“What’s Spanish cuisine to you?” I asked Francisco, owner and cook of La Oliva gastronomic space.
“It’s many things. But the one constant, the one thread that ties our beloved cuisine together, is Spanish olive oil. And I mean the Extra Virgin, good stuff. It’s the golden ingredient.”
The golden thread. I had never thought of it that way, and by golly, the more I did…he was right! I always knew Spanish recipes called for a lot of olive oil. But it’s deeper than that. Every good Spanish cook knows that the olive oil used in a recipe could make or break a dish. The more virgin it is, the better quality it is, and the more healthy it is! But what makes it “virgin”? I had to get to the bottom of it.
So, I grabbed my notebook and camera and went to a “degustación del aceite de oliva”. In other words, an olive oil seminar. I learned loads about this ‘liquid gold’, as coined by the Romans. Let me tell ya’, there’s much more to this golden substance than what meets the eye…
The (Brief) history
Let’s rewind a few years back…6,000 years, to be exact. The Mediterranean tree, formally called olea europea, is traced back to Asia Minor or ancient Greece; historians aren’t quite sure which. We can thank the Romans for its popularity, as they expanded cultivation and became expert olive oil produces. However, much of their olive oil came from, guess where…Andalucia! Because of Andalucia’s perfect climate and terrain, the Roman Empire used the region to cultivate olive trees. In fact, there’s archaeological evidence that shows over 2,000 years ago, Rome imported 6 billion liters of olive oil, of which 85% was from Andalucia! Olive production became an integral part of Iberian cultivation & cuisine.
How’s it made?
Grow, pick and crush…it’s as simple as that! Well, not quite. When the olive is at the right level of maturity, it’s carefully picked with a very special technique. They are then crushed into a puree and water is mixed in, which causes the oil to begin to separate. The puree is then put into a centrifuge, which spins the mixture around at extremely high speeds. And voila! The oil is born. It’s then treated differently (refined, bleached or deodorized), depending on the desired taste and color.
What makes it “extra virgin”?
This is important, fellow foodies! Not all “extra virgin” olive oils are created equal. In fact, many bottles say “Extra Virgin Olive Oil” and are in fact, lying. Gasp! For it to be real “EVOO”, it has to have a low level of oleic acid, meaning its fatty acids haven’t been broken down in the production process. When these fatty acids are broken down, that’s what destroys the healthy stuff. EVOO is pure and untreated (hence, “virgin”), keeping intact its power qualities, like antioxidants and anti-inflammatories. In order to keep the oil in its purest form, every tiny detail of the production process must be perfect. The problem? Often in big factories that claim to produce “extra virgin olive oil”, their process isn’t 100%. And what’s even worse? 70% of producers mix the pure stuff with the cheap stuff to make it go farther. I know, it’s a cruel, harsh world we live in.
How can you choose the best olive oil?
Nope, it has nothing to do with color! Unfortunately, there’s no simple answer. Francisco’s best piece of advice was “avoid the big guys and find small, local producers. Find a farm you trust.” Ok, so that’s easy in Spain. However, in big American supermarkets, it ain’t so easy! Here are two trusted Spanish EVOOs that export internationally, with Fransisco’s stamp of approval: MED Extra Virgin Olive Oil and Molino De San Nicolas Y Esteban (as seen below)
Now, fun facts! Did you know….
- Spain produces the most olive oil in THE WORLD!
- In which, 25% of it comes from the small Andalucian city of Jaén
- Many “Italian” olive oils are actually produced in Spain
- It does NOT make you fat! Check out the study
- It fights against Alzheimer’s, protects your heart, prevents stroke and is full of anti-oxidants
- There are 262 types of olives, all producing different tasting olive oil
- There are 300 MILLION olive trees in Spain!
- An olive tree lives 300- 600 years! If only an olive tree could talk, the stories it would tell…
So, who’s inspired to go out and find a local, family run olive oil farm? Have you learned something new about EVOO? Have you ever tried authentic Spanish olive oil??