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Italian Ingredients: Olive Oil

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Ingredienti Italiani: Olive Oil

Olio Extra Vergine d’Oliva

{AWlyoh extra-VERgeeney d’AWleevah}

The best known, and top-quality extra virgin olive oil comes from Italy, no doubt. Not to mention balsamic vinegar– two of the perfect matching Italian ingredients!

Olive oil is a staple of the Mediterranean diet and part of Italy’s culture. But olive oil is not just a condiment. Homer called it “liquid gold,” and in ancient Greece, athletes ritually rubbed it on their athletic bodies before performing in Olympic disciplines.

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 extraction of oil is a fascinating procedure. I annually visit friends in Tuscany who own and manage a local frantoio (oil press) serving their small rural community. The first drops of cold-pressed olive oil that spout out of the press on opening night are welcomed with a round of applause and a gargantuan food and wine banquet.

If you just can’t get around to organic, local and homemade cold pressed olive oil, next time you purchase your liquid gold, please take time to read the label. Olive oil manufacturers choose the wording on their labels very carefully. Before you buy, you should read accordingly.

When olive oil is “Virgin,” it means it was produced with no chemical treatment; “Extra virgin” olive oil is the one yielding from the very first cold-pressing of the olives, contains no more than 0.8% acidity, and is judged to have a superior taste.

“Refined” means that the oil has been chemically treated to neutralize strong tastes–characterized by some as defects–and offset the acid content (free fatty acids). Refined olive oil is commonly regarded as lower quality than virgin oil.

Olive oils labeled as “Pure” or simply “Olive oil” usually consist of a blend of refined and virgin or extra virgin oil. They commonly lack a strong flavor. Then we enter the danger zone: “Pomace” olive oil means oil extracted from the pomace (the pulpy residue paste remaining after olives have been crushed) using chemical solvents–mostly hexane–and by heat.

It is barely fit for consumption, but must not be described simply as olive oil; by law, the label must read pomace oil. Olive-pomace oil is rarely sold for retail; it is often used in the restaurant business for its lower cost. And when the palate is used to healthy extra-virgin, this vulgar aberration tastes dreadful.

Restaurants that care about what goes into their clients’ plates are more and more turning to good quality olive oils, for their cooking as well as the oil-salt-pepper-vinegar condiment set that complements each table.

Terminology traps:

Cleverly deceptive:

“100% Pure Olive Oil” is often the lowest quality available in retail stores: better grades always have the word “virgin” prominent on the label.

“Made from refined olive oils,” means that the taste and acidity have been chemically controlled.

“Light olive oil,” means refined olive oil, which means less flavor and more tampering. Olive oil has an average of 120 calories per tablespoon. Anything less means industrially obtained alteration.

Not Machiavellian:

“From hand-picked olives” implies that the oil is of better quality since producers harvesting olives by mechanical methods are inclined to leave olives to over-ripen in order to increase yield.

“First cold press” means that the olive oil contained in bottles with this label is the first oil to spout from the first press of the olive batch. The word ‘cold’ is important because if heat is used, the olive oil’s chemistry is altered.

Trivia: The common Italian cure for an earache is a tiny cotton ball drenched with warm olive oil lodged in the outer ear cavity. Believe me, it works!\

You may also be interested in “Ordering Vegetarian Food In Italy”

*Editor’s note: Here in the U.S., the USDA just this week revised their olive oil grade standards, providing a common language for trade and to give consumers more assurance in regards to the olive oil they purchase. This sounds like another reason for a  “round of applause and a gargantuan food and wine banquet” to me.

Also, have you ever noticed the name of Eleonora’s own drool-inducing blog?

Photo credits:Marco Bernardi; Chris PencisElle-Epp

About the author

American-born and Roman-bred Eleonora Baldwin is an active writer, blogger, journalist, gourmet vacation entrepreneur and photographer living in the Eternal City. Her writing appears regularly in several online food and travel columns that focus on Italian lifestyle, culinary customs and recipes, as well as her soon-to-be released cookbook-memoir, due for publication in 2016. Her blogs illustrate dishes, restaurant reviews, and useful tools for parents travelling with kids in Rome. On Aglio, Olio e Peperoncino, her most popular blog, Eleonora shared her insider knowledge about the depth of Italian cuisine. She can be spotted in and around the Eternal City guiding epicure travelers to secret food and wine locations, interviewing celebrity chefs, and capturing with her camera the essence, beauty and life that surrounds her.

This article has 9 comments

  1. Eleonora

    Hooray for the USDA!!!
    And one big round of applause for the olives too!

    Ciao and thanks for the hat tip… 🙂

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  3. Leslie

    drooling here….

  4. Myscha Theriault

    Nice article and great tip about the pomace oil. I had no idea!

  5. Nancie (Ladyexpat)

    Wonderful post Eleonora. Olive oil is used so often these days it’s great to know something about the process and the grades available.

  6. Nicole - A Dream Made Truth

    Participating in the first night of pressing olives into oil sounds very cool. Great info!

  7. Krista

    So much interesting information! Thank you. 🙂 I did not know about pomace oil, but forewarned is forearmed. 🙂 You are bang on about the olive oil on a cotton pad helping ear aches. I’ve used it too. 🙂

  8. Wanderluster

    Liquid gold indeed! Thanks for the fascinating article about this incredible substance.

  9. Pingback: Ingredienti Italiano: Vinegar

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