From medicine and folklore to storecupboard essential, olive oil is a welcome addition to the South African table
Known as ‘liquid gold’, olive oil is deeply rooted in Mediterranean culture, where the trees thrive and wild olives have been harvested since 800 BC. But olive oil is more than simply a delicious ingredient – its properties have medicinal and historical value, and have for centuries represented wealth, power and mythology. Today it is almost impossible to imagine cooking without this golden liquid and, as a result, olive oil production has trickled all over the world, particularly to countries with favourably warm climates.
Production of oil…
The harvesting of olives and the production of oil is relatively easy and only minimal manpower and basic machinery are needed. In the past, dirty presses and cellars led to rancid and dirty oils, but today, a clean, sterile environment is crucial for quality olive oil. Olives are harvested in the green to purple-hued stage (usually shaken from the tree to avoid splitting and bruising) between March and July, rushed to well-ventilated crates and into a cellar. Twigs and leaves are removed and the olives washed. The entire olive (including the pip) is then ground and the oil extracted from the mash by centrifuge. The oil is separated from any sediment, producing a bright, glowing extra virgin olive oil. It is then stored in stainless steel tanks at the correct temperature until bottled. By August and September the fresh oil is ready for consumption.
Choosing your oil…
Unlike wine, olive oil does not mature with age – it should be enjoyed as fresh as possible to both retain theflavour and protect its health benefits. While countless varieties exist, only a handful planted in South Africa are for extra virgin olive oil. Choosing an olive oil is like selecting a wine – the flavours vary considerably. Look for one that is very fresh (after one year olive oil should be used for cooking only, not dressing foods). A fresh oil should be bright green to gold, full of olive-fruit, grassy, green and peppery aromas. Be wary of restaurants that serve nondescript oil in non-branded flasks or dishes – you don’t know what you are getting.
THE MOST COMMON LOCAL OLIVE CULTIVARS INCLUDE:
- Leccino- soft,subtle,herbaceous
- Frantoio- strong ,peepery ,green
- Coratina- bitter
- Favolosa- intense,fruity
- Mission- soft,butter,delicate
As it is so delicate, extra virgin olive oil should be reserved for dressings. The higher the temperature at which it is heated, the quicker it loses its flavour. Refined olive oils or vegetable oils should rather be.used for frying foods.
Extra virgin olive oil is an unrefined, natural product so all the flavour, vitamins and antioxidants are retained. High levels of antioxidants help destroy harmful free radicals in our bodies and control cholesterol levels. Unlike other fats it is easily digestible and assists our bodies to absorb minerals and vitamins. It has a healing effect on the stomach and stimulates bone health, helping to prevent osteoporosis.
How to taste olive oil…
The colour of olive oil can be misleading, so olive oil is typically tasted in a blue glass. As with wine, smell is the most important sense in tasting olive oil. Look for fruity and green notes, bitterness and pungency. To taste, pour 5ml of oil in a glass and swirl to coat the sides. Warm the glass with the palms of your hands to release the aromas, cover the top of the glass with your other hand to contain the aromas in the glass. After about one minute remove your hand and slowly inhale deeply two or three times, noting the flavours you smell. Take a sip and coat the sides of your mouth. Also make a note of the flavours you are experiencing.
Why buy South African?
Most olive products are produced overseas and this huge production makes it virtually impossible to know where the oil comes from and how it’s made. In many cases we are buying inferior (often blended) oil that is rancid due to poor exportation. Our local industry is much smaller, making it easier to control the quality. We produce some excellent olive oils, which arrive much fresher to our table. Buying local means that most of the cost is invested in the quality of the oil, rather than transport, importers and packaging. And the profits stay in SA.
Hone your skills…
Top wine and olive producer Morgenster Wine Estate hosts olive oil appreciation courses every second year, run by Italian Dr Luciano Scarselli, one of the chief panel tasters of the International Olive Oil Council. A translator accompanies the delightful Dr Scarselli in his lectures, which he keeps informative, fun and interactive. The three-day beginner course (around R5 250) looks at how to taste olive oil, with special emphasis on detecting defects in the oil, how it is made, health properties and plenty of tasting of oils from around the world to hone your skills. A one-day refresher course and threshold course are also held. Farm-style lunches are provided by talented Craig Cormack at the estate’s quaint and cosy restaurant, Sophia’s (accompanied by Morgenster wines, olive oil and balsamic).
Contact Tara at 021-852-1738.
SOME TOP PICKS FOR EXTRA VIRGIN:
- Saint Sebastian Bay is grassy and balanced. We also love the 2-litre boxes, which Keep the oil super-fresh and ready at handy pour.R89 for 750ml.
- Hillcrest Estate Oil is fresh, fruity and grassy, giving a peppery zing to salads, soups and bruschetta. R65 for 500ml.
- Olive Pride is not only beautifully packaged but is an elegant blend of strong green flavours, herbs and fruit. Pour over steamed veggies or pasta. R52 for 500ml.
- Morgenster is one of SA’s top olive oils and a trailblazer for the industry. Not only does it taste top drawer, but it is exported to China, where it is taken medicinally. R90 for 500ml.
- Willow Creek Estate Blend is now available in a durable, no-break plastic bottle. A quick squeeze coats the pan in seconds. R92 for 750ml.