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Oil That Goodness

Madhulika Dash

From the perfect medicinal salve to the flavourant in food and rituals, the legendary tale that made olive oil, Homer’s iconic “liquid gold”

So here’s what we know about olive oil. It’s healthiest of oil, especially the extra-virgin variety (EVOO); can be used in a variety of cuisine, including the complex Indian food; and is perhaps the only oil that has been certified “safe” for reuse. Understandably then, when it comes to healthy eating habits, olive oil clearly retains its title as Homer’s “liquid gold”.

If old historical records from the Minoan Palaces in Crete are any testimony of the oil’s supremacy in ancient life, then olive oil was truly the essence of good life. In fact, it remained the functional-cultural centre for not only the Cretan civilization, but also the Egyptian (who used it as a salve post bath and to embalm the dead) and the Greeks (who believed it to be a gift from the goddess Athena and used it in religious rituals). Such was the reverence to olive oil that while King David deployed an army to guard the precious oil and laws were passed making chopping of olive tree punishable by death, medical scholars like Hippocrates termed it the miracle ointment by using it to cure 60 different conditions including skin conditions, wounds and burns, gynecological ailments, ear infections among others. In fact, many believe that Cleopatra’s regular use of olive oil (extra virgin olive oil) to keep her skin luxuriant not only upped olive oil’s status as a natural moisturiser, but also created the moniker “olive skin”, which eventually was used for great looking skin. The royal patronage coupled with the oil’s multi-utility soon made it a major trade commodity in the Mediterranean side.

While the popularity of the oil in most countries was because of its healing power (and this included India as well), the rise of it as a culinary essential came in the 15th century when Spanish and Portuguese explorer began presenting it as a perfect addition to food, especially baked goodies, salad, cheese and even meat casseroles. An old folktale talks about how Portuguese and French soldiers would gift the odour-free oil along with the wines as part of their trading deals. The usage of olive oil in India – for cooking especially – began with the Delhi sultanate, when olive oil was used to keep the meat moist and fresh salads. Of course by the end of 18th century, olive oil had become a part of the royal kitchens – and those of the affluent. For the generous slice of population though olive oil still remained an “exotic” product that was a good antidote for treating conditions, especially those of the skin.

It wasn’t till the study into the miracle oil began in all earnest which reinstated olive oil as “healthy and safe” that the gold liquid made a re-appearance on the shelves. The difference this time, it was as much in demand for cooking and socializing as it was for the conventional uses. With fame came in controversies, the top of which was a claim by author Tom Mueller, who in his book Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, highlighted that much of the olive oil sold in the U.S. as “extra-virgin” is really adulterated in some way and lacks the health and the taste benefits of real “extra-virgin” olive oil. The issue was the presence of pomade and high acid level, which made the oil redundant for all purposes. While series of articles, studies and a change of the labels culled much of the panic in the market, for Executive Chef, Park Hyatt, Hyderabad and olive oil aficionado, Michele Prevedello, there are a few markers that distinct the good from the not so good one.

The thing about olive oil, says Chef Prevedello, “is that there aren’t specific thumb-rules that separate the original from the copy. Olive oil is produced widely in Italy, with each region having its own texture and taste, often determined by the soil, water, weather and the style of pressing.”

“The Tuscany olive oils for instance originate from central Italy and are genetically blessed with sharp and strong flavours which are recommended to be used as a cold condiment. If you mix with cooked food, it will over power the taste. The oil from the North region in Liguria on the other hand, is more mild and soft in nature and is great for light seafood or vegetarian dishes.”

A trick that is used by most chefs and experts is pouring a few tablespoons of olive oil on a white dish and look for consistencies like smoothness, fresh olive-like aroma and that sting (read: burn) in the back of the palate thanks to an antioxidant in oil called polyphenols. Given that most cold pressed extra virgin olive oil have one percent of acid level, this should do the trick.

The first press EVOOs palate, adds Chef Prevedello, “is between less nutty and little bitter, and is perfect for dressing and not cooking. It is the second press that gives you the “real” base oil that can be actually used in cooking, deep frying and basting – and is the actual liquid gold.”

So look for labels that give out regions of olive grown and the level of press the oil is made of. EVOO first press are always more expensive than the second flush and so forth. The Sansa oil for example, adds Chef Prevedello, “is made when you press the entire nut. Made from leftovers of the first two presses, its low quality-wise but can be used for cooking not for the table.”

Fascinatingly, the world of olive oils do not end with presses alone, there is a wide variety that much like scotch and wine are made of blends – and are equally good in quality and properties. 

Example: Marina Colonna. Made using over 15 varieties olives from various regions of Italy, says Chef Prevedello, “and are ideal to be on the table and as dressing.” Casa Rinaldi on the other hand comes from one of the most famous Olive Oil brands in Italy known to produce the most well-rounded, flavoursome products and are great for dressings and bastings, says the chef, who is fond of Toscana and Val Di Mazara Dop from the range. It is, he adds, in fact the variety that is used mostly in Mediterranean countries, especially Greece, Turkey, Italy and Spain. 

Visit any Foodhall store in Mumbai, Bengaluru, Delhi & Gurgaon to shop our exclusive range of olive oils from Marina Colonna and Casa Rinaldi.