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Olive Oil: Know Your Source

by Stavros Kalogerakos

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My native village of Krokees is located in southern Greece between legendary Sparta to the north and the picturesque port of Gythion in the rugged Mani region to the south. Krokees has been a thriving agricultural settlement for over 3,500 years.

Citrus, grapes, figs, herbs, and fabulous honey are in abundance but Krokees lives and breathes olives. The surrounding valley, terraced hills, and narrow ravines are one undulating mass of evergreen olive trees. The silver-green patina of their slender leaves shimmer under the Mediterranean sun. Olive oil is king here!

Ripe for the Picking

When green olives show a hint of pale yellow and deepen to a mottled plum colour, they are ripe for picking. It is crucial that olives be picked at the right time. Too green, they produce little oil. Overripe, they lose their intense flavour and rich phyto nutrients. Myrtolia and Athinolia olives are the main cultivars and it takes five to seven kilograms to produce one litre of single cold-pressed, extra-virgin olive oil.

From mid November to March, it’s a daily mad rush to gather, sack and deliver olives to the mill for pressing into "liquid gold" as the ancient Greeks called it. The olives are pressed within 24 hours of being harvested to ensure the finest oil is produced. If sacks of olives (40 to 60 kg each) are stacked for days on end, it causes the olives to heat up, bruise, and become mouldy, oxidized and acidic.That is why during harvest there is a daily queue of farm tractors heading to the village mill to unload their precious cargo. The mill never stops; it hums round the clock, until the final load of olives is pressed.

Freshly Squeezed Juice

Cold-pressed olive oil is like freshly squeezed juice. Behind the din of modern stainless steel machinery, the mechanical process for pressing olive oil is surprisingly unchanged since ancient times. Olives are separated from any remaining twigs and leaves, washed and then ground to a fine porridge-like mash. But unlike the old days of vertical presses, there are no multiple pressings, nor hot water contact to draw the oil from the ground pulp.

The ground pulp is fed in one continuous motion through a high-speed centrifuge to extract all its liquids. The liquids are then spun in a separator, much like a cream separator. Oil, being lighter in density than the other watery, bitter liquids, rises to the top where it is collected, screened and transferred to holding tanks for natural decanting and storage. This is true, pure olive oil at its best!The press

The oil is not filtered, heated, blended with other oils, or artificially treated with chemical solvents, deodorizers, and strippers. Krokees olive oil has consistently had an acidity (free fatty acid, measured as oleic acid) level of less than 0.5 percent since 1990. The barrier set by the International Olive Oil Council (IOOC) for extra-virgin olive oil is 1.0 percent. Higher acidity means decreased antioxidants, nutrients, aroma, taste, and early onset of rancidity.

All Oils are not the Same

The bulk of olive oil is produced by Spain, Italy and Greece, in that order. But Greece outstrips all other European Union countries in the production of extra-virgin olive oil. Greek olive oil is much in demand by other oil producing countries. It is not unusual to see tanker trucks from Spain or Italy loading oil at the Krokees cooperative mill. It is blended with other oils of various national origins to enhance their taste.

California and Australia also produce olive oil. Although the IOOC sets international standards, they are only followed by Europe. California regulations allow for 75% of the olive oil content to be derived from the olives grown in the area. Blending is permitted with other oils. In fact the USA grading system is still based on its Department of Agriculture standards set in March 1948. The USA does not officially have extra-virgin olive oil. It calls it Grade A or U.S. Fancy. The permitted ceiling for free oleic acid content is higher at 1.4 %.

What Our Oil is Not

It’s all about marketing. Unscrupulous producers, distributors, dealers and merchants try to increase their profit margins at the expense of the farmer and consumer. As the village locals say, "Once the oil leaves the mill, it is not the same oil that the Athenians eat!"  In the olive oil industry, nothing gets wasted, not even the leftover pressed waste, pits and sediment. These waste products are sent to refineries for processing. Through heat extraction, acid reducing chemicals, deodorizers, and filtering, the leftover pulp is converted to tasteless pomace oil. It is still pure olive oil and acceptable for cooking but it is inferior to true first pressing olive oil. Honest brokers and dealers will label it as pomace oil and price it accordingly. More often than not, pomace oil is blended with a measure of higher quality olive oil and sold as pure, virgin, or extra-virgin olive oil. Worst yet is the adulteration of olive oil by blending it with other vegetable and nut oils but still labeling it as pure olive oil. More recently hazelnut oil has been used for blending with olive oil because its light taste stays hidden and chemically, its molecular structure is similar to olive oil. It is the role of government food inspection agencies to expose and curtail such scams.

Know Your Source

There are countless varieties and flavours of olive oil to choose from. Freshly pressed olive oil has an intense bouquet of olive fruit. It is what some refer to as grassy or asparagus tasting. There should be no off odours, mouldiness, rubbery-plastic or tangy rancid smell. On the tongue, the taste should be full but delicate with a clean finish, not heavy or cloying. When tasting olive oil on its own, don’t confuse the peppery sensation at the back of the throat with rancidity. The spiciness is an attribute of authentic fresh olive oil and its inherent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory phyto-chemical properties.

If quality is important to you, do your research and know your source. Be informed. Look for labels that fully disclose the source, method of production and a contact link to obtain more information.
Kali orexi (bon appétit)!