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Olive Oil
More about Olive Oil

Health Aspects
The Olive Tree

(In Greece,) Olive trees take the edges off the angles, and provide the backdrop to each tiny harbor, and each whitewashed village. Imagine sipping your glass of ouzo in the village square, without the relaxing shade of an olive tree.


Olive trees take about 7 years to mature. As my Grandfather said: "you plant grapes for your children, and olives for your grandchildren."


Our grandmother would admonish us to use only "Bono Olio" -- good oil.


The olive symbolizes hope and fertility, and seems to embody the spirit of a [Greek] people who have known hardship -- yet who remain proud, generous, and friendly.


[T]here is an old Italian adage that it takes four people to make a salad: A miser to pour the vinegar…a spendthrift for the olive oil…a wise man to season it…and a madman to toss it all about!

California   France   Italy   Turkey   Spain   Greece

One of the great revelations as you explore the world of the olive is that each country produces olive oils of vastly differing flavors. Further, every region within those countries produces an olive oil different from the oil produced only miles away -- even when the same variety of olive is being grown. This is because the soils and the micro-climates are different, and, as with grapes, these factors affect the taste of the fruit.


Olives came to California in 1769 with the Franciscan fathers. These trees produced seed that gave us the Mission variety. California Olives grow primarily in the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys. Fleshy olives favored for eating, like dense/tangy Frantoio, Manzanilla and Sevillano, have lower oil content than the light/nutty, small Mission olive.

The California Olive Oil Council (COOC) will certify those producers participating in the voluntary program to meet international requirements for extra virgin. (Contact the California Olive Oil Council for more information at 1-888-718-9830 or visit their website at

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Oil from the French Riviera and Provence is delicate. It is sweet, fruity in flavor, and light golden color.


Greece devotes 60% of its cultivated land to olive growing, is the world's #1 producer of black olives, and boasts more varieties of olives than any other country. Greece holds third place in world olive production with more than 132 million trees, which produce approximately 350,000 tons of olive oil annually, of which 75% is extra virgin (which makes them the #1 producer of extra virgin olive oil) as compared with Italy (40-45%) or Spain (25-30%). Production is concentrated in Crete/Peloponnese (65%), the Aegean islands, the mainland Greece, and then the Ionian islands.

The olive oil produced in Greece is composed of the following quality categories:

Extra virgin (acidity less than 1%) 60% of total
Virgin (acidity 1 -- 3.3%) 20% of total

Lampante (acidity higher than 3.3%) 20% of total

The Greek association of industries and processors of olive oil is called Sevitel.

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Italy is synonymous in most people's minds with olive oil -- the countryside is dotted with olive trees. The ancient Romans were the most influential in spreading the cultivation of the olive tree throughout the rest of Europe and North Africa. The Romans perfected the curing techniques for olives, and discovered the screw press. The Romans produced one of the first cook books, compiled by Apicius (a noble and great gourmet, living in the first century A.D.)

Italian olive oils are categorized according to the following D.O.P.s (denominations of protected origin): Aprutino Pescarese, Brisighella, Bruzzio, Colline di Brindisi, Colline DI Salernitane, Penisola Sorrentina, Riviera Ligure, and Sabina. Olive oil from the Chianti region has the prestigious denomination of controlled origin (D.O.C.) as well as D.O.P. Among the many different olive varieties used in Italy are Frantoio, Leccino Pendolino, and Moraiolo.

Extra virgin olive oil is exported everywhere -- and often mixed to produce pure. The oil, specifically from Bitonto, is held in highest regard. Puglia olive oil is green with yellow reflections. It has a distinct olive smell, medium fruitiness, and a taste reminiscent of cooked beans/ripe tomatoes. It is appropriate on meats, soups, and vegetables. The other important products of Puglia are fish (the sea along Puglia's long coastline is comparatively clean, free of large towns/tourists) and cheese -- whether fresh or aged, dried or smoked (Mozzarella/Provolone, etc.). Vegetables and cheese are often part of a meal that has pasta as the main course -- types/shapes more numerous than anywhere else. The meat for making a ragu is often horse meat as Pugliese prefer its slight sweetness. Pugliesi eat a considerable amount of lamb and kid. Beef and wild game are rare, but they are proud of their homemade bread, which marks Le Puglie as a region with ancient traditions.

The Italian government has decided to create a Denominzaion DI Origine (DOC) system for olive oil. The DOC law went into effect in 1992. The regulations will apply only to Extra Virgin/Virgin olive oil -- those that contain no more than 2% of oleic acid. Furthermore, the oils must be cold pressed, and cannot be chemically extracted. The Agriculture Ministry will set up a National Committee for the Oversight of the DOC law for Oils, which will designate production zone boundaries and quality standards for each zone, as well as enforce regulations. The law also provides for establishment of an official tasting commission in each DOC zone to taste/approve oils before they can be sold.

To check against fraud, DOC law dictates that producers list their trees/orchards in registrars maintained by professional organizations. Producers will have to keep records of shipments, including names of bottlers, shippers, or dealers that take delivery of the oil. The Agriculture Ministry has already launched a campaign to prevent fraud in the making of olive oil in Italy. Approximately 1200 random samples will be collected from Italy's retail outlets this year and analyzed to see that they meet production/processing requirements. This is not unlike the samples they took from the United States the past five years -- and had analyzed. We can report that we passed with flying colors.

Demand for Italian olive oil has soared in the United States. In 1994, exports to the US totaled 28.95 million gallons, a 215% increase from 1984. The United States is Italy's biggest customer, absorbing 22% of total Italian production of 131.6 million gallons in 1994. A 45% increase in 1995-6 is blamed for a drop of 10% in sales in Italy, and a 10% decline in exports to the US Despite shrinkage in production, Italian experts of olive oil rose by 19.