Veggie of the Week - Olive Oil
sponsored by Coleman Farms
With all the talk of oil driving the economy, much of the news, and possibly foreign policy, it may take a bit of a stretch to realize that the first oil economy was based on olive oil. Before history began, olive oil was the main and usually the sole oil available from Persia to the Pillars of Hercules. Olive oil served all the functions - culinary, medicinal and cosmetic - that a host of edible oils performs today, as well as supplying artificial light. For perhaps fifteen hundred years oil, metals and wine were the the basis of Mediterranean trade, until increasing urbanization caused the trade in grain to become important, around 6c BC. Olive oil retained its primacy as an edible oil in the West until cocoanut and seed oils became available as a result of colonization of the tropics and of industrialization, beginning about 1870.
Until that time, if you didn't have olive oil, you didn't have oil, you had fat - lard, tallow, suet and chicken or goose grease. It's significant that our word 'oil' is descended from the Greek word for '(olive) oil'.
As you might expect of a prehistoric good, the history of the olive is a bit vague. The site of the olive's domestication is claimed in 'Greater Syria' (Palestine, specifically) or Crete or maybe it's Persia. There are archeological traces of the prehistoric industrial production of olive oil in both Palestine and Crete.
From wherever it had been domesticated, the olive soon spread, carried West into what is now Greece, the Balkans, Italy, Provence and parts of North Africa by the Greeks (including here Minoans) and to western North Africa, Spain and parts of Sicily by the Phoenicians. Olives came from Spain to California in the seventeen hundreds. There was something of an olive boom in California in the late eighteen hundreds with local remnants still visible here and there, including 'Ellwood', called after Ellwood Cooper, one of the main olive entrepreneurs then.
A second olive boom resulted from the isolation of the U.S. during the Second World War, and was probably the impetus for planting the large orchards in the Central Valley. We're now in yet another boom, or boomlet, this one participating in the popularity of small or artisinal producers and the establishment of niche markets and varieties, quite like the trend in wines and cheeses.
Olive oil has a long history of use outside the kitchen. It has been used as a skin cleanser prior to the invention of soap, rubbed in by itself and scraped off by the Greeks, or in cold cream by the Romans, and also as a base for cosmetics. It has been recently determined that topical application of olive oil not only soothes but repairs recent sun damage to the skin. Olive oil had, and has, a variety of uses in internal medicine, and can still be found as a pharmeceutical. Olive oil has important functions in both poly- and monotheist religions that developed in the area of the olive.
But we know olive oil mainly as something to eat, and associate it with Italian, and, depending on experience, Greek, Spanish or Turkish food. There's no reason to stop there, though. The original range of olive oil stretches much further, as suggested above, and it finds an important place in Persian as well as Arab cuisine stretching from Moroccan tagine to Lebanese tabouleh. While the native American tendency, at least in recent years, is to use oil sparingly, as a means of preventing sticking while cooking, say, or to give a smooth mouth feel to salad, the Mediterranean (including Persian) way seems to be much more lavish, using olive oil in quantities sufficient to make it a main ingredient, the way certain French dishes use butter and cream.
I once made a sort of ratatouille according to a genuine Italian recipe which called for so much oil that when served the vegetables settled out in a pool of it. Olive oil has generally not been cheap, and I'm still not sure whether the recipe was deliberately rich and, like the cream and butter French dishes, a way of demonstrating or sharing abundance, and not an everyday dish; or whether it was meant to be served in small portions accompanied by large amounts of starch - pasta, rice, potatoes or bread - for which the vegetables and oil served as a sort of condiment. Or perhaps either, of course, depending on circumstances.
Until recently most of the olive oil sold in the United States was relatively bland. The American palate had become habituated to the essentially tasteless oils produced from peanuts, soybeans, corn, etc.. and flavorful olive oils, like the bulk California oil, a dark greenish gold with a strong olive scent and flavor, were hard to sell. The bland olive oils, though, make nonsense of Mediterranean dishes that call for lots of oil: in the absence of a rich nutty olive flavor, the dishes are just oily, not very appetizing as a main dish and not very useful as a condiment.
In the last decade or so, flavorful olive oils have been appearing in mainstream American supermarkets. The larger brands offer maybe half a dozen styles of oil, from very bland 'light' for the mainly health-conscious, to dark and heavily flavored oils. Look for even more variety at the Farmers' Market. There are growers from the Santa Barbara foothills, the Santa Ynez valley and Paso Robles. Like wines, their oils should reflect the markedly different growing characteristics of their respective regions. Each producer offers oils made from a selection of the fifty or so recognized varieties of olive and, again like wines, the flavor of the oil will reflect the variety of olive it was pressed from.
The flavor palatte olives work with has a variety of 'grassy' or 'leafy' flavors, nutty flavors - think of walnut, hazel and pecan - a range of green acid flavors, attenuations of the intense bitterness of an olive leaf, which often present as (India) pepper, and a sort of generic 'oil' aura, the thing that's common to cheese and avocado, for example.
If you appreciate this sort of thing, it's worth trying a selection of varietal oils in a sampling. In any case, more flavorful oils suggest uses for olive oil which are new to standard American cooking. You're likely to find that some oils, or types of oil, are more suited to, say, dress a salad, others to flavor bread, others for dipping vegetables, and still others for cooking, either as a lubricant or as a major ingredient. One of the really nice things about even fairly ordinary olive oil is the aroma released on heating. Heating oil to cook a fritatta, or pouring a bit over hot vegetables - carrots or steamed potatoes, say - fills the kitchen with clean, nutty, slightly waxy scent which stimulates the appetite and at the same time stays the pangs of hunger.