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Green Gold

HISTORY + QUALITY OF OLIVE OIL

Article by Lynette Standley

Photography by Lynette Standley + Provided

Any Guesses Here?

What product is derived from the process of picking summer-ripened olives, ensuring they’re exposed to no more than 80 degrees (F), guaranteeing less than 0.8% of free acidity and pressing them within 24 hours? If you guessed first-cold-press extra-virgin olive oil, you nailed it.

Also known as EVOO, it’s the most flavorful and nutrient-rich of the lot, and it’s best served fresh on salads, with bread or drizzling over a steamy bowl of thick soup.

It’s How Old?

While the process and quality have evolved over thousands of years, the premise is still the same: press the olives, stems and pits with great force; capture the liquid that is released and bottle it up for same-day or future use. Evidence of oil production dates back to the 8th century B.C., and it was used for everything from cooking and eating to skin and muscle treatments.

Olive trees need a subtropical climate with mild winters and long, hot, dry summers. They are most prevalent at lower elevations within about the 34th and 43rd parallel around the globe: California, Spain, Italy and Greece. Unfortunately, the only olive tree we see in Idaho is the pesky Russian Olive. 

Ancient trees exist in Greece, Southern Italy and Sicily today that still produce olives. At 2,000 to 3,000 years old, it’s difficult to imagine a living thing on this earth for that length of time.

In the heel of Italy’s boot, I’ve stood inside ancient trees, whose curious hollow centers can offer refuge for man or beast from the wind, rain and sun. But the shell of the tree and its strong branches continue to grow through the centuries, producing perfect olives nearly every fall.

Thought to be the oldest olive tree in Apulia, “il Nonno” (the grandpa) is about 3,000 years old. The odd growth pattern requires stone supports now.

Difference in Color, Flavor

So many variables! Depending on elevation, latitude, exposure to summer heat, rain or drought, olive type and ripeness, the oils will vary in color and flavor. Some olive oils are pale green or gold and might have a smooth, grassier flavor, while others are a deeper green with a stronger, peppery flavor. Those aspects can be attributed to the olive variety or blend, a heat wave or a cool summer or even the farm and soil they came from—the list goes on.

Ensuring Quality

Olive oil producers are bound by international standards to label the source of the oil. It’s worth reading the label. “Harvested and bottled in … Italy, Spain, Greece, California” means you get what you expect. It will have a higher price tag, but it is typically legitimate, quality oil. 

Sadly, there is a black market for food products, and olive oil is one that has been victim of adulteration and deceptive labels. It may say “Italian Olive Oil” on the front, but the fine print could say “sourced from various countries and bottled in Italy.”

“Bottled in …” or “Product of …” Italy, Spain, Greece, California means the olives (or not only olives) could be from anywhere; a mash-up of various oils that looks like the real thing. Food dye and flavoring could be added to better resemble olive oil. Skip it. Pay the extra for quality, flavor and to support the local farmers who spend their life ensuring you get a premium healthy product.

Different trees yield olives that vary in size, chemical characteristics, oil content, ripening time, taste and many other factors.

Bake, Finish, Fry

This may stretch your mind a bit, but olive oil can be used in place of vegetable oil for baking. It’s fabulous! You can use it to grill vegetables or poultry and to fry at lower temperatures. And a quality olive oil—whether your preference is smooth or peppery—can be a perfect finish for a thick vegetable soup like Tuscany’s Ribollita or a summer salad of arugula, tuna and red onion. (Side note: Buy canned tuna packed in olive oil. So. Much. Better.)

And make a point to visit a tasting room like Olive and Vyne in Eagle to try a variety of oils and find your favorite. New owner and longtime foodie Cheryl Neruda is enthusiastic and delightful.

“Healthy and flavorful foods have always been a big part of our life,” she says. “We really enjoy helping people find the flavors they like and then pair with the dishes they plan to prepare.”

She and her daughter are co-owners; she includes recipes with purchases; tastings are free and they’ll host small-group tasting events that sound like a perfect party. Speaking of a perfect party, they sell wine now too.

Corrado Rodio, owner of olive farm Masseria Brancati, explains how the old stone mill worked.

Local suppliers:

Olive and Vyne, Boise Coop, Olivin, Albertsons, Costco (Yes, they have a thorough product-vetting process for members, and their Kirkland Brand Extra-Virgin Olive Oil is very good.) In fact, food writer and chef Samin Nosrat, who stars in Netflix's Salt Fat Acid Heat, recommends it, too.

Labels to look for:

Monini and Lucini from Italy, California Olive Ranch from California, Pianogrillo from In Sicily, Gaea from Greece and Mas de Gourgonnier from France.

Other international options:

Order directly from boutique farms like Sant’Agnese in Tuscany, Cantina del Vesuvio in Pompeii, Masseria Brancati in Apulia and Amodeo in Sicily. Or even better—visit them in person for a full cultural experience!

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LEFT: Author, Lynette Standley (@cypress_lynette) standing inside one of the “ancients,” which are all numbered and protected. Estimated age: 2,500

RIGHT: Olive oil tasting is similar to a wine tasting; both wine and olive oil are liquids obtained by pressing fresh fruit (yes, olives are a fruit)