The Jewish holiday of Hanukkah commemorates the discovery of a single vessel of pure olive oil that burned miraculously for eight days. Olive oil has always been an integral part of the Jewish tradition. Olive oil is one of the seven species mentioned in the Torah. The only mitzvah associated with Hanukkah is the lighting of the menorah and the Sages favored using olive oil, for both its purity and symbolism, in fulfilling this commandment. Can we even imagine our Hanukkah food traditions without olive oil?
A stroll through the section of the supermarket will assault you with a dizzying array of extra virgin, virgin, and pure olive oils ranging in price from just a few dollars to nearly $40 a bottle. With Hanukkah lights flickering in the background, and olive oil burning in my treasured silver menorah, I thought this is a perfect time to demystify olive oil and share some thoughts before for your next trip to the market.
The Orthodox Union considers extra virgin olive oil to be Kosher for Passover (and year round), even without any kosher supervision. Extra virgin olive oil is the highest grade of olive oil with a nearly perfect flavor, color and aroma that has a maximum acidity, of no more than 1%. It is also the most expensive of all olive oils, because optimal conditions for production, harvesting, processing and storage are rarely present and the production yield is low compared to oils.
Approximately, 98% of the world’s olive oil comes from the Mediterranean region, which has a history of olive tree cultivation that dates back nearly 6,000 years. Ancient olive presses have been identified by archaeologists in Israel and its neighboring countries. Most of the world’s finest olive oils come from this area, although California is now a leading producer of fine extra virgin olive oil. Like wine, the flavors, colors and aromas of aromas of olive oils vary according to type olive grown, as well as climate and soil conditions.
Health Benefits of Olive Oil
In addition to its colorful history and remarkable taste, olive oil is well known for its healthful properties. Widely respected scientific studies report that a Mediterranean diet low in saturated fats (such as butter and other animal fats), but rich in monounsaturated fats such as olive oil, in addition to grains, fruits and vegetables, helps keep the artery-clogging LDL (“bad cholesterol”) low while maintaining healthy levels of HDL (“good cholesterol”).
Cooking with Olive Oil
Chefs differ about whether to use extra virgin olive oil when cooking or frying. From my personal experience, the main reason to consider using other oils when frying is cost. The unique flavor of extra virgin olive oil is not as apparent when cooking, so I may fry with a peanut or grapeseed oil, but drizzle some extra virgin olive oil just prior to serving, for flavor. The International Olive Oil Council states that extra virgin olive oil, “stands up well to high frying temperatures. Its high smoke point (410ºF or 210ºC) is well above the ideal temperature for frying food (356ºF or 180ºC).”
Tasting Olive Oil
You can generally categorize olive oil as mild (delicate, light or “buttery”), semi-fruity (stronger, with more taste of the olive), and fruity (oil with robust olive flavor). The best way to become familiar with the wide range of olive oil flavors is to taste as many of them as possible! Art Kishiyama, the grower/producer of Olio Nuevo, shared his “Four S” tasting technique:
- SMELL – enjoy the fresh, clean, grassy aroma of freshly harvested olives.
- SIP – take a sip, let it rest on the tongue
- SLURP – suck air into the mouth through your teeth, coating the tongue and mouth with oil, enjoy the flavors.
- SWALLOW – slowly and carefully, anticipate a peppery, pungent finish
With these brief tasting tips in mind, try any of the following outstanding extra virgin varieties or find your own favorites. You will be amazed at the perceptible differences in color, taste, smell and finish that you find with high quality extra virgin olive oil. It can enhance the flavor of almost any food and connects us to a cultivated food that traces its roots to the dawn of civilization.
The olive arrived in California in the late 18th century, by Spanish missionaries who planted olive trees at each of the 21 missions they established between San Diego and Sonoma. After a long period of neglect, California olive oil is now enjoying international success. Growers' attention to quality and craftsmanship are recognized by consumers and connoisseurs alike. Our favorites included: Apollo Olive Oil, Calolea, DeMedici Gastronomica, Robbins Family Farm, Olio Nuevo, and Stella Cadente.
I had never tried a Chilean olive oil before and stumbled across TerraMater (Mother Earth) quite by accident. It is produced from the season’s first harvest of olives in Chile’s fertile and verdant Curico Valley, the home of many of Chile’s finest wines. It is bright green and bursting with grassy and herbal flavors.
I have been drizzling Castelas Unfiltered on most everything recently. This oil is produced in the heart of Provence, from a blend of four varieties typical of the region.
Greece is the world’s third largest producer of olive oil. The olive is a source of well-deserved national pride in Greek history and culture. Our tasting panel was particularly impressed with Elea, an organic olive oil from Sparta and Corinth.
Produced in the Negev on groves purchased in 1940 by the Revivim pioneers, Halutza is a three-time winner of Israel’s Best Olive Oil award from the Israeli Olive Board. Another favorite was the olive oil of Capernaum Vista Farms in its Golan Olive Oil Mill. The farm's olive orchards are spread along the north shore of the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) in the ancient villages of Migdal, Tabha, Beit Saida, Capernaum, and the western slopes of the Golan Heights.
Italy is recognized throughout the world as one of the finest producers of fine olive oil. Italian olive oil represents an agricultural and cultural legacy that is thousands of years old. We were blown away by the award-winning oils produced by Olio Beato and Ravida. I cannot imagine a better way to enhance a salad, pizza or pasta.
Spain is the world's leading producer of olive oil. Made from 100% Arbequina olives, L’Estornell’s slightly almond taste is due to the local practice of planting almond trees among the olive, a traditional deterrent to insect infestation in northern Spain. Dauro blends three olives to create a greenish gold unfiltered oil with the light aroma of toasted bread. We also enjoyed Almazara Luis Herrera in our Spanish dishes, their olives are milled, not pressed, using ancient granite stones and then bottled on the estate.