22 Jul

All you wanted to know about Olives and Olive Oil

black olive and oilHere is a very complete article by Peggy Trowbridge Filippone, on Olives and Olive Oil which includes history, information on olive varieties, and usage tips.

Part 1: The only difference between green olives and black olives is ripeness

Long a symbol of peace, the olive branch brings us a marvelous, healthy fruit. Get up to date on this ancient fruit, from its origins to some intriguing olive recipes. But first, learn a little about the history of olives, types, varieties and how to store them.

Olive history
The olive (Olea europaea) dates back to 17th century B.C where it first appeared in print in Egyptian records and was mentioned numerous times in the Bible. The word comes from the Latin olivea which first appeared in English around 1200 a.d.

Since the olive is native to the Mediterranean area, it’s no surprise to learn the largest producers in the world are Italy and Spain, where olives are a diet mainstay. Olive trees were introduced to California circa 1769 by the Spaniards, where they flourished. California now provides almost 200,000 tons of commercial olive crops per year.

In the late 19th century, Professor Frederic T. Bioletti of the University of California invented a method of canning olives (referred to as “green ripe”) using an alkaline solution and brine, providing year-round availability of olives and a boost to the olive industry.

Olive types
The only difference between green olives and black olives is ripeness. Unripe olives are green and fully ripe olives are black. Olives are cured or pickled before consumption, using various methods including oil-cured, water-cured, brine-cured, dry-cured, and lye-cured. Green olives must be soaked in a lye solution before brining, whereas ripe black olives can proceed straight to brining. The longer the olive is permitted to ferment in its own brine, the less bitter and more intricate its flavor will become. Green olives are usually pitted, and often stuffed with various fillings, including pimientos, almonds, anchovies, jalapénos, onions or capers. Black olives are graded into sizes labeled as small (3.2 to 3.3 grams each), medium, large, extra large, jumbo, colossal, and supercolossal (14.2 to 16.2 grams). Black olives contain more oil than green. Unopened olives can be stored at room temperature up to two years. Opened olives should be refrigerated in their own liquid in a non-metal container and will last up to several weeks after opening.

Olive varieties
Here are some of the more popular olive varieties:

  • Manzanilla: Spanish green olive, available unpitted and/or stuffed, lightly lye-cured then packed in salt and lactic acid brine.
  • Picholine: French green olive, salt-brine cured, with subtle, lightly salty flavor, sometimes packed with citric acid as a preservative in the U.S.
  • Kalamata: Greek black olive, harvested fully ripe, deep purple, almond-shaped, brine-cured, rich and fruity flavor
  • Niçoise: French black olive, harvested fully ripe, small in size, rich, nutty, mellow flavor, high pit-to-meat ratio, often packed with herbs and stems intact.
  • Liguria: Italian black olive, salt-brine cured, with a vibrant flavor, sometimes packed with stems.
  • Ponentine: Italian black olive, salt-brine cured then packed in vinegar, mild in flavor.
  • Gaeta: Italian black olive, dry-salt cured, then rubbed with oil, wrinkled in appearance, mild flavor, often packed with rosemary and other herbs.
  • Lugano: Italian black olive, usually very salty, sometimes packed with olive leaves, popular at tastings.
  • Sevillano: Californian, salt-brine cured and preserved with lactic acid, very crisp.

Olive oil
Nope, we’re not talking about Popeye’s girlfriend but a condiment some describe as liquid gold. Olive oil is highly-prized not only for its health benefits, but also for its wonderful flavor. The best oil is a blend of oil from a mixture of red-ripe (not green and not fully ripe) olives and a smaller proportion of oil from green olives of a different variety. Cold-pressing, a chemical-free process using only pressure, produces a higher quality of olive oil which is naturally lower in acidity. When purchasing olive oil, it’s important to check labels for the percentage of acidity, grade of oil, volume, and country of origin. The level of acidity is a key factor in choosing fine olive oil, along with color, flavor, and aroma. Here are the different categories:

  • Extra virgin olive oil: cold-pressed result of the first pressing of the olives, with only 1% acid; considered the finest and fruitiest, and thus the most expensive; ranges from a crystalline champagne color to greenish-golden to bright green; generally, the deeper the color, the more intense the olive flavor.
  • Virgin olive oil: also a first-press oil, with a slightly higher acidity level of between 1-3%
  • Fino olive oil: (meaning fine in Italian) is a blend of extra virgin and virgin olive oils
  • Light olive oil: This version contains the same amount of beneficial monounsaturtaed fats as regular olive oil, but due to the refining process, it is lighter in color and has essentially no flavor. This makes it a good choice for baking and other purposes where the heavy flavor might not be desirable. This process also gives it a higher smoking point, making it a prime candidate for high-heat cooking.

Olive oil labeling
Be aware that the only terms recognized by the U.S. labeling laws are Fancy and Super Fancy. The United States is not a member of the International Olive Oil Council (IOOC) which sets strict standards on olive oils to ensure better products. The California Olive Oil Council offers a certification program to assure oils with the extra virgin label actually comply with the strict IOOC standards. Those that qualify can carry a special seal. Countries such as Greece, Portugal and other countries often label olive oils as Extra Extra Virgin, which are in general of much lesser quality than fine olive oils, and can be inferior even to other inexpensive olive oils produced for ordinary cooking.

Olive oil storage
Store olive oil in a cool, dark place for up to six months or in the refrigerator up to a year. Check the label for a bottling date for freshness. Olive oil does not improve with age like fine wine and is best when used during the first six months of pressing. Refrigerated or very cold olive oil will become cloudy, but will clear up when brought to room temperature. Be sure it’s kept in an airtight container. Use higher quality forms of olive oil for flavor foremost, and lower grades for high-heat applications.

Olive oil health benefits
Research has shown the incidence of heart disease is dramatically lower in Mediterranean countries where olive oil is a dietary staple than areas where consumption of olive oil is less voracious. Science has now determined that olive oil, as a monounsaturated fat, increases HDL or good blood cholesterol. However, it is still important to remember that olive oil is still a fat and should be consumed in limited quantities, in proper ratio to your balanced diet.

Cooking with olives
Now that you know all about olives, why not try some intriguingly different recipes? Olives pair well with most meats, particularly lamb and poultry. Of course, they are a natural with most vegetables. If you’d like to try your hand at curing your own olives at home, you’ll fine four standard brining/curing techniques on this separate page.

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