Native to the Mediterranean, olive trees originated in present day
Turkey and Neolithic people are thought to have gathered
the wild olive fruits. While it is unclear when actual
cultivation of the oil tree began, references in the Bible,
the Iliad, and the Odyssey all imply its
domestication without directly discussing it (compared to ancient
accounts specifically referring to wine cultivation). Some claims
denote Crete as the location of the first olive cultivation
(archaeological evidence of olive oil dates back to 3500 BC, while
oil procurement is thought to precede 4000 BC) while others name the
Canaanites (modern day Israel) as the first producers of olive oil
around 4500BC. It is clear that olive oil was important in Syria,
Egypt, Crete and Canaan, being imported and exported and important
for commerce and wealth—it was a staple of Minoan, Syrian and
Egyptian life. It is the Hebrew Bible that holds the details of the
first recorded olive oil elicitation during the Exodus from Egypt.
Oil was extracted by hand-squeezing the olive fruit. Olive oil, or
“liquid gold,” as Homer called it, was also an essential part of
ancient Greek and Roman life. Aside from being eaten, olive oil
was the basis of magic, medicine (heart ailments, stomach aches,
hair loss, excessive perspiration), religious rituals, cosmetics
(soap, lotion, perfume), and lamp and furnace fuel. Athletes and
warriors would slather their bodies in oil for competitions and
battles. It was also common to anoint oneself at the gymnasium and
after bathing. This luxury of the wealthy was also used to
routinely polish statues of the most important deities. One can
still find ancient olive oil presses in use today in parts of the
Locally produced olive oil is generally considered superior in
countries that produce olive oil with
93% of European olive oil production coming from Spain, Italy,
Greece & Turkey. Globally, Greeks are the biggest consumers of
olive oil, followed by Spain & Italy, Tunisia, Portugal and Syria,
with consumption on the rise in trailing Northern Europe and North
America. However, U.S. demand for olive oil has exploded in the
past decade and the U.S. is now the major importer of Italian olive
The Olive Tree
Olive trees are in the same family as lilacs, jasmine & ash
trees. They are very resistant trees and grow to be very old.
Sardinia, Italy, boasts the oldest tree (according to some) at
either 3000 or 4000 years old. Other trees with better established
ages are a 2000 year old tree in Crete (age measured by tree rings)
and a 1600 year old tree in Croatia. Olive trees withstand drought
well (like cacti, olive trees have very extensive roots) and thrive
in calcareous soils (they are more prone to disease in “rich” soils)
and coastal climate conditions. Even the oldest olive trees can
remain productive as long as they are regularly and properly
pruned. Pruning is essential as it preserves the flower-bearing
shoots while keeping the tree at a manageable height.
Growing a new olive tree, however, is an exact science. Trees
resulting from suckers or seeds produce poor olive yields. New trees
must be budded or grafted onto other trees to be successful. One
effective method is to cut branches into 1m lengths and plant them
in highly fertilized ground allowing them to vegetate quickly. In
Italy, it is more common to remove buds from the stems and plant
them which usually quickly sprout shoots.
The olive tree produces the olive fruit that can be cured and eaten
alone (after treatment with lye or brine or after being fermented.
They can be eaten raw but are terribly bitter!) or converted
into olive oil. The leaves can be used in medicinal teas.
Thousands of olive cultivars (varieties) exist—at least three
hundred can be found in Italy. Many of these cultivars are sterile,
so they must be paired and planted with another variety that can
fertilize the first (like Frantoio and Leccino).
A Few Important Global Cultivars
is grown world-wide. It has a purple-green skin, thick flesh,
and full flavour.
