For some of us, when you say Olive Oil, a shapeless, skinny-as-a-bean-pole, round-faced, rather homely gal (Olive Oyl) comes to mind, who had a big hankering for an even more homely spinach-eating sailor guy, who used lousy English, named Popeye. Cartoonist, Elzie Crisler, came up with the beloved female character in 1919 and brought the sailor into town in 1929 -- 10 years later.
But today I'm actually writing about Homer's "liquid gold" -- rubbed on the bodies of ancient Greek athletes, engaged as fuel for Herodian clay lamps, profited by soap makers, and endeared in Mediterranean cuisines.
Some sources say the Island of Crete is where the production of this unique oil began, about 3500BC, then later migrated to other areas because of Greek colonization. Others claim the trees were first grown for oil in Canaan (Israel) as far back as 4500BC. Why the concern? Because it is believed that if one finds the origin of the tree, you will have found the best tasting oil.
I was told that every brand will taste slightly different, so I went through a few to find my favorites. Also, I figured it would be okay to have more than one on the shelf, because they keep about a year before going rancid, as long as they're stored away from direct light.
A good Greek label, not too difficult to locate, is terra medi. Spain, presently the world's largest producer, has quite a few interesting brands as well. The oils from France and Turkey have not yet hit my palate, but I'm sure they are equally competitive in both price and flavor. Among the few Italian store-brands I've tried, I always come back to Filippo Berio.
Extra Light is exactly what its name implies -- it doesn't override the flavors of other foods when sauteing and cooking, and can tolerate a higher heat. Extra Virgin has the most intense flavor, and is usually chosen for salads, bread dipping and a bruschetta drizzle. But -- WARNING -- all Extra Virgins may not be what they claim to be as this report shows: Extra-Virgin Olive Oil Fraud: Whole Foods, Rachel Ray, Safeway, Newman's Own, Colavita, Bertolli.
Olive oil is much like wine in variety, and I was really quite surprised to discover actual tastings are becoming popular. In fact, Filippo Berio even has a link to Host your own tasting. And just like wine, the craft has carried over to the states, with California out front. One I need to try is Williams-Sonoma, but perhaps Corto-Olive will be even better.
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- The Complete Mediterranean Cookbook by Tess Mallos (Absolutely to die for if you don't know a lot.)
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- A Mediterranean Feast by Clifford A. Wright (If you're interested in the fascinating in-depth story from birth, of the merchants and the cuisines plus over 500 recipes, this is totally it.)
Both books have been used and enjoyed frequently over the past few months, as we have become thoroughly amazed at the exceptional difference olive oil makes in a recipe. The amount of butter and sugar I used to use in a month, now lasts an entire year!
Currently, I'm just waiting for a little of that old Olive Oyl image to start showing on me...not much...just a little. I guess it's another one of those things much like wine -- not before its time. LOL