Olives – wait, what?
I write this as I sit on the edge of a canal in Seville, Spain. I am immersing myself in the Mediterranean way of eating.
They refer to the olive tree as the “tree of life.” I have learned more than I knew possible about that tree – from cultivating it to growing the olive and, most importantly, the production of table olives and olive oil. I’ve also learned a great deal about avocados, Spanish wine, Spanish sherry and wine vinegar, but that’s for another time. Today, it’s about the olive.
Have you ever thought about the green olive versus black olive and where they come from? They are from the same tree. Black olives that are allowed to ripen are used to make olive oil. Green table olives are picked before ripening and soaked in chemicals to preserve them and enhance flavor. Black table olives are the green olives soaked in a chemical solution for a few weeks. Lye is most commonly used because it is efficient and cost-effective. Brining will change the color and texture of the olives.
Olives are a major crop throughout Andalusia, the Mediterranean state of Spain. More than 10 million acres of Andalusia agricultural land is planted in olive trees. If a farmer is fortunate to have even 5 acres of land, he can sustain his family on the harvest from the olive trees. Olive trees are easy to grow and live for more than 85 years.
Each year, one tree will typically produce about 40 pounds of fruit. Harvest of the fruit is from September through April. Observing the machinery and the process used to make the oil by a local cooperative (1,000 active members participate) was quite impressive. Most farms are mechanized, but there are some that do it the traditional way – by shaking the tree and catching the fruit in a net.
Several of us on the trip ate ripe olives picked from a local tree but promptly spit them out because of the really unpleasant texture and bitterness. Nasty! The only thing the ripe olive is good for is to make oil. For every 2 to 3 pounds of fruit, a half of a pound of oil is produced. Fruit from the trees will produce the best oil, and fruit picked from the ground is kept separate because oxidation begins as soon as it leaves the tree, creating less desirable oil though it is certainly used.
The best process is the cold press. Extra virgin oil means it was cold-pressed. Water temperatures for processing are kept between 58 and 60 degrees. If the temperature goes up, quality goes down. When you purchase a bottle, it should have a “best used by date.” This is your maximum time frame. Only buy what you can use in one year and store it in a dark, cool area. This excludes keeping your oil on the kitchen counter beside the stove. Oxidation and deterioration occur quickly if the oil is not kept in a cool and dark place. Freezing olive oil deteriorates the quality and is not an option.
We know this is one of the best oils for heart health. It is also a great hair lubricant, a source of some key nutrients and (bonus item) it is also the best choice to cool metal when forging.
Enjoy your olives and, by all means, enjoy your holiday season with friends and family.
Wendy Rice is the family and consumer science agent for the La Plata County Extension Office. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 382-6461.