& Leccino are main contributors to Tuscan olive oil, but can be
found in other countries. Leccino with a sweeter, mild flavour and
Frantoio a bit fruitier with a lingering aftertaste.
is found in Spain. It is small and brown and used both as a
“table olive” and for its valuable oil.
is also found in Spain. It is a medium, black olive and, like the
Arbequina, is a “table olive” and as the base for a valuable oil.
is named for the city in Greece. It is considered a large, black
olive (even though it often looks purple in colour) and used as a
is another Greek olive. It is small and difficult to grow, but it’s
worth the effort as it has a high oil yield and produces an
(Picholine) is an oblong, mild and nutty, medium green olive
coming from southern France.
is almost identical to the Pecholine, except it is slightly
larger. Also comes from southern France.
is a high oil yield olive from Lebanon with a tremendously aromatic
is a Palestinian variety producing some of the world’s finest
is a hybrid bred and grown in Israel to resist disease and be
high yielding. It is used for table olives as well as oil and has a
pronounced flavour with a hint of green leaf. Also grown in
Australia & New Zealand.
like Barnea, is an Israeli hybrid. It is a round, medium sized
olive with a fruity flavour and is mainly used in oil.
olives were originally grown on California Missions and now
throughout the state. They are the typical, black American olive
used as a “table olive”.
For the Mishkan service during the Exodus from Egypt, olive oil is
the only fuel that can be burned in the seven-branched Menorah.
This practice carried over to the permanent Temple in Jerusalem.
Only the first drop of oil squeezed from the olive was blessed by
priests for exclusive use in the Temple (thus the origins of the
term “pure olive oil”) and was kept in special containers. After
Antiochus IV desecrated the Temple in Jerusalem, the Maccabees
revolted and were victorious over the Seleucid Empire. The
re-dedication of the Temple followed this victory, but the
consecrated olive oil used to fuel the eternal flame in the Temple
was only enough for one day. Amazingly, the oil lasted for eight
days—enough time to press, prepare and bless new olive oil. The
celebration of Hanukkah marks the re-dedication of the Temple and
the "miracle of the container of oil." While oil is preferred to
light the Menorah, candles may also be used.
Oil has also been used in Jewish Tradition to anoint the Kings of
Israel. (King David being the first and King Tzidkiyahu being
There is also a “bad breathe remedy” in the Talmud involving olive
oil, water, and salt.
The Greek word christos, from which “Christ” is derived,
means “the anointed one”—anointed referring to being anointed with
or Holy Chrism:
Is the name Christians give to “Holy oil” or “Blessed oil”. It is
usually made from olive oil, but can be substituted with other plant
oils in the absence of olive oil. It is often scented with balsam
(in the Catholic church) or, in the Orthodox church, a variety of
aromatic essences (after the oil described in Exodus 30:22-33 used
Catholic/Anglican/Lutheran: For many of the seven sacred
sacraments of the Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran churches,
olive oil is used in some form or another. The Oil of Catechumens
(made from olive oil) is used to consecrate those being baptized.
The Oil of the Sick is used to bless those receiving the sacrament
of Extreme Unction/Anointing of the Sick/Last Rites. Perfumed olive
oil called Sacred Chrism is used to bestow the sacrament of
Confirmation, as well as in the Baptismal and Holy Orders (ordaining
of clergy) rites and in the blessing of altars, churches, and
historically, monarchs. There is the Mass of the Chrism, on
Holy Thursday, when the chrism (along with oil of catechumens and
oil of the sick) is blessed by the bishop.
Orthodox: Like the Catholic church, Orthodox Christians use the
olive oil based Chrism for Baptism, Chrismation, anointing the sick,
ordination of clergy, consecrations of churches and historically
also of monarchs.
During holy week, Chrism is made beginning on
Holy Monday and finishes
Divine Liturgy on
Holy Thursday. Chrism is
carried in the
Great Entrance and placed
lamps continue to be used in Orthodox churches and in the prayer
corners of Orthodox Christian homes. These lamps contain half an
inch of water and the rest olive oil, with a floating wick on top.
of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints/LDS (Mormons): certain
denominations of Latter-day saints abide by the ordinance
(sacrament) of washing and anointing (often called the initiatory)
in temples as part of the Endowment ceremony. This consists of
purification by water and then anointing by oil as a mode of
preparing men and women to become either “kings and priests” or
“queens and priestesses” in the afterlife.
