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Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2007 07:03 am

Pressing matter

Think you know olives? Think again.

Untitled Document Consider the olive. The olive tree has been cultivated for more than 5,000 years, starting in the eastern Mediterranean. Trees can live and bear fruit for as long as 1,000 years. The Greek word for olive, elaia, is the root of the word “oil.” It’s difficult to overstate the importance of olives to early Mediterranean societies and to our modern culinary world. It’s amazing that olives became so widely used so long ago, because fresh olives are essentially inedible because of their high levels of bitter phenolic compounds. Prehistoric peoples discovered that the bitterness could be removed by soaking the fruits in changes of water. Soaking them is probably what led to another early discovery: olive oil. The flesh of olives is as much as 30 percent oil, which those early folks were able to extract through simple grinding and draining. They used it not just for cooking but also in cosmetics and to light lamps. By Roman times, the debittering process had been shortened from weeks to hours by the addition of alkaline wood ashes to the soaking solution. Olives are fermented in brine when still green (the “Spanish” style) or after they’ve ripened and their skins turn dark. Some types of black olives are brined without any preliminary debittering, but the fermentation process is different. It’s done at low temperatures and takes as long as a year to complete. Some of the phenolic substances leach out during the process, but these olives (Greek, Italian Gaeta, and French Niçoise) retain a pleasing degree of bitterness and have a uniquely winey, fruity aroma. The California canning industry invented tinned unfermented “ripe black olives.” They’re actually made from green olives that are repeatedly treated with lye solutions and then chemically treated to give them a ripe appearance. I loved them as a child — particularly because I could stick them on the tips of my fingers, pretend to be a monster, and then eat them one by one. As an adult, however, I find their blandness no match for more traditional types now available here. Olive stands at Mediterranean outdoor markets are an incredible sight. Dozens of bins display an astonishing variety, from olives as small as a pencil eraser to giants the size of a man’s thumb. There are all different shades of green and almost as many shades of black, as well as a host of others, from brownish dun to reddish purple. Some preparations are spicy and hot, some mild, some tart, and some salty. I always want to try each kind but never have the courage to ask busy vendors to bag tiny quantities of 30 or more varieties. Though I’ve never seen a similar olive display in American farmers’ markets, it’s possible to have an olive tasting at Whole Foods Markets, the upscale natural-foods chain. (There is a Whole Foods in St. Louis and several in the Chicago area.) They may lack the picturesque ambience of a European street market, but they do have self-serve olive bars with toothpicks and tiny cups for customers to sample before they buy. I’ve counted more than 20 olive varieties/preparations at the St. Louis store.
Interesting as all those preparations are, however, they’re only a tiny part of the olive story. Today, about 90 percent of the world’s olive crop is used to make oil. There are several grades of olive oil. The best is extra-virgin. Not long ago, most Americans had never heard the term. Now, however, it’s so common that it’s sometimes referred to simply as EVOO. So what, exactly, is extra-virgin olive oil? Though it may sound like a bad joke (similar to being “slightly pregnant”), it’s actually a designation for the first cold pressing of olives that have been mashed with their pits into a paste and mixed for 20 to 40 minutes to release their oils. Lesser-quality oil is produced by secondary pressings (virgin), heating and then pressing again (plain olive oil) and the lowest grade, pomace oil, produced from heated pits. Even within the “extra-virgin” designation there are wide variations in quality, taste, and price. I experienced this firsthand at a small family-owned olive grove in New Zealand. Before my visit, I’d never thought of New Zealand in connection with olive oil. Though the world’s olive crop is still concentrated in the Mediterranean, other places with appropriate climates (including California) are beginning to produce outstanding oils. Athena Olive Groves, in Waipara Valley, is owned by a cheerful husband-and-wife team, the Clausens (his mom manages the tiny retail shop). It’ll be several hundred years before the trees match the gnarled ancient beauty of their Mediterranean ancestors. The Clausens’ press, however, is an old one imported from Tuscany. The couple explained that many large modern pressing facilities, even though their product qualifies as extra-virgin because the first pressed oil is not heated, produce a degree of warmth in the mashing and pressing that affects flavor. Their small press works so slowly that no heat is generated.
The proof was in the tasting. Athena’s oil was not remotely like any other I’d experienced. I’m not even sure I’d have known it was olive oil if I’d tasted it blind. Light and delicate, the aroma reminded me of that of a freshly mown lawn.  Most of Athena’s oil, like that of other fledgling Kiwi producers, is consumed domestically, though with luck that will eventually change. Currently, however, most exports are limited to visitors like me, who stash as many bottles as possible in their suitcases. Even so, many more varieties of olive oil are becoming easily available here. I usually have three or more on my shelf. Try different kinds to find your preference — flavor components vary much as wines made from different kinds of grapes grown in different soils. Save the best oils for drizzling on finished dishes or to make uncooked preparations such as vinaigrettes — and keep on tasting. 

Send questions and comments to Julianne Glatz at
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