OLIVES AND OLIVE OIL - Centuries Of Rich Pickings

Posted March 22, 2012, 9:58 a.m.
OLIVES AND OLIVE OIL - Centuries Of Rich Pickings By Rosemary Pavlatou A silvery olive grove on a rocky limestone hillside tumbling down to a shimmering blue sea is an abiding image of Greece - ancient and modern Homer spoke of "liquid gold." Lawrence Durrell writing in Prospero’s Cell referred to “a taste older than meat, older than wine”. The domesticated olive tree, Olea europaea, with the fruits and oil derived from it, has been celebrated in life, literature and paintings down the ages, and its branches with their evergreen silvery leaves long revered as a symbol of peace. The Athenians claim the first-ever olive tree, saying it was given to mankind on the Acropolis by Athena, the goddess of wisdom, in her battle with Poseidon, ruler of the seas, for the control of Attica. Greek legend contends that the gods chose Athena. Even in war, the last thing an enemy would do would be to destroy an olive tree, such is the reverence which has always surrounded this most ancient of fruit trees that has provided food, light, fuel, cosmetics and even medicines. The unusually effective health benefits of olive oil have long been known. Both olive oil and preserved olives constitute the basis of the Mediterranean diet, widely accepted as one of the healthiest. Olive oil is the healthiest of fats, containing some seventy five per cent monounsaturated fatty acids, which can help lower total cholesterol. Olives also contain vitamins E and A. There are numerous folk remedies that involve olive oil – it is used in massage to relieve aching muscles and weary feet, to shine hair and re-hydrate dry skin, and some even claim that mixed with lavender oil it will get rid of acne. Olive production in Greece today tends to be on a small scale, compared to Spain and Italy, although Greece does contribute thirteen per cent of olive oil worldwide from well over one hundred million trees on almost a million farms. These trees thrive in varied climates and calcareous terrains, from hilly rocky terraces where little else can withstand the summer drought, heat and poor soils, to gentler valleys at lower altitudes with richer soils. The trees’ calm misty-grey colour and lollypop form define so many Greek landscapes. The further south you go, the greater the olive cultivation. In Crete, for instance, up to sixty per cent of the cultivated land is dedicated to olive trees, but in the north only around four per cent; on mainland farms roughly a third concentrate on olive growing. Trees are usually planted in symmetrical rows either forming squares or a rhomboid. Of the huge range of olive varieties in existence, only a dozen or so are preferred for cultivation in the Mediterranean, mostly those which produce the highest proportion of oil to fruit weight and are most resistant to pests, diseases and drought. Koroneiko is a particular popular variety in Greece, particularly in the south, and is used in oil production. Other trees are planted for use as whole olives - for instance, Kalamata is famous for its black-purple cocktail olives, and Naphlion gives dark green olives, the type cured in brine. In general the smaller olives are used for oil and larger fruits are kept for curing as cocktail olives. An ancient olive tree can appear wonderfully theatrical, with its gnarled branches contorted into fantastic twists and bends if left un-pruned over decades and centuries. When the main trunk dies, shoots from the base eventually form a new tree. Trees grow slowly, their roots burrowing down deep in a search for nutrients, but provided they are cared for they continue to fruit successfully for hundreds of years. What an olive tree dislikes intensely is extreme cold and damp. Tending the trees is an age-old practice, techniques varying from area to area, and from producer to producer. Trees should be fed and carefully pruned to allow in air and light to encourage the optimum amount of fruit. Harvesting takes place in late autumn and early winter. Timing is critical, as olives ripen and need to be picked within two to three weeks or their quality declines rapidly. Traditionally olive trees have been shaken or beaten with sticks. This however is not best practice as it bruises and damages the fruits. Olives are a kind of soft fruit and really need to be treated as such for the best results. For top quality oil, laborious hand-picking is still the best way and it provides many jobs. The harvest nets, so often seen lying on the ground, should be suspended to ensure that stray fruits are caught and saved from bruising. Mechanical harvesters are also used but they are less satisfactory because of likely damage to both the tree and the fruits. Some producers separate ground olives from tree olives to make different grades of oil. Typically some five kilograms of fruit yields just one litre of oil. As with wines and whiskeys, there are a number of factors that affect olive oil quality and people have various preferences of flavour and colour. It is important that olive oil is fresh as many of the antioxidants and other constituents that are considered healthy start to dissipate with age. The oil, however, keeps well for up to two years in the right conditions. - cool, dark and in an airtight container. GRADING OLIVE OIL Various grades of oil exist, set out by the International Olive Oil Council (IOCC): Estate oils – the purest and most sought after, with oils produced from a single orchard considered the most elite of all. Such oils are rarely available in shops, and are usually purchased direct from the producer. Premium extra virgin oils – from the first pressing; they are oils with a maximum of a quarter of a per cent acidity, good colour and perfect aroma. Extra virgin oils – yellow to bright green in colour and have a good strong flavour, the darker the colour the stronger the flavour which must have a "good" taste (as judged by the IOCC standards) and an acidity level of no more than one and a half per cent. Fine virgin olive oils – less expensive than extra virgin oils but close in quality and good uncooked. They too must have a "good" taste, with acidity of two per cent or less. Like other virgin oils, they cannot contain any refined oil. Virgin olive oils – good for cooking, but not enough flavor to be enjoyed uncooked. Semi-fine virgin olive oil (ordinary virgin olive oil) - must have an acidity no higher than three per cent; good for cooking but not enough flavor to be enjoyed uncooked. There are a number of other kinds of blended oils which are not usually for sale and are for commercial use or for cooking only. The colour of olive oil depends on the ripeness of the fruit when it is picked. Under-ripe olives yield a dark green, pungently flavoured oil which needs to be used with robust flavoured foods or it will over-power the ingredients. Further ripening of the fruits creates a more golden coloured oil with a lighter, smoother flavour, perfect for more subtle flavoured foods. The larger meatier olives are cured and bottled for eating. The colour and intensity of the fruits depends on the variety and the time in the season they are picked. They are initially green and ripen to a dark red or black. During the ripening process the flavour develops from strong, pungent and sharp to a more subtle, smooth flavour of the more mature fruit. The flavour of the final olive therefore depends on the method of curing and added seasonings. Lemon, garlic, herbs or spicy peppers often add an interesting piquancy. There are many ways to prepare olives for eating. Originally, they were salt cured in Greece and some people still do this today. This involves layering them with salt in an open container, such as a fruit rack lined with something waterproof. As some oil will seep out during the process, it is best to do this somewhere where mess is unimportant. Left outside for up to a month or even six weeks, the olives should be checked regularly for rotting fruit and emptied into another container and back weekly, adding more salt if necessary. The result will be rather smaller, more shriveled olives than usually found in jars because they have essentially been dried by the salt cure but this produces a product perfect for tapinades. Another method requires the skin to be slit individually either using a knife or by gently bashing the olive, always being careful not to damage the pip, before immersing in brine for a few weeks. The brine is made with boiling water and salt; a ratio of 1:4 is often recommended though this varies. To test that the brine is sufficiently salty, it is traditional to place a fresh egg in it. If it is salty enough, the egg will float. When the brine is cold the olives are added. It is important to ensure that they are fully covered by the brine. For about one month, these olives are shaken daily and the brine changed weekly. Again a sharp eye is kept out for rotting fruit, which should be removed. For those who want a more immediate solution there is a method of softening the fruit for eating earlier than the other methods here, which involves keeping the olives in plain water. Each day they must be stirred, and the water changed every two to three days. Any scum on the water should be removed. Care has to be taken to ensure that the water does not turn ‘sour’ – hence the need to change it frequently. With this method olives become edible within ten days. However, they will not last long so are really a stop-gap measure between harvest and the time that other olives are ready to be eaten. To keep olives after curing, they can be bottled with various flavourings – herbs or lemon for instance - in sterile jars and kept in a cool dark place. They will keep for a long time if well prepared, reminding one of the summer sun even in the midst of winter. It really is worth seeking out some top quality olive oil and some good olives while you are in Greece. Contact Rosemary: [email protected] ‘Olives and Olive Oil’ originally appeared in Hellas Bound. Photographs by Spiros Tsambikakis.