By Margaret Riesen
Adapted from Margaret Riesen’s “Food for Thought” column in MALIBU MONTHLY MAGAZINE
In ancient Greece, the olive tree was a symbol of peace, glory and abundance, and the oil of its fruit not just food, but sacrament and sacred ointment. The cultivation of olive trees in Crete began as early as 5000 B.C., with evidence of ancient groves all over the Mediterranean rim. Engravings of olive branches can be found on the bas-reliefs of the temple of Ramses II in Egypt (built in the 13th century B.C.).
The cultivation of oil producing plants is intimately connected with the evolution of human societies, for whom the harvesting of plant oils provided food, medicine and fuel for lamps. Much is known about the early peoples inhabiting the Fertile Crescent, where ideal conditions existed for the domestication of animals and the cultivation of various crops, and whose sophisticated culture and traditions spread throughout the Mediterranean region and beyond.
It is no coincidence that the oil of olives has been considered an elixir of good health for thousands of years. Easy to digest, olive oil has a beneficial effect on the stomach and digestive system, and its high content of simple, unsaturated fats (“monounsaturated”) and antioxidant properties is believed to protect against numerous health challenges, among them circulatory problems and heart disease.
Top quality olive oils – also the most expensive – come from hand-picked olives. “Extra virgin” denotes oils of the first pressing of the olives, with strict regulations regarding acidity (which must be less than one percent). The price of extra virgin oils varies according to where the olives are grown and how they are harvested. Olive trees planted near the sea (e.g. regions in southern Italy) can yield up to 20 times more fruit than those planted inland, making their oil less expensive. Extra virgin oils are ideal for dressings and are best used raw, adding that characteristic olive flavor.
Oils of the second and third pressings are labeled “virgin” and can be used for cooking at moderate temperature; I do not recommend buying olive oils of lower quality (those not designated “virgin” or “extra virgin”). Because olive oil is sensitive to heat, light, air and moisture, it should be kept in dark glass bottles and stored in a cool place. Stay away from olive oils in plastic containers, as they often absorb the carcinogenic polymers found in plastics.
Not sure where to start? Look for local olive oil sampling events, or organize your own. Enjoy!
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