Saturday, 25 June 2011

Olive Oil

Olive oil is good for you. That’s old news, of course. We all know that olive oil is an intrinsic part of the healthy ‘Mediterranean diet’. But there seem to be so many claims for its powers that it can often seem more miracle cure than kitchen essential.

It’s a ‘good’ fat, bursting with antioxidants and high in monounsaturated fatty acids. Studies have shown that it can protect against heart disease and raise HDL – the good cholesterol levels which help to unblock clogged arteries. In a study back in 2005 taking eight teaspoons (40ml) of extra virgin olive oil for just two days was shown to increase the elasticity of the arteries. It’s also claimed it can help to prevent strokes, colon cancer, breast and skin cancer… along with staving off the ageing process. It’s no wonder stories circulate of Italian grannies swearing by a medicinal teaspoon a day.

Scouring the internet I found one website touting 101 uses for olive oil, Olive Oil Only (although they’re only at number 13 so far…). A link from there will take you to another site, Carol Firenze’s book, The Passionate Olive also lists 101 things to do with olive oil. It’s a growing trend.

Thomas Jefferson was a firm advocate claiming ‘the olive tree is surely the richest gift of heaven,’ while Homer called it ‘liquid gold’. Greek athletes used to rub it over their bodies (it’s a great moisturiser too). Anyone cutting down an olive tree in Ancient Greece was sentenced to death or exile. Olive oil, even then, was used in medicine and cosmetics, infused with herbs.

Most of us also know that there are different grades of olive oil, however. The health benefits come from the crème de la crème - extra virgin olive oil. This is the oil from the first cold-pressing: essentially the ‘fruit juice’ of the olive. Virgin olive oil is made the same way but has a higher acidity, while plain old olive oil comes from the second pressing or the chemical extraction of the olive mash. Some people find the extra virgin olive oil too strong for cooking, overpowering the other flavours. Which is when the blander olive oil comes into its own.

So how do you choose your olive oil? It’s down to personal preference and taste of course. And price. The best extra virgin olive oils come with a hefty price tag. There are around 30 different types of olives grown in Italy alone, each with its own characteristic, their flavour influenced by a number of factors including soil type, weather and terrain. For instance Tuscan oils tend towards the rich, green and fruity, Sicilian oils can be nutty and spicy while in Umbria you get full-bodied, leafy oils which pack quite a punch.

As far as cooking goes – save your extra virgin olive oil for drizzling on salads or using in dressings. Swap it for butter in mashed potato – or more unusually try it with toast and jam… And don’t forget the teaspoon a day.

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