Purported to be the secret of long life and the backbone to a Mediterranean diet, olive oil has supposedly been in existence since the Neolithic era. It was harvested from trees grown in the wild and pressed by hand, and used for fuel as well as food. It was saved for the nobility at first, then became more available as trees were cultivated and presses became more sophisticated with the ability to offer more than one pressing.
Extra virgin olive oil is the first pressing and by far the greenest, thickest and most flavoursome of the oils. This tends to be used on dressings or drizzled over cooked food but will burn at a low temperature. Subsequent pressings create much lighter oils both in flavour and viscosity and these can be used for cooking at higher temperatures.
Olive oil is a bit of a wonder oil, not only used in cooking but for religious ceremonies and skin and beauty products. In the late 90s it was almost impossible to order bread and butter in a restaurant, instead you were served bread and a small dish of olive oil with a dash of balsamic vinegar artistically dripped in the oil. In some places it was possible to choose your olive oil as you would a bottle of wine. As much as I love olive oil, I am glad to see butter has returned to its rightful place next to the bread.
I once went olive picking. A friend lived in Rome and she invited me to spend a weekend olive picking with her colleagues who had just bought a house with an olive grove attached, in Abruzzo region. The area was full of olive trees, a major source of income in that area, and at the end of October each year the villagers would get together en masse to pick each other’s trees and send the olives off to the presses.
It was a great experience. The men would comb an electric rake through the trees and the olives would rain down onto a sheet that had been placed underneath. Everyone would then gather up all the olives and fill up crates, which were then loaded onto a truck and taken to the local press.
As I recall the host farmer’s wife would come around every so often with wine and beer. At lunch we all sat at a long table in the farmhouse and ate fabulous grilled chicken and beautifully cooked pasta with sauces made out of home grown tomatoes and drank locally produced wine. I loved it. We struggled back to work to complete our olive picking mission and did the same again the next day at someone else’s farm.
When no one was looking I picked an olive off the tree and bit into it. Boy I wish I hadn’t, it had a really strong flavour, the sort that made you spit it out immediately and it numbed my mouth and lips for ages. When I admitted this to my friend she laughed and said that she had done that too.
Sadly I wasn’t there long enough to see the press but maybe another time.
The olive oil pictured (gifted) was selected by Theo Randall for use and for sale in his restaurant at the Intercontinental Hotel in London. A great example of Italian Olive oil. If you can’t get this, choose a good one from your local supermarket in a dark bottle and use by the expiry date as olive oil does not age well.