25 February 2010
Posted in FOOD AND WINE
The very basis of the Mediterranean diet, Italian cuisine just wouldn’t be the same without this particular ingredient. Olive oil is known for its delicious flavour, its golden colour and its incredible health giving properties, and although it is made in many countries of the Mediterranean, it is general consensus that the Italian varieties are among the best.
Olive oil, or “Liquid Gold”, as the Ancient Greek poet Homer once described it, has been around for millennia. In fact, it is believed that olives were first pressed into oil in Israel as early as 4500 BC, and many of the best olive oils of today are probably produced in much the same way as the earliest oils were. This is because olive oil is actually relatively simple to make, as it can, and should be, produced and consumed in its raw, unprocessed state.
It takes around 4-5 kilos of olives to make just one litre of olive oil. The olives can be collected using the traditional method of beating the trees with long sticks to knock the fruits into nets spread on the ground. Alternatively, they can be picked up by machines, although the smaller producers still prefer the older method.
The olives are then ground into a paste (pits and all) using huge millstones before being spread on large circular mats and entered into a press, which squeezes out the “juice”, leaving the “pommace” behind to be pressed again for a lower quality oil second time around. The juice is then allowed to separate naturally into oil and water, and the oil is siphoned off to a vat where any particles are allowed to sink to the bottom and the final product can be collected and bottled. Some of the larger producers now use a centrifuge instead of a press to obtain a similar result, although pressed oil is of a higher quality and generally more expensive.
The very best oil for flavour, consistency and health benefits is doubtless Extra Virgin Olive Oil. Obtained from the first cold press (meaning the paste is kept below 27°C) to ensure the taste and chemical composition remain intact.
Different oils have different flavours and are recommended for different uses, and although the taste test is the best (and most pleasant!) way of discovering what the oil is like, the colour of the liquid itself can also be considered indicative. Golden yellow oils have the lightest flavour, fragrant and almost sweet, and for this reason they are best used raw on salads and other cold dishes. Medium oils with a deep, intense yellow hue and a fresh, almost grassy flavour are best for adding flavouring to steamed dishes and foods baked in salt. Finally, the strongest flavoured oils are the green toned ones with a darker colour, and they are perfect for grilled meats and roasts. Like wine, oil should be paired with foods as you prefer – so if you like to add stronger oils to your salads then go ahead, these are suggestions not rules.
Although olive oil is produced in many of Italy’s regions, and especially in the South, the biggest producer of olive oil in the country is Apulia. If you are interested in olive oil production then this is by far the best region for your wedding or honeymoon, as it gives you the opportunity to sample the produce of many different olive groves and to see how the oil is made first hand. An idea for your wedding in Salento would be for the wedding favours or place cards to be small personalised olive oil bottles for your guests to take home and use.