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There are many health benefits of olive oil, particularly extra virgin olive oil. The all-natural juice pressed from just-picked olives is so delicious that at Italian olive oil factories they give it to you in a spoon to taste. They even give it to babies in Italy because the structure of the fatty acids in olive oil is so similar to breast milk. It is also an integral part of the much-admired Mediterranean diet.
Along with grapevines, olive trees were one of the first plants humans cultivated. Olive oil was first produced along the coastal areas of the Mediterranean, and some historians trace the initial pressings back six thousand years ago to Antakya (known then as Antioch) in Turkey, not far from Syria.
The savory golden magic of the olive soon spread around the Mediterranean Basin to Greece and Italy, Africa and ultimately the whole world. Italy’s Tuscany region is the area that usually comes to mind when talking about olive oil, but Spain actually produces more of it, followed by Italy and Greece. Olive oil is also made in Turkey, Tunisia, France, Australia, the US and even Japan.
The flavor and scent of olive oil can vary greatly, offering hints of tomatoes, nuts, bananas, freshly cut grass, fresh fruits, dry fruits and other sources. These are characteristic of and can be enjoyed only in extra virgin olive oil.
The diversity in taste is comparable to that of wine, in fact, and depends on aspects such as the olives used (from the thousands of types that exist), the maturity of the fruit, and the timing of the harvest. While I was in Honolulu recently, I found an olive oil specialty shop in which the bottles were arranged as if they were fine wines. And just like there are for wines, there are olive oil tastings.
Olive trees have a lovely shape, and I have friends who enjoy cultivating them in their gardens or on their balconies. Their white flowers bloom from May to June, and they bear fruit in November. Harvest time is from November to January, and the olives picked are immediately expressed to produce the oil. Handpicking the olives and quickly expressing and bottling the juice—ideally within 24 hours—directly affects the oil’s quality. So does using the cold-press method, which keeps the temperature under 27 degrees Celsius and produces superior oil.
The charm of true olive oil is not just in its taste and fragrance, however. It’s full of healthy elements like polyphenol and oleic acid. The latter’s antioxidants help ward off coronaries, strokes and angina, and boosts good cholesterol as well. Even when used to fry tempura, olive oil encourages digestion and helps relieve constipation. For thousands of years, by the way, olive oil has also been blended with the oil of bay leaves and laurel leaves to manufacture soap. In addition to being baby-safe, these soaps help heal wounds, bug bites and skin disorders like psoriasis and acne.
Here are some things you may not know about olive oil:
• The harvest date of the fruit your oil came from should be two years or less, and preferably less than fifteen months ago.
• Some olive oil is diluted with other oils. Real extra virgin oil will have a distinct fragrance and flavor that these blended oils cannot match.
• Light, air and heat cause valuable nutrients in olive oil to oxidize and lose flavor, so look for oil in bottles tinted dark to resist light, and store what you buy in a cool dark place.
Extra virgin olive oil is great for frying or sautéing, making salad dressings, for baking and as a condiment for meat, fish or pasta. It suits both Western dishes and Japanese cuisine and desserts equally well. Why not start by dipping your bread in some, or using it instead of salad oil?
Sachiko Fujino – Food coordinator
Olive oil sommelier, junior vegetable sommelier, chef. Studied in European restaurants and started a cookery school upon returning to Japan. Introduces cookery using seasonal ingredients, focusing on Italian cuisine. Currently appearing on TV and in other media. Attempting to spread the word about the appeal and deliciousness of olive oil.