To call it oil almost seems dirty to me, like I’m grouping it together with canola or sunflower oil – almost like calling fine wine ‘good vinegar.’ The stuff that’s the real deal, cold-pressed extra-virgin as they call it, in the right hands, made with skill and love, is better described as freshly squeezed juice or nectar.
For twelve years, I lived on the Spanish island of Mallorca, where olive oil is revered and talked about as much as wine, and I became heavily addicted to it. I was addicted to its fresh aroma of fennel, basil and fresh cut grass – but mostly its ability to turn the most boring dish into a delicious burst of the Mediterranean.
I learned most of what I know about olive oil from Pep Solivellas, a Mallorcan gentleman who produces some of the world’s best olive oil. His stunning orchard sits perched atop a small hill overlooking the north coast of the island, and one afternoon (over the course of several hours and multiple bottles of wine) he explained the keys to creating his liquid gold.
He told me that it all comes down to 3 factors – acidity, making the trees struggle to survive, and sacrificing quantity for quality.
“If you treat the trees too well– if you feed and water them too much – they get fat and lazy! They need to stay lean and struggle in order to prove themselves and reveal their true identity. Our olive oil represents the flavour and smells of our land – Mallorca in a bottle!”
He purposely prunes and thins out his trees so they produce less fruit, and his reasoning is that the fruit that remains will produce much more concentrated oil. He also picks his olives earlier than most mass producers to achieve a fresher, lighter, more vibrant tasting olive oil. This, however, lowers the harvests yield because the olives have less juice that can be converted into oil. He purposely lowers the quantity of oil he produces to make the best quality oil he can.
Using traditional methods, the harvest is done by hitting the olive branches with long sticks, thereby forcing the ripe fruit to tumble onto nets spread on the ground beneath the tree.
To achieve low acidity, which is essential to producing a true extra-virgin olive oil, the fruit must be taken to the mill for pressing as quickly as possible to avoid oxidation. Leaves and twigs are removed, the fruit is washed, and then the olives, pits included, are ground into a paste.
With traditional methods, the paste is spread onto circular mats and entered into a press, which pushes out the juice, leaving the pomace behind. At this point, the juice is a mixture of oil and fruit water, so it’s now left to stand for an hour, during which time the oil and water will naturally separate.
The oil is then siphoned off to another vat, where any particles will drift to the bottom, enabling the pure olive oil to be decanted into bottles without the need for filtering of any sort.
The best quality oil must be made from the “first cold press”, with acidity of no more than 0.8%. In other words, it must be derived from the first pressing of the olives. And cold-pressed olive oil means the olive paste must be kept under 27C (80F), for if too much heat is used, the oil’s chemistry will change.
Check out these delicious ways to cook with olive oil!