olive oil has 119 calories (you would need to run 11 minutes to burn that amount of calories).

Extra virgin olive oil (evoo) has numerous health benefits. It’s not only good for your body but it’s also good for your mind, as a regular consumption will help prevent a cognitive decline. You can see below a non exhaustive list:

All these health benefits pertain to extra virgin olive oil. You can use it while preparing your food but you can also drink the content of a tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil every morning before your breakfast.

Unlike the evoo, the regular (refined) olive oil has fewer health benefits due to containing only 15-25% extra virgin olive oil. Nevertheless, it’s still a healthy choice for cooking.  

Cooking with Olive Oil

Even if some people still think that it’s dangerous for your health to cook with olive oil, contrary to popular belief, olive oil has a quite high burning point – somewhere between 170 and 210°C (350-410°F). This mean you can still fry with olive oil (but you should avoid deep frying).

Depending on the type of olive oil, you can use olive oil for finishing a dish, dipping, vinaigrettes for salads, baking, to sauté, roast, grill, sear, and fry.

Another interesting use of olive oil in the kitchen is in infused oils where you add an additional flavour to the extra virgin olive oil (basil, lemon, rosemary, etc.)

Extra virgin olive oil

Use EVOO to add flavour to a dish, as a finishing touch, for dipping, or as a vinaigrette fro salads.

You can use it to sauté, bake, and light fry.

Virgin olive oil

Due to its minor defects in taste it is better to use it for marinades, sautéing, roasting, light frying, baking.

Regular olive oil

Because it has a higher smoke point than EVOO – somewhere arounf 240°C (470°F) and mild flavour, chefs use it as a general purpose oil and prefer it for sautéing, roasting, light frying, baking rather than using it where the 

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