Here in Spain they’re all about the olive oil. There are over 200 different varieties and it’s practically the only oil they use at home. And why not? It’s delicious, fragrant, and high quality bottles are cheap – laughably so by US standards.
Although many people probably more closely associate olive oil with Italy, Spain actually produces about 60% of the world’s olive oil, whereas Italy only produces 30%. In fact, the ancient Romans actually planted olive trees here in Spain and shipped it back to their country. However, by the time it arrived, the oil had oxidized and wasn’t edible; it could only be used for oil lamps and products like creams.
Of course Greece is another major producer as well as several other countries. The key is the climate. Olive trees thrive with the mild winters and long, dry, warm summers characteristic of this region. They do need to go dormant, but their leaves don’t change color and fall off every autumn. And because these trees grow in places without much rainfall, their root system is a widespread network of superficial roots, ready to immediately grasp any drop of water that falls.
Guillermo and his great grandfather’s olive grove.
Sounds like something out of a storybook, doesn’t it? But it’s real life. I met Guillermo. He showed us his great grandfather’s organic olive grove, that was established about 200 years ago, now called Proyecto Los Aires. It’s a small/medium farm that produces about 4,000 liters of olive oil annually. Some fast facts:
- It takes about 20 years for a newly planted olive tree to produce fruit
- Only 3% of the flowers that bloom produce an olive fruit
- Pollination by air is sufficient for them – no insects needed!
- An olive is composed of 50% water, 20% oil, and about 2% phenolic compounds
- Harvesting is done when:
- temperatures cool in autumn, usually the end of October
the olives are filled with juice and change from green to purple! This is when all those good-for-you polyphenols and antioxidants are at their peak concentrations
Tasting: Fruity, Bitter, Spicy.
Laura (Guillermo’s partner and co-owner of the grove) showed us that there are three sensations you should taste with a good quality olive oil. Fruity at the tip of your tongue, bitter at the back as you swallow it, and – surprisingly enough – a peppery sensation in your throat a few seconds after swallowing.
After I tried the first sample (essentially a shot of straight olive oil) I almost gagged. I thought something was wrong with me! It didn’t smell good, and I couldn’t detect any taste except bitter. As it turns out, this was an example of “olive oil” that can trick consumers in the supermarket if you don’t know what to look for when buying. It’s heavily processed down to a clear oil that really isn’t olive oil at all – it has lost so much of its nutrient profile including the color pigments. Then they add a few drops of Extra Virgin Olive Oil for coloring and label it as simply “Olive Oil.” Don’t waste your money (or calories) on this stuff.
The second sample had a much “greener” aroma, a less greasy mouth-feel, and I actually got the fruity and “spicy” notes as well. It was EVOO from the grove we were sitting in. *swoon* .
“Extra Virgin” means the oil is the least processed, obtained after just one pressing, enabling it to retain the most health benefits. It boasts an impressive profile of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds that help protect the cardiovascular system against disease and may also help prevent multiple types of cancer. As with any type of unsaturated (“good”) fat, it also supports healthy cholesterol levels, memory and brain function, and healthy skin and hair!
We finished off the tour with a sunny picnic of tapas from local producers and of course a delicious red wine from the very town we were in. Ah, Spain.
There is so much more I could say about olive oils, but in the interest of not writing a novel, if you’re looking for more information please leave a comment or shoot me an email! I’d be thrilled to answer your questions.