The Richness of Olive Oil
When I think of olive oil, a picture suitable for a postcard comes to mind: rows of olive groves, pasta figgoli, Pavarotti singing, and Grandma Garone rubbing olive oil on the heads of my father, Vincenzo, and his brother, Francisco. Their hair would take on the Italian look: dark and sheen, slicked back, reminiscent of John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. Grandpa Garone owned acres of olive groves in a small village outside of Naples in Southern Italy. Each day, his workers collected the olives and made batches of fresh olive oil. When my grandparents came to America in 1925, they smuggled in as much olive oil as they could carry—12 gallons worth—for fear they would find nothing like it here.
Pungent, thick, and drab to emerald green in color, olive oil comes from the fleshy pulp of the fruit of an evergreen tree grown exclusively in temperate climates: Spain, Southern Italy, Greece, and, more recently, California. In 1775, the first California olive trees were planted around the state at the various Spanish missions. Today, California’s olive oil industry constitutes less than 0.5 percent of world production because only 3 percent of the 110,000 tons grown in California is used to make olive oil. The rest is canned and consumed as olives; preserving the olives costs less and is more time efficient than pressing for oil. California has four major varieties of olive: Manzanillo, Mission, Sevillano, and Ascalano. The Mission, named for the Spanish missionaries who introduced it, is most commonly used to make oil because of its high oil content and its “low pit to flesh ratio.” More than 300 other varieties of olives are grown in California. Sounding like female characters in a Fellini film, the Nevadillo, Picholine, Rubra, Pendulina, and Chemali are five grown especially for their high oil content.
Today, olive oil is classified by its degree of acidity: extra virgin, superfine virgin, virgin, and pure. What is “extra virgin”? Any of the oils labeled virgin refer to oil which has been cold pressed. Oil of this type is made by shaking the tree, placing the fallen olives into a net, and wrapping it around a cement cylinder. The first oil to fall is “first pressed” and almost always extra virgin. To ensure the best quality, look specifically for the words “first pressing” on the bottle; this guarantees the oil was cold pressed and made exclusively from the initial pressing. This oil is in its most concentrated and potent form. Extra virgin olive oil must have an acid content of less than 1 percent; extra superfine virgin, between 1 and 2 percent; extra extra superfine virgin, between 2—3 percent; and virgin, no more than 4 percent. Olive oil labelled pure is really not pure at all. Made from the leftovers, it is extracted from the paste remaining in the press after the virgin oil has been removed. Sometimes it is blended with the virgin oils for better taste.
According to Clint Miller,...