For over 4,000 years olive oil has been “valued through the ages for food, fuel, salve, and sacrament. Today, the olive’s liquid gold remains unsurpassed among oils, . For thousands of years, the simple process of obtaining olive oil has remained the same. First, the harvesters beat the trees’ branches with rods to make the olives fall to the ground, where they are gathered. Then, the whole olives, including the pits, are crushed in a mill. Next, the solids are removed. Finally, the oil is separated from the water in a settling tank and is ready for consumption.
However, olive oil is almost as varied as wine. Worldwide, there are a billion olive trees under cultivation.And horticulturists have classified more than 680 different varieties of olives. Apart from the difference in variety, such factors as the type of soil, the weather, the harvest date (ranging from November to February), and the extraction process influence the oil’s unique flavor, color, and aroma. Independent teams of professional tasters define the flavor of different oils as sweet, pungent, fruity, or harmonious. The tasters ensure that the quality of the final product is maintained.
The Mediterranean climate favors the cultivation of olive trees, and thus about 95 percent of all olive oil produced in the world comes from the Mediterranean basin. Travelers will notice groves of olive trees covering hillsides in Greece, Italy, Morocco, Portugal, Spain, Syria, Tunisia, and Turkey. Truly, the rich bounty of the olive can be described as the “liquid gold of the Mediterranean.”
For centuries, Mediterranean cuisine has depended on olive oil to enhance the flavor of many typical dishes. It can be used when frying, marinating, or seasoning food. “A product that has been consumed for 4,000 years must be good,” asserts master chef José García Marín, describing the importance of olive oil in Spanish cooking. “And the quality of this ‘nectar’ has improved in recent years, thanks to careful production techniques,” he adds.
Researchers have long noticed that people who follow a traditional Mediterranean diet enjoy significant health benefits.Recently, nutritionists organized an International Conference on the Healthy Effect of Virgin Olive Oil. They concluded that the Mediterranean diet, including virgin olive oil, is compatible with a healthier, longer life. A diet rich in virgin olive oil may help lower the risk of heart disease and cancer. “In all countries where the populations consume a typical Mediterranean diet . . . in which virgin olive oil is the principal source of fat,” the experts stated, “cancer incidence rates are lower than in Northern European countries.”
There may be many reasons for these health benefits. One of them is the high level of oleic acid (up to 80 percent) found in olive oil, which has a positive effect on the circulatory system. Furthermore, the absence of chemical processing and preservatives means that olive oil retains the vitamins, monounsaturated fats, and other natural ingredients of the ripe fruit.
Because of the antioxidant capacity of its minor components, such as vitamin E and polyphenols (aromatic compounds), olive oil also protects and tones the skin. Thus, it is commonly used in cosmetics, lotions, shampoos, and soaps. The ancient Greeks and Romans used olive oil enriched with herbs for cleaning and moisturizing the skin. Later, in the sixth century, French craftsmen started to make soaps from olive oil, mixing the oil with ashes from sea plants.