Samui Wining & Dining
Why Olive?

Why olive oil is so highly regarded – and what the alternatives are.


8It’s one of those things that nobody knows. It’s as old as time itself. But somewhere after the discovery of fire and the dawn of civilisation, Man first cooked his food – although nobody knows for sure when mankind first used oil for this. But what we do know is that by 3,500 BC, soya and hemp plants were being used for oil by ancient Mediterranean civilisations

      Which poses the question – what do you use for cooking? Of course, the chances are that in today’s health-conscious climate you probably avoid using cooking oil as much as possible. Most people are confused about fats and saturation, and so they play it safe! But, when it comes to differing national cuisines and styles of cooking, the choice is vast. Did you realise that cooking oil, worldwide, is made from almost 30 different kinds of plants, seeds, and nuts, ranging from rice bran to walnuts, and including four different grades of olive oil? There are 11 commonly used nuts, and just about every kind of seed produces an oil of some kind.

      But here we need to distinguish between edible oils and oils which are used for energy production, fuel oils for lighting, and those extracts used in the cosmetics industry, such as most of the citrus oils. Lamps fuelled by

olive, palm, sesame and castor oil were the norm (superseding animal fats) until mineral oils came along. And in today’s energy conscious society, bio-diesel is the big thing. And you can create this from just about every kind of natural oil that there is!

      But, getting back into line again, just what is so special about olive oil? Assuming you are going to use one sort of cooking oil or another, how does olive oil stack up against the competition? After all, if an oil is so important as to be graded into ‘extra-virgin’, ‘virgin’, ‘refined’, ‘lampante’ and ‘pomace’, and be regulated to have grading standards authorities in Italy, Europe and America – if it’s this important, then just what is it that makes it so outstanding?

     Well, partly it’s the history and the culture behind it all. The ancient Phoenicians traded vigorously throughout the Mediterranean region and as far afield as Spain, France, Italy and the Black Sea nations. As vegetable oils were in short supply, they gained an almost mythical reputation and were of immense commercial importance. Along with salt, edible oils were the first goods to be traded consistently over long distances in this way. And a large part of the prosperity of the ancient cultures of the Mediterranean was based on the production of olive oil, which was the first widely used vegetable oil in Europe. And, as well as a source of food, olive oil was used in religious ceremonies, as lamp fuel, and in soap making.

      It has been suggested that the population increase in Europe in the 16th century was partly due to the accessibility of olives and their by-products, which by then were being produced and processed widely. Habitual famine had become a thing of the past, and two European nations, Spain and Italy, led the way with olive growing and the production of olive oil. Today, you might be surprised to know that Spain is the leading producer, accounting for 44% of production worldwide, more than double that of Italy, with Greece being the only other major contributor of note.

         And the other reason that olive oil is so significant is that, because of its pedigree, it’s the only cooking oil that not only has a distinctive flavour, but is also produced in different grades. In the same way that fine wines are evaluated and appreciated, so it is that connoisseurs of olive oil can discern not only what country and region it’s come from, but also what type of olives were used, and at what point in the growing season it was created.

         The best olive oil is expensive. ‘Extra virgin’ olive oil is made by carefully hand-picking the olives so as not to bruise them, and pressing them at room temperature within 24 hours, to prevent any minor degree of fermentation. No heat is used, as this would increase the oil yield, but at the expense of the oil’s flavour and nutrients. It is then allowed to settle, unfiltered (thus reducing its shelf life but retaining its full flavour) for at least two months, allowing sediments to settle, before the oil is drawn from the top of the tank. But it is also worth keeping in mind that many ‘uncertified’ brands of olive oil are also labelled ‘extra virgin’!

         ‘Virgin’ olive oil is essentially the good stuff that’s been treated and processed to maximise shelf life and saleability, but this processing results in a noticeable reduction in flavour. And the regular grading is correspondingly less flavourful, although it’s just fine for any dish where you really don’t want the flavour to dominate - salads, for example. The ‘lampant’and ‘pomace’? Well, lampant is for oil lamps and pomace is . . . nowadays, sort of too low-grade for even the poorest people to want!

         Finally, when to use olive oil and when to use something else? In a nutshell, any cooking process that relies on high temperatures means that olive oil is a no-no. Thus, anything prepared in a wok or stir-fried precludes olive oil. Why? The flash point, that’s why. These methods of cooking rely on high temperature for a short time. Olive oil has a low flash point, and will ignite at the temperatures needed for stir-frying. As it will also when searing anything. Or deep-frying - when did you ever hear of French fries cooked in olive oil?! In which case you’ll use any cooking oil except for olive oil. Olive oil is for gourmets, that’s why!


Rob De Wet


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