Friday, 12 February 2016

Olives and Olive Oil

A little information about olives and olive oil. The most common mistake is the advice that “all olives begin as a green fruit and turn black when they are ripe”. Absolute nonsense. It is as wrong as saying that all apples turn red when ripe. There are several hundred distinct cultivars of olives in existence. They are called cultivars, not varieties. This is a botanical technicality that many people ignore. It is important to botanists, professional horticulturists and others to distinguish between the two, but most of the world happily ignores it, and I am sure the vast majority are not even aware there is a distinction. Look up the differences if you wish – you may end up confused. So far as olive growers are concerned the importance is that a cultivar will not come true to type if grown from seed. In other words you cannot take the pits from your favourite olive tree and grow lots more of the same cultivar. You need to take cuttings. This applies to all cultivars.

Whilst many of the cultivars do indeed turn black when ripe there are a considerable number that do not. Some ripen to a dark red, including the Cordovil de Castelo Branco which I grow, and others a brownish colour. There are at least two white cultivars that I know of – one each on the islands of Crete and Malta. There may well be more of which I am ignorant. It does not help when supposed authorities on olive cultivars refer to all olives that have a dark colour when ripe as “black” including the Calletier of Ni├žoise Salad fame, and known as Taggiasca in nearby Liguria, Italy.

As with wine, many factors influence the taste of olive oil. The land, the olives, the season, the timing of the harvest, the skill of the maker all contribute to the finished product and so oils have a wide range of colour and taste. There is no “best” oil, and there is no “best” wine. Like most things in life, it is a matter of personal preference. I drink a lot of wine, and there are some I do not like. Similarly, I have had olive oil in the past that I do not like either. It just happens that all Portuguese olive oils I have had suit my palate – just one of several reasons I live in Portugal rather than another olive oil producing country.

The expression “first cold press” is totally meaningless. All virgin oils produced under the regulations of the International Olive Oil Council, which includes all of Europe and many other countries, are obtained from a single pressing of the olive paste (pulp and pits combined) without the use of heat. Heat and solvents may be used later to produce refined and industrial grade oils. Those countries which do not belong to the IOOC, such as USA, make their own rules.

The next falsehood, and a favourite of producers of vegetable seed oils, is that olive oil, and particularly Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO), cannot and should not be used for frying. Again, absolute nonsense. Virgin olive oils have smoking temperatures at least as high as other non-refined oils. Almost all vegetable oils in shops are refined, having undergone an industrial process to produce the oil. Personally, I would not use them. For the same reason I would not use margarine or other refined vegetable spreads – only butter.

Seed oils only came into being about 100 years ago, and whilst animal fats had been used in those areas where the olive does not grow, olive oil was usually the only fat available for everyone around the Mediterranean basin. It is still used for all methods of cooking.

Consumers should be aware that due to the greed and criminal activities of some people there has always been fraud involved in the sale of olive oil. Several reputable tests by food authorities and others in recent years have consistently revealed the continuation of this fraud. The information is on the Internet for those who want to check.

How do you know that you really are buying EVOO or VOO, and it is made from olives (and only olives) grown the country where the label says it originates? Unfortunately the buyer is relying on the honesty of everyone involved in the production and bottling of that particular oil, so there is no way to be certain without having it tested. This is out of the question for the average consumer, but certain countries and certain bottlers are known to be more reliable than others when it comes to honesty of production.


I do not make my own oil, because the cost of setting up a mill and oil producing equipment is prohibitive for my quantity of olives,  but I buy the oil I use from the man to whom I sell my olives. I trust him and I know that the oil is made from olives grown by local growers. I am also more than happy to use VOO and not EVOO. If you can do so, buy direct from a mill. If not then I recommend you buy Portuguese oil in preference to any other. Obviously people who grow olives in other olive oil producing countries will recommend that you buy oil from their country. The choice is yours.