Aside from being mentioned several times in the
olive oil was also supposedly recommended by Muhammad (Muslim
Prophet) for consumption, healing ailments, and anointing of the
Health Benefits of EXTRA VIRGIN OLIVE OIL
EXTRA VIRGIN OLIVE OIL is healthy because it’s packed with
monounsaturated fat (more than any other naturally produced oil) and
antioxidants (especially Vitamin E and phenols). Studies have shown
that consumption of monounsaturated fats is linked to the reduction
of heart disease by lowering “bad” LDL cholesterol while increasing
the “good” HDL cholesterol. Recommended consumption is two
tablespoons daily to replace the saturated fats in one’s diet
(be sure not to simply add it to your diet and increase your
daily caloric intake!).
as Tom Mueller reveals in his August 13, 2007 article for The New
Yorker magazine, unfortunately, the olive oil business is not
exempt from scandal and crime. Mueller claims that the deep seated
scandal in the Italian olive oil industry has affected large
quantities of oil both sold in Italy and abroad, usually by
degrading the olive oil by mixing it with other nut and seed oils.
Often, the best way to detect olive oil fraud is by running basic
chemical tests on the product. These scenarios usually involve the
doctoring of low-grade soy or canola oils with things such as
chlorophyll & beta-carotene and the use of fancy packaging. Bigger
scale scams taking place in high-tech refineries, however, usually
involve blending the olive oil with hazelnut oil and “lamp”-grade
olive oil, both of which are much more difficult to detect when
using chemical testing.
After recognizing this loop hole, the EU implemented strict flavor &
for each grade of olive oil and established certified IOCC tasting
panels to enforce these standards. The real test for even the most
creative criminals of the olive oil industry is whether or not they
can outwit a well-trained and experienced tasting panel—not an easy
Mueller goes on to describe how, at one point, “extra-virgin oils
made by Carapelli, Bertolli, Rubino, and other leading Italian
brands were in fact virgin or lampante” grade. Statistics
provided by Paolo De Castro, the agriculture minister, revealed that
out of 787 olive-oil producers investigated by the government, 205
were guilty of manipulating and falsely labeling their products.
Hopefully, as regulation of olive oil production by the EU and IOCC
continues to improve, so will the quality of product making it onto
our tables. Until then, we, the consumers, continue to be the final
tasting panel—purchasing oil, however pure or impure it may be,
that’s pleasing to our palates.
designation of origin (DOP) labelling is assigned by the European
Union to ensure the quality of European produced olive oil.
International Olive Oil Council (IOCC) was established by the UN to
regulate authenticity, track production, and establish quality
standards for olive oil world wide. It’s composed of 23 various
governments and based in Madrid, Spain.
U.S. does not take part in the IOCC. Instead of recognizing the
classifications established by the IOCC, it uses a system of
classification from 1948 (terminology such as:
Fancy, Choice, Standard, Substandard)
the IOCC terminology is precise, it does lead to confusion between
production descriptions and label wording.
oil is classified based upon its production method, chemistry &
The olive harvest in Sicily is generally in the winter months,
beginning around November, with the first olive oils ready to taste
around December. All olive oil production begins, after harvesting
and thoroughly washing the olives, with converting the olives into a
paste. Paste is then
(softened by mixing with a thinner substance), allowing the oil to
concentrate. Then, oil is extracted by pressure using a simple
hydraulic press (traditional method) or centrifugation (modern
method). At the end of the process, pomace, a solid substance
remains, which still contains a bit of oil.
Olive Oil Extraction:
First cold pressed or cold extraction refers to the temperature at
which the oil was collected. This is controlled by the temperature
of the water added throughout the process of oil extraction. (Since
Extra Virgin Olive Oil comes from the initial grinding of the
olives, before any water is added, it comes from cold extraction).
While higher temperatures increase the yields of oil obtained from
the paste, they also reduce the beneficial elements of the oil
(antioxidants, vitamins, aromas) thus producing a lower grade oil.
This is a matter of quality versus quantity.
