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It’s no secret that olive oil is an essential element of the Mediterranean Diet.  It’s the principal fat, and the ingredient that brings together all the other great and healthy foods that makes the Mediterranean way of eating so pleasurable and healthy.  As Antonia Trichopoulou — the Greek scientist and medical doctor often called the “mother of the Mediterranean Diet” — always says, “Olive oil is what makes the vegetables go down.”

Despite its growing popularity over the last two decades, thanks to Mediterranean Diet education programs by Oldways and others, as well as the many TV Cooking Shows (EVOO!), there’s still lots of confusion about olive oil.  What is extra virgin?  Virgin?  Can you fry with olive oil?  How should I choose olive oil?  What’s best — Italian?  Spanish?  Greek?  Californian?

Nancy Harmon Jenkins, one of the founders of Oldways and the author of the Mediterranean Diet Cookbook, has written a new book that sheds a lot of light on the world of olive oil.  The book, Virgin Territory:  Exploring the World of Olive Oil, covers the history, science, harvesting, production, unique

characteristics of different olive oils, and the use of it with recipes from soup to nuts.  The book is described as a fascinating history lesson, a gorgeous Mediterranean cookbook, and — more than anything — a love story. 

The book is beautiful, and as always with Nancy’s research and writing, the information presented is broad and deep. The stories are captivating and the recipes are deliciously foolproof and sure to please.  What I like best, however, are her explanations about growing, producing, harvesting — and especially chapters like, “What is Extra Virgin anyway and why should you (or I) care? 

She starts the answer to this question by defining virgin olive oil.  She writes “back in the eighteenth century, and for a long time thereafter, virgin olive oil, which was always considered the finest kind, referred to an oil that had not been pressed at all.  The olives were crushed, using the big stone wheels and then the oil that naturally floated to the top of the paste was carefully skimmed off — and that was virgin.”  Nothing else was done to the olives.

The International Olive Council (formerly the International Olive Oil Council), an industry group chartered by the United Nations, defines the various categories of olive oil that are the legal classification for olive oil producing countries. Nancy explains that virgin olive oil’s definition is straight forward:  It is “obtained from the fruit of the olive tree solely by mechanical or other physical means that do not lead to alterations in the oil.”  This means there are no chemicals used.  Virgin olive oil is the juice of the olive. 

But there is no virgin olive oil on the market.  What we do have on the market are extra virgin and olive oil.  Extra virgin is produced as defined above, but it must have a certain amount of free acidity (.8 grams per 100 grams of oil).  There are also taste tests — the oil must not have certain defects and must have perfect flavor and aroma. 

She goes on to explain that olives, just like grapes, have different flavors, depending on the type of olive.  Ripeness, soil, weather, harvesting, milling, also make a difference in the flavor.  Oils that cannot be classified as extra virgin are simply called olive oil or pure olive oil (not meaning that it is better or purer).  Before bottling these second-tier oils are refined to remove defects to the extent possible and a small amount of extra virgin is added, giving the oil more flavor.  This oil is still rich in monounsaturated fatty acids, but does not have the extra polyphenols and antioxidants that extra virgin olive oil does.  Many cooks use this oil for frying, but Nancy doesn’t.  She “take[s] her cue from generations of Mediterranean cooks at all levels, from the humblest homestead to the most exalted restaurant kitchen, and only cook[s] with extra virgin olive oil.”

There is much to be learned, enjoyed and loved about olive oil.  Nancy suggests organizing a tasting of oils with friends — choosing a country or a region or even a hemisphere.  And remember, there is really no right or wrong answer in a tasting — like wine, it’s about learning, comparing, and discovering what you love.


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