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     Volume 7 Issue 26 | June 27, 2008 |

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A Roman Column

The Nectar of Gods: Olive Oil-2
The Oil

Neeman Sobhan

“It has an almost teasing fragrance, blending its natural piquancy with a sort of warm fruitiness..” “Too diffident… I prefer a sharper taste.” No, this is not the elegant drivel at a wine tasting! This was part of a passionate conversation between two friends of mine, discussing the quality of the olive oil produced from their respective olive groves!

One lives in a hamlet in Umbria, while the other has a home in Tuscany. Both these regions of Italy have for long vied with each other as producers of the best quality olive oil in the country and perhaps also among the best in the world. So, it was not surprising that the post-lunch conversation between my friends soon turned playfully challenging, and my services were required to be one of two other judges in a friendly competition to crown the best olive oil! Anything to get a free bottle of freshly squeezed oil, I readily agreed.

But all the while I was chuckling at the irony that, of all people to sit on judgment on what in Italy is considered almost a nectar of the gods, it should be someone like me, who was raised like many of her other compatriots, I am sure, to believe that olive oil grew in tins on bathroom shelves, with its murky contents being useful mainly as a pre-bath body lotion!

Not that olive oil cannot be used for such humble purposes, but in the lexicon of olive oil lovers, the only oil fit for table-top consumption, is the extra virgin olive oil, the champagne of oils!

So, what is extra virgin olive oil? This is the highest grade of oil, which is measured against a certain acidity level. Extra virgin is the first press extraction of olives, and should not have an acidity level of more than 1%, or 1 gram per 100 grams of oil. Some really fine oils have acidity levels even lower than this. It must also have perfect aroma, flavour and colour, determined from tasting by a panel of experts---far more specialized and rigorous than what I and my other friend constituted as we merrily accepted bottles of our friendly contender's home grown products to take home to test in the fullness of time.

Although colour is not the only or the best determining feature, and many fine oils can be any shade of green and gold, normally, better oils have a greener colour. This denotes that the oil comes from green olives; which in turn means that the olives were picked before being allowed to ripen on the branch. This ensures a number of desirable and distinguishing features, one of them being piquancy.

One fact to clarify here is the difference between green and black olives, which quite simply is that black olives are really green olives that were allowed to ripen on the trees. Green or unripe olives produce a smaller quantity of oil than black or ripe olives, but the quality is superior, and its colour more green than gold.

But all olives, black or green, destined for extra virgin oil, get the best treatment, the kind of treatment reserved for the finest grapes in a fine winery. The olives would be harvested early (early November to late December), and most importantly, they would be hand picked. Bruising of their skin can ruin the fruit and adversely affect the oil, thus olives are normally not knocked down from branches with sticks, nor are they ever picked up off the ground, as both these methods diminish the quality of the oil being produced. During harvest time many groves employ 'pickers' and farm hands. These days many Bangladeshis and other immigrants are thus temporarily employed.

Any oil with the word “virgin” must be made from the first pressing and obtained through the mechanical or physical processing of olives. Just Virgin olive oil (not EXTRA VIRGIN) is also very good oil, but with higher acidity levels, though lower than 3.3%. Oils with more than that are considered unsuitable for human consumption but used for refining.

Other oils, including what is termed pure olive oil are a low cost blend of refined and virgin oils. Refined oils are those that are made from damaged olives or from virgin oils whose flavour or some other property had to be corrected by chemicals such as Lye.

We will be going into the benefits of Extra Virgin olive oil, but before that, it cannot be over emphasised how light and heat are the death of a quality extra virgin oil. So, to derive the maximum benefit from it, it must be remembered that this oil should be kept in a cool dark place and should not be used for cooking or frying! It should only be drizzled on food, whether breads and salads, or pasta, cooked fish and meats. The other grades of olive oil can be used to cook with, but should never be brought to smoking temperatures, or it loses it particular health giving properties.

Most people now are aware of the many benefits of olive oil, that being a mono-unsaturated fat it is a most effective agent for lowering blood cholesterol levels. In Mediterranean countries where olive oil is a staple, it is not surprising that the rate of coronary disease is very low.

Apart from its benefit to the circulatory system, it has a salutary effect on the digestive system. It not only aids digestion but is so easily digested that it is one of the first foods that Italian pediatricians introduce into the diet of babies. It stimulates appetite; by curbing excessive acid levels it helps against ulcers and gastritis; helps in the effective working of bowels; and also reduces risk of gall-stones by stimulating bile production. Last, but not least, it prevents calcium loss.

Olive oil is also excellent for the skin and hair, and for healing wounds. Thus, whether it stands on our bathroom or kitchen shelf, repo ses on our dining table or is tucked inside a medicine cabinet, whether it is slathered on our bread, salad, grilled fish or our bodies, today as ever the gift of a wise and peace-loving goddess spreads its beneficial shade over us.

As I stand under the peaceful gray green light of my Ulivo in the back garden, I wonder if we have emptied Athena's tree of all its benefits and secrets, or do the extended olive branches have other lessons to deliver in a troubled world?

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