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Olive Oil Virginity Explained

(post, Judith Klinger)

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Why does my olive oil need to be virginal? 

Perhaps you are standing in a U.S. grocery store and you want to buy some olive oil. But, what kind?  Olive oil, pure olive oil, virgin olive, light olive oil and on the top shelf in the prettiest little bottles with the highest prices: extra virgin olive oil? What are all these oils?

There are basically six categories of olive oil and the International Olive Oil Council has officially defined each grade of olive oil:
Extra virgin olive oil: is 100% olive oil extracted in a simple, single process, is judged to have a superior flavor and can have no more that 0.8% acidity.
Virgin olive oil is also single processed and is judged to have a good flavor with no more than 2% acidity. 
Pure olive oil is usually a blend of virgin and refined oil. Refined oil is made from olives that have been chemically treated to neutralize strong flavors or defects in the oil.
Olive Oil is a blend of virgin and refined oil. 
Pomace grade is refined olive oil made from the waste products of virgin olive oil. It can be eaten but is more often used in industrial kitchens. 
Lampante oil is the lowest grade and is not fit for consumption. 

There is one more type of olive oil that you might run into: Light olive oil. This typically means that it is a refined olive oil with a neutral flavor. It does not mean that it is has any fewer calories than any other grade of olive oil; you are still dealing with 120 calories per tablespoon.

Now, before you go into the store thinking you know it all, the U.S. does not recognize the IOCC’s olive oil grading system even though the IOCC regulates over 85% of all olive oil produced in the world. California olive oil growers have been actively trying to have the US accept IOCC standards. 
OK, now you are an informed shopper, but why spend the money on olive oil? The primary reason for me is that it tastes good. It is also supposed to be good for you and for your skin. There have been numerous studies demonstrating that olive oil is beneficial for your heart and for the elasticity of the cardiovascular system, but the verdict is still out on whether it’s the monosaturated fats or the phenolic acid content that is doing the job. I’ll let the scientists work that out, I’m just happy to know that it’s good for me. I had an olive oil instructor once tell me that olive oil is the closest thing to mother’s milk; now I doubt that’s true but he was convinced that olive oil was a necessity right from birth.   Extra virgin olive oil is also an anti-oxidant, which makes it good for your skin. Now, I am a firm believer in this because some of my older Italian neighbors have the most gorgeous, youthful skin I’ve ever seen.  We were standing around the olive-pressing mill one morning with a bunch of farmers, waiting for our oil and I swear I was the only one with wrinkles! 

I live a good part of the year in Umbria where olive oil is practically a religion. Last fall there was a bumper crop of olives and no one is exactly sure why. Whether it was a cyclical occurrence, or the rains fell at the right time, or the stars just lined up, but the trees were simply loaded with olives. We went out olive picking one afternoon and the yield for one glorious afternoon of tree climbing was amazing. One tree gave us over 40 kilos of olives! We used the strip and drop method. First spread a light net over the ground while propping up the hem of the net so the olives won’t roll off, then starting on the lowest hanging branches run your hand lightly over a branch and nudge the olives to drop off the tree and into the net. You don’t want to bruise or squash any of the olives as that can bring on mold and rot, so transferring them into crates is a gentle, tricky business.  Keep working until it gets dark and your arms are aching and you can’t climb any higher, and then watch the sun set while sipping a glass of wine. The next morning head down to the mill and join in the hubbub. 

It’s a sort of organized chaos with large batches of olives being brought in, some are dropped off and labeled, some people prefer to watch and wait, others are lugging out bright silver canisters filled with this liquid gold. It smells fantastic! The place smells green and fresh and just delicious. 
The whole olive oil extraction process is incredibly simple: the olives are transferred onto a shaking conveyor belt where sticks and twigs fall off to one side and the olives proceed into a crusher, from there they go to a centrifuge which separates the oil from the rest of the olive. Oil is lighter than the pits and pulp so it releases itself earlier and the heavier bits fall to the bottom. It’s amazing to see this reddish colored river of pits and pulp stream down one track and the rough oil ooze down the other track. One more centrifuge cycle occurs just to clean out any other unwanted bits and then that’s it: single processed cold method extracted extra virgin olive oil. To me, it’s like pure magic. 

What is not so magical is the waste product; it gets dumped out back in a plopping pile that looks every bit like an enormous manure pile. When I asked what happened to it, the mill owner explained that the commercial olive oil companies would come and pick it up to make refined oil. Definitely nasty. 

I know I’m a lucky girl. I have access to good quality, affordable olive oil, when I’m in Italy. But when I’m in New York, I just need to be careful about what I buy. I shop at a reputable Italian product merchant where I look for the big 3 liter or 5 liter cans, and I read the label to make sure I’m buying extra virgin, single processed Italian olive oil. When I get home, I pour some oil into a pretty bottle and keep that on my counter. Its much more economical and eco-friendly to buy one big can and keep refilling a smaller bottle.  I like to stick with Italian olive oil because I know and love it, but there is plenty of other oil that is also delicious. I’ve even heard that California olive oil can be pretty tasty!