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Homer’s liquid gold

By Helga H. Hampton [email protected]

German born Helga H. Hampton first came to the Algarve with her three children in 1972. After she and her husband retired, they became residents here and have been living in an old quinta in São Brás for 10 years. Helga has always been involved with music and was President of the Associação Amigos de  Música de São Lourenço for 10 years.

The olive tree pictured here was planted by the Romans 300 years before the birth of Christ. It was rescued in the Alentejo when the Alqueva valley was flooded to create the reservoir.

Successfully transplanted, it now stands with other equally old companions in the Quinta de Bacalhoa. It is said that the oldest olive trees in existence grow in Palestine and they are 3,000 years old.

Homer, the Greek philosopher (not Bart!), called olive oil “liquid gold”.

He knew what he was talking about, for today olive oil is not only regarded as the main ingredient in the oh so healthy Mediterranean kitchen, its production has come to the rescue of many a disadvantaged agricultural area in the southern parts of Europe.

Drive through Andalusia or through the Alentejo and you will see rows after perfect rows of small plants, medium sized fledglings or by now fully grown olive trees.

The classical harmony of this Europe-money sponsored cultivation has transformed the landscape and the livelihood of many a land owner who could not make a go of the ubiquitous citrus cultivation.

This is mainly due to the fact that citrus cultivation is dependent on a vast water supply. Imagine: your glass of orange juice in the morning took 1,000 litres of water to grow those oranges from which your one glass was squeezed!

Successful olive oil production in comparison needs much less water. The bulk of all available water, now more and more assured by new reservoirs, goes where? To golf courses, of course.

Olive oil production

In September well-tended olive trees are laden with plump shiny green fruit so that the long flexible branches droop under the exquisite weight. They will soon be relieved of their precious burden. Harvests are usually between October and January, when the pickers move in to either hand-stroke the ripe olives from the branches onto the ground where sheets will receive them or in larger groves more and more tree-friendly machines will be used. The fruit is separated from the fallen leaves and gathered in crates.

Harvest is a very hectic time because oxidation begins immediately after the fruit is picked and light and air (oxygen) are the next enemies, so the harvested olives have to be either stored in cool oxygen-free silos or crushed immediately. 

Harvest timing

Within the time span of October to January olives are ripe. Ripe is a flexible term; in October the olives have reached a full-fruit stage and are of a shiny green colour, the next stage is yellow, and the remainder, left on the trees past Christmas, will turn from burgundy red to a full black.

Green and yellow olives give more taste for the oil, but less quantity. The later harvests result in less taste but more bulk. Deciding what is best is not a science, it is an art.

Pressing

The oil pressing begins with the crushing of the freshly picked olives. Then pressure is applied to the obtained paste/pulp in order to separate the liquid oil and bitter vegetation water from the solid material – called decantation. This solid material is toxic and only good for composting.

The precious oil is now passed through a centrifuge where the molecules are mixed. Then it is pumped into stainless steel tanks, a process where time is again of the essence as exposure to light and oxygen has to be avoided at all costs.

From these tanks all air will be expelled by introducing nitrogen gas, an agent heavier than air. Now, sealed in these tanks, the liquid gold is safe and can rest.

Ageing, however, is neither an asset, like in wine, nor for any other reason advisable, as the viscous liquid begins to decompose after two years and becomes rancid.

Freshly pressed oil has a green and almost opaque tint. It will be now be filtered and turn a golden colour. Unfiltered green olive oil contains impurities that will eventually settle in the bottom of the bottle as cloudy residue and thus not only shorten the life span of the content, but also affect the taste.  Taste is also affected by extraneous scents obtained during growth, like diesel fumes or wood smoke.

Varietals

European olive groves are home to a number of varieties (castas) of olive trees. Like grapes, olives come in different varietals. They can be grafted and are organaleptic, i.e. distinguished by different sensations of taste.

• Cobrançosa – has a nose of cut grass and the bitterish flavour of  artichoke or radicchio

• Picual – peppery, fruity

• Maçanilha – has a light, nutty, fruity flavour

• Verdial – is smooth and tangy

A tasting of these four different oils is as specialist a pastime as wine tasting. However, nobody deals commercially in mono-varietal oils.

The olive oil that is commercially available is always a blend of these varieties.

The taste

The “International Olive Oil Council” in Madrid has set 12 parameters by which judging panels taste, smell and feel the quality of the finished product.

Acidity content and how the oil was obtained are the main factors in grouping olive oil into the three common categories:

Extra virgin oil is the best quality with the most delicate flavour. It is cold-pressed, by mechanical means only and the free oleic acid content must not exceed 0.8 per cent; it is good for two years if kept in a closed bottle and in a light-sheltering carton. Small quantities are produced, hence the higher price.

Virgin oil is extracted mechanically, in a warm process, has less flavour and a free oleic acid content up to two per cent; it comes in limited quantities, is less durable, but not so pricey.

Olive oil (lampante) is extracted with hot water and chemicals. Unrefined it is for industrial use only. Refined with chemical solvents and with most free oleic acid removed it becomes edible, but has a pronounced bitter taste. Mixed with a small amount of virgin olive oil for flavour it becomes the most produced/marketed olive oil worldwide.

Facts

• Ripe olives of any colour are inedible. The bitterness can be neutralised by lye, water and salt. Black olives have fewer calories than green ones.

• Extra virgin olive oil last for two years in an unopened bottle; once opened AND kept in the darkness of a carton it should be used within a month.

• Never decant olive oil. The

exposure to air causes

oxidation and oxidation causes bitterness (acidity).

• Extra virgin olive oil is healthy. Besides for culinary use

it is found in cosmetics

and medicine.

Misconceptions

• Putting extra virgin olive oil in dark glass bottles does not

protect it from light – it only covers impurities.

• Olive trees have fruit every year when irrigated. Local wisdom has it that a tree bears fruit only every other year. This is true for trees that are untended.

• The indication of acidity content on the label is irrelevant as long as the bottling date is not mentioned in conjunction. The higher the acidity content, the longer the oil keeps.
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