A Mediterranean Staple
There would be no Mediterranean cuisine without olive oil. It was used on the island of Crete during the time of Minos 2500 AD, and to this day olive oil is an integral part of any Mediterranean meal. Obtained from the fruit of the olive tree, olive oil is regarded as very healthful due to its high content of monounsaturated fat.
Statistically speaking, France is not a major producer of olive oil. In fact, 7 countries alone account for 90% of the world production of olive oil, and France is not included in these seven (statistics UNCTAD). A devastating freeze in 1956 destroyed most of the olive trees in the Var region of Provence, which led many farmers to replant with the more profitable wine grapes rather than olive trees. Still, olive oil goes hand in hand with Provence, and 50 years later an additional 100,000 olive oil trees have been planted in the area, and the production of olive oil in the south of France has doubled in just 6 years, most notably in the Hérault region (Languedoc).
Production of Olive Oil
The production of olive oil is a long and delicate job. The harvesting of olives in Provence usually takes place in November and December, although the harvesting of green olives occurs in September. All olives are green to begin with and become black as they mature. An olive tree will flower in May and by July its olives will have reached their full size. By August its natural oil will have begun to develop.
Once the olives have been harvested, the leaves are removed and the olives are cleaned. In order to avoid oxidation, the olives are then immediately crushed along with the pits. The subsequent extraction process consists of grounding the olives into tiny bits (using grinding stones or a stone hammer for the finest oils),
kneading them into a creamy paste and then cold pressing them for their oil. The pressing proces is what separates the water from the oil. The olive oil that results from this cold pressing process is a pure fruit juice, 100%natural. Once this step has been reached the olive oil is decanted – the oil rises to the top (being more dense then water) and is then slowly and carefully removed. At this point the olive oil is ready to be stored.
Olive Oil Classification
Olive oil is classified according to how it was produced:
Extra virgin olive oil is extracted from olives using a simple physical or mechanic operation. It has less than 1g of acidity per 100g of oil, and is undoubtedly the best there is to offer.
Fine virgin olive oil has between 1 and 2g of acidity per 100g or oil.
Virgin olive oil always has less than 2g of acidity per 100g of oil.
Those olive oils that are not named virgin or extra virgin are referred to as refined olive oil and are usually regarded as lower quality having undergone chemical or thermal treatments, losing most of their nutritional value.
Olive Oil Facts
- The olive tree (Olea europa) is a robust tree that can live for hundreds of years. It needs very little water and is usually grown on dry land.
- Olive oil is made up of only 20% oil, so it takes about 5 to 6 kilos of olives to make just 1 liter of oil.
- Green olives are in fact twice as less fattening as black olives, since they are picked before reaching maturity.
- The waste which results from olive oil processing consists of the pits and damaged fruit. The pits are often sold as food for pigs, and the damaged fruit is used as organic fertilizer.
- Another byproduct from olives are their leaves which are sometimes processed and made into a tea, which is then processed into tablets. These tablets are believed to help with blood flow, inhibit disease and diabetes.
How is olive oil best kept? Away from heat and light. Make sure the top is tightly screwed on to the bottle, as the oil tends to absorb other smells. Olive oil should ideally not be kept for more than two years, although if you are truly cooking Provençal style, your bottle of olive oil won’t last long at all!