It may come as a surprise to many to discover that colour plays an insignificant role in determining the quality of a particular oil. Indeed, in choosing the perfect oil to suit its intended culinary purpose, most cooks look beyond hue, and immediately jump to the labelling. In general, there are four: extra virgin olive oil, virgin olive oil, regular olive oil, and olive pomace oil. In Laymen’s terms, those of the extra virgin variety are the crème de la crème of olive oils, begotten from the first pressing of the olives from which it is extracted. It is the alpha, the omega, and in short, the best – it is also that, and only that, which purists drizzle over their salads. The silver-medallist in tow is olive oil of the virgin variety; this is a high-grade, non-refined oil, also from the first pressing of olives that retain a greater amount of acidity as compared to extra virgin oil.
Third off the list: regular olive oil is commonly known to be a blend of virgin olive oil and refined olive oil of a lower quality. Much used in cooking, it is the oil stocked in generous amounts on supermarket shelves. Olive pomace oil brings up the rear end – a highly refined olive oil, it is generally is not considered of a quality to be ingested by purists. Comprising mostly the residue of olives from after the grade oils have been pressed, olive pomace oil is usually used in the production of cleaning products.
In appearance, olive oil is not unlike any other oil you might see on supermarket shelves. Certainly, labels bearing large, fat olives betray the nature of the oil within dark bottles, but in general, a layperson will have difficulty telling yellow olive oil from good ol’ canola, or sunflower. The second the bottle is cracked open, however, one discovers the difference. There is a light, often subtle flavouring associated with olive oil, that in and of itself invokes sensations heretofore indescribable. It is fresh, luscious and green, often reminiscent of fresh-cut grass, rain upon green hillsides, vibrant sunny days, and the warmth of the Mediterranean sea. As with wines, oils are distinct to the origin of their extraction, thus offering a variety of distinct undertones that correspond to the various regions from which the olives hail. Here, soil quality, temperature, weather, and rainfall control more than merely yield size.
Historically, this kingly oil was liberally used, widespread throughout the Mediterranean. In Minoan civilisation, it is thought to have symbolised wealth and prosperity. A prime product in the civilisation, it was widely used in religious ceremonies – not unlike that in Christian society, where olive oil was used in the blessing of those preparing for baptism. It is mentioned in Islamic script, and is also extensively utilised in Judaism practice. In ancient Greece, athletes frequently anointed their entire bodies with the oil, whilst others revered it for medicinal as well as ‘magical’ benefits. It is, so to speak, a symbol of wealth and power, a point of great interest and fascination.
Beyond obvious benefits where skin-care, soap-making, and natural fuel are concerned, the use of olive oil in the culinary world is prevalent, from the days of the Ancient Mediterranean to the modern world of today. The olive tree, and subsequently the oil of its fruit have transcended time and space, the merits of which are recognised in the here and now. It is certainly well-known that the Mediterranean diet is one rife with healthy connotations – if anything, women living on Mediterranean diets are known to be less prone to contracting breast cancer.
To list a complete range of olive oil’s benefits would require far more pages than this writer is granted – but that which are known are as follows. Rich in anti-oxidants that lower the risk of lipid peroxidation in the body’s bloodstream, olive oil is high in monounsaturated fats, which dieticians and health experts would agree are a healthy source of dietary fats. Monounsaturated fats are known to lower one’s risk for heart disease by lowering the body’s total cholesterol, as well as low-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels. They are also known to help normalise blood clotting, while the high density of polyphenols in the oil has been shown to hamper the growth of unwanted bacteria. This aids in the battling of digestive tract infections, and similarly, wards off digestive tract cancers. The consumption of olive oil is also said to improve cognitive function in those of the older generation, a trait commonly observed with the golden citizens of the Mediterranean.
It does not surprise, then, that this writer had expected a wealth of olive oil in the Nourishment team’s recent sojourn to glorious Italy. It graced every table dined upon, drizzled over delicious crostinis, over salads, in bowls with aged balsamic vinegar for the dipping of freshly-baked bread. To say that this writer had been worried for the sake of her waist-girth is an understatement in and of itself. Eating oil on a day-to-day basis, whether or not with vinegar to tone it down, seemed to lead, inevitably, to the growth of a pot-belly.
Oh, how far from the truth that turned out to be. The Italians are a very laid-back sort of people. They are passionate – not only about their people, their heritage, and their football; indeed, they are mostly passionate about their food. The pride inherent within their easy lifestyles – days spent beneath gorgeous suns and shady trees is, to a complete and utter stranger, a beautiful thing to witness. Italians do not suffer heart diseases the way the people of other nations do; they are, despite their daily consumption of olive oil, a healthy race. It is difficult to imagine any Italian person on a diet – no one says, “Hold the oil, I’m on a diet.” This, we had discovered, is likely due to the fact that their oils are the best. Truly, really, the best.
Having had this epiphany, this humble writer returned home to Penang – the land of Nasi Lemak and Hainanese Chicken Rice. Where fats akin to oil and coconut milk are, invariably, cooked into rice, our nation’s main source of carbohydrates. Make no mistake – this writer is, again, an ardent fan of both the aforementioned nation’s favourites, but fate saw fit to re-affirm her love for olive oil. Despite daily feasts across the Italian countryside, where olive oil featured in generous amounts, the weighing scales remained kind. Oh, but she was shocked.
Shocked, and very pleasantly surprised.