EVOO – the Olive Harvest in Puglia
The warm sunshine and bright flowers that still grace the cobblestone streets of Southern Puglia are making us feel like it’s springtime, despite the fact that we’re already halfway through November. Though no one is complaining, locals are perplexed as to how to dress, and it’s safe to say that all this lingering warmth has infused Lecce with an extra burst of energy, long after tourist season was supposed to end.
Notwithstanding the Indian summer, or, as it’s called here, Saint Martin’s summer, today you’re going to learn how to choose the best olive oil, a.k.a. “green gold”. It’s a precious substance that bubbles forth in fountains from the heart of Puglia, and the cornerstone of the heart-healthy Mediterranean diet.
Puglia is in the throes of olive harvesting season, which began at the end of October and will continue on into December. From established olive plantations with fancy, tree-shaking machinery, to Elena’s auntie who lays out nets under her 60 trees and waits until the olives have fallen to the ground, just about everybody has a hand in local oil production. If you too are interested in getting in on the action, come join us for next year’s olive harvest in Puglia! And have we got a delicious itinerary planned for you! Discover the details of our itinerary in the land of olives, and join us October 30th-November 7th, 2019 as we pick, sip and savour the hearty flavours of fall.
How to choose the best extra virgin olive oil (EVOO)
With so many ways of harvesting olives, which makes for the best oil?
And what’s the difference between oils labeled “extra virgin” and other types of olive oil anyway?
Here, a pared-down guide for getting to know your EVOO, and how to choose correctly in order to take advantage of all the yummy, health-enhancing properties of this ancient yet exquisite staple.
For starters, in order to be called Extra Virgin Olive Oil, which is the highest category of olive oil, its acidity – oleic acid content to be exact – can’t exceed 0.8%. Acidity usually starts to rise as the olives overripen and decay, as when the olives are collected off the ground, left to sit and aren’t processed immediately, or infected by fungi or other parasites.
Aside from a less flavorful oil, a greasier mouth feel and a shorter shelf life, higher acidity essentially means that the oil oxidizes (turns rancid) more easily, which can lead to free radical production and inflammation in the body.
EVOO also signifies that it has the highest content of vitamins, minerals, heart-healthy polyunsaturated fats and polyphenols. The reason olive oil is considered such a healthy fat is mainly because of its polyphenol content, which are micronutrients with potent anti-inflammatory (antioxidant) properties that can help prevent and treat numerous illnesses like cardiovascular disease and type II diabetes. This is why it’s recommended that you choose extra virgin olive oil whenever possible.
What does “cold-pressed” olive oil mean, anyway?
Now sometimes EVOO is also labeled “cold-pressed”, which may conjure up images of oil being extracted by workers in hats and mittens. However, it actually means that the oil isn’t heated to temperatures above 80°F during the crushing of the olive paste. This is preferable because “cold-pressed” oils maintain their health-giving properties – vitamins, minerals and phenols – even better.
Oils labeled “virgin” are also unrefined, so no heat or chemical processing is used to extract the oil, although they can have acidity as high as 2%. After this comes the category of refined oils, usually labeled “light olive oil” or “pure olive oil”, which are treated with heat and chemical solvents in order to eliminate undesirable flavors. While processing significantly diminishes the health-giving properties of the oil, refined olive oils are actually better for cooking, as the smoke point is higher, meaning that it won’t break down and release harmful free radicals – and burnt food – as easily.
Watch out for fake EVOO
Another thing to keep in mind is that dishonest labeling practices unfortunately exist. Sometimes oil labeled as cold-pressed or extra virgin actually isn’t. In 2015 there was a scandalous to-do when Italian authorities realized that 9 out of every 20 bottles of EVOO were actually tainted with other oils. Some popular brands have passed the test however, including Trader Joe’s and Colavita brand EVOO. Read more in the full article on olive oils that are what they purport to be.
The bottom line: EVOO is by far the healthiest option, as it’s rich in nutrients that reduce inflammation in the body. Seeing as EVOO is unrefined, meaning that the oil is extracted by mechanical means and not with heat or chemicals, it’s best to use it “raw”: drizzled over salads or vegetables, as the finishing touch on a soup or purée, in dips and dressings. Either extra virgin or virgin olive oil can also be used for low- and medium-heat cooking.
For sautéing, high-temperature baking and frying, the refined stuff won’t oxidize as quickly, although better still would be healthier, untreated fats like coconut oil, clarified butter or grass-fed beef tallow.