Quality oil can be produced from each extraction process, but in
addition to the extraction process, olive quality and the period
from harvesting to extraction are also important factors in quality
determination. Olive ripening is essential in olive oil production
because oil from green, under-ripened grapes makes bitter oil, and
from overly-ripened grapes makes rancid oil.
The process begins when olives are gathered, either by hand (quite
common in Sicily thanks to a species of olive tree that grows lower
to the ground than others) or mechanically. (Hand gathering of
olives results in less damage to the olives). Oil must be extracted
from the olives within 24 hours after gathering. Once all
extraction is complete, oxygen-free stainless steel silos are used
to store the oil.
Traditional Method of Extraction:
First, large millstones are used to grind the olives into a paste,
which stays under the stones for 30 to 40 minutes. This ensures
that the olives are well ground, allows time for small oil droplets
to form larger ones, and allows the fruit enzymes to produce the
flavors and perfumes of the oil. It is after this first step that
Extra Virgin Olive Oil is produced. (Grindstones are very effective
in breaking up the olive pulp while only slightly touching the nut &
skin, therefore reducing the release of oil oxidation enzymes
present in the nut and skin.) After grinding, the paste is spread
disks (traditionally of hemp or coconut
now synthetic) and stacked in a hydraulic press, which is used to
compact the olive paste and extract more oil. Water is used to
increase the filtration of the oil and must be decanted or
centrifuged to separate the two substances at the end. This phase
produces Virgin olive oil.
Compared to more modern extraction methods, this one uses less water
and therefore doesn’t wash away as many antioxidants as other
processes using more water. These techniques produces high quality
olive oil, but it is essential that both the discs and grindstones
be thoroughly cleaned after each use, so leftovers don’t begin to
ferment and contaminate the next batch of oil.
An advantage of this method is that the remaining solid by-product,
pomace, is easier to manage than in more modern processing as it
contains less water. Disadvantages include the necessary “waiting
periods” for the olives under the stones, which disrupt the
continuation of the process and can expose the olive paste to oxygen
and light. In the meantime, the harvested olives must wait to be
processed. Because this method is not continuous (all machinery is
stopped for loading, unloading, and cleaning with the grinding
mill), it is generally used (sometimes with the combination of a
modern decanter) on a smaller scale in the production of high
quality olive oil.
In the “modern” method of olive oil extraction, the olives are first
crushed into a paste by using either a hammer, disc or knife crusher
or de-pitting machine. The paste is then
for 30 to 40 minutes so the oil droplets can combine. Aromas are
created by fruit enzymes, as with the traditional process. Then,
the paste is moved into an industrial decanter which centrifuges out
the oil, pomace, and water. Much more water is used in this process
than in the traditional method.
Disadvantages of this process include the washing out of
antioxidants compared to when less water is used and a wet pomace
by-product which is much harder to process industrially and dispose
of. While these methods allow for more oil to be processed (and
more oil to be extracted from the fruit) and in large quantities, it
is expensive and often eliminates some of the beneficial qualities
of the oil (like antioxidants).
Introduced in 1972, the Sinolea method collects oil by dipping metal
discs or plates into the olive paste, waiting for oil to gather on
the metal, and then scraping it off (all a continuous process). It
relies on the surface tension between water and oil, which allows
the oil to stick to the metal. This method, however, is
comparatively inefficient at collecting all of the oil, requiring
“modern” centrifuge processing of the remaining paste to extract all
of the remaining oil. Additionally, machines are hard to clean and
the large surface areas during the process can result in rapid
oxidation (and therefore
of the product.
The Future of Olive Oil Extraction:
As in any endeavour, the future of olive oil extraction looks to new
ways of decreasing the negatives, in this case the oil degradation
during the extraction process.
can be reduced by conducting malaxation (or waiting periods) in a
controlled nitrogen atmosphere.
the pit (nut) before grinding to eliminate the release of oxidative
enzymes (coming from the pit) and pieces of wood (allowing for
disposal of waste by animal feeding).
by reducing the need to add water and therefore salvaging
antioxidants otherwise washed away.
to Care for Your Olive Oil
Light, air and heat are olive oil’s top enemies.
Exposure to these makes the oil go rancid.
Keep your oil tightly sealed in a cool, dark place.
Tips for Selecting and Using Olive Oil
variations in olive oil are normal (unless the oil is extremely
light). Deep colors usually carry heavier flavors while lighter
colors are the opposite. While most people consider olive oil to
have a deep green color, olive oils may also be golden in color. (As
with grapes, olives come in a variety of colors and create oils with
-Check the date! Olive oil begins deteriorating after one year on
the shelf (unless it’s really superior quality oil).
-Purchase oil in the darkest (in not opaque) bottle possible.
-After use, always wipe the mouth/neck of the olive oil bottle
cleaned. Remaining oil that begins to go rancid can distort the
flavors of the entire bottle.
-Name brand or supermarket olive oil will always be inferior to
smaller, farms or estates producing top quality olive oil.
-As for frying, traditionally, the lightest oil possible is
recommended so the food doesn’t take on the flavor of the oil.
However, you may like the flavor olive oil adds and more
importantly, olive oil deteriorates the least (as compared to other
oils when frying) making it a better choice.
Oil Grades & Labels
describes oil produced physically, without the use of chemicals.
describes chemically treated oil; chemical treatment is used to
neutralize defects (strong tastes) and acid content.
olive oil: describes oil extracted from the solid byproduct of
olive oil production using chemicals and heat.
Extra-virgin olive oil: best, least processed oil from first,
cold-pressing of olives; acidity of 0.8% or less; cannot contain any
refined oil; deemed “superior” by taste tests; often looks opaque or
Virgin olive oil: from second pressing; acidity less than 2%;
cannot contain any refined oil; deemed “good” by taste tests.
Pure olive oil: usually a blend of refined olive oil with one of
the virgin types.
Olive oil: blend of refined and virgin oil; 1.5% acidity or
less; generally bland.
Olive-pomace oil: blend of refined pomace olive oil and perhaps
some virgin oil; edible but cannot be called olive oil; used in some
Lampante oil: inedible; name comes from ancient use in oil
lamps; used in industrial market.
U.S. retail classifications:
Choice, Standard, Substandard
-Based on taste, aroma, acidity, absence of defects.
Pure Olive Oil”: usually lowest quality sold in stores.
from refined olive oils”: taste & acidity results of chemical
olive oil”: another name for refined olive oil. (Lower fat olive
oils don’t exist!)
hand-picked olives”: could mean better quality, since olives aren’t
damaged as they can be with mechanical gathering.
cold press”: first oil from first press of olives; “cold” is
important to retain the chemical integrity of the oil (which is
changed when heated).
in Italy” or “Packed in Italy”: not necessarily Italian olive oil;
some labels specify the origins of the oil used, often mixtures.
Acidity & Taste
Acidity is measure of the chemical degradation of the oil. It is
measured by the weight of free acid contained in the oil and
expressed as a percentage. The more degraded the oil, the more free
acids are present and therefore the more rancid the oil. Rancidity
of the oil is also determined by measuring the oxidation level.
Blind taste testers evaluate the organoleptic quality or the oil—the
taste, color, odor, and feel of the oil that stimulate the senses.
measure of the chemical degradation of the olive oil.
-Chrism: also referred to as Holy Chrism, is the name given
to olive oil blessed and used as “Holy water” in Christian
-Cold press: refers to the first pressing of the olives where
no heat or chemicals are used to extract the oil (this yields Extra
Virgin Olive Oil).
stone fruit; any fruit with an outer skin, succulent pulp, and hard
inner pit surrounding a seed
refers to olive harvest, when olives turn from green to black.
-Malax: To soften by stirring with a thinner substance;
regards to modern method of olive oil extraction. Malaxation.
taste, color, aroma, and feel of the oil that stimulates the senses.
-Strippaggio: Act of deeply inhaling while sipping olive oil
(or wine). Doing so covers taste buds with oil and allows the
aromas to ascend into the nose—this process results in the most
complete tasting of all flavors and aromas present.
the thickness of the olive oil.