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Pantry Staples: Olive Oil

Everything you need to know about olive oil and its interesting history.

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Everyone has some olive oil in their press, but what do you really know about it? Find out everything you need to know in our pantry staples guide.

Our pantry staples series sees us take a look at the ingredients that most people usually have in their presses – chickpeas, beans, noodles and the like. Today, we’re looking at olive oil.

Olive oil is, unsurprisingly, made from pressed olives, which are traditionally found in the Mediterranean Basin. Olives are often associated with Greece thanks to the Ancient Greek myth concerning the gods Athena and Poseidon and the gifts they made to Athens in a squabble over who would be the city's patron. While Poseidon provided a saltwater spring, Athena supplied an olive branch, which was ultimately deemed far more useful, thus cementing Athena's status as patron and resulting in the city dwellers naming the city after her. Today, Spain is the largest producer of olive oil, followed by Italy and Spain; however, Greece has the highest consumption levels.

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Getty Images.

The History Of Olive Oil

Olives were first collected by Neolithic people in Ancient Greece about 10,000 years ago, with olive oil first produced between 6,000 and 8,000 years ago in Greece, Syria and Crete. Olive oil is produced by crushing or pressing olives into a paste before it is slowly churned to allow microscopic oil droplets to cluster together. The oil is then separated from the pulp and liquid, traditionally through the use of a press or centrifugation (spinning the pulp mix through a machine until the oil separates from it), which is a more modern method. 

Olive oil is available in several different grades, each of which refer to the way in which the oil was made. Virgin means that the oil was produced completely without chemicals. It encompasses all varieties of virgin olive oil, including extra virgin which is the highest grade of oil available. It is made with cold mechanical extraction and is thought to have superior flavours. 

Virgin olive oil is the next step down from extra virgin, while refined olive oil has been artificially filtered. This can affect the taste of the oil, eliminating acidity and purity of flavour. Pomace oil, which is often used in large scale cooking, can be loosely called olive oil, however, connoisseurs do not believe it deserves the title. It is made by treating the pomace, which is the paste left over after the olives have been pressed, to gather any leftover oil before mixing it with oils of other kinds to produce an oil vaguely related to olive oil.

Getty Images.
Getty Images.

As there is so much confusion surrounding olive oil labelling, it has been easy for counterfeit products to slip through the net. The Bertolli family, an Italian-American family of bankers, became rich by selling 'Italian olive oil' that was merely bottled in Italy; they had never produced any olive oil, with the majority of the oil they used made of crude pomace oil that was artificially coloured with chlorophyll to resemble olive oil. While the Bertolli family sold their olive oil brand to Unilever, this subterfuge has made it difficult for the consumer to know which olive oil is the best choice. 

To help you to determine whether you're purchasing quality olive oil, we would recommend that you go for bottles labelled extra virgin so you know that you're purchasing the purest oil. Try to buy your oil from smaller, speciality stores where you can question the origin of the oil and ensure that the brand is reputable. 

Want to use up the olive oil in your press? We love dipping bread into olive oil in place of a starter before digging into our main course. Olive oil also makes a great salad dressing and is delicious when drizzled over a Caprese salad made with ripe tomatoes and mozzarella or try out Jamie Oliver's grilled squid salad or John Relihan's grilled summer salad to use olive oil in a blended salad dressing. Aioli, which is primarily made with oil, is a great dipping sauce, especially with these grilled brussel sprouts from Andy Noonan.

Andy Noonan's grilled sprouts with smoked garlic aioli. Photo: Clare Wilkinson.
Andy Noonan's grilled sprouts with smoked garlic aioli. Photo: Clare Wilkinson.

Did we miss out on any vital info about olive oil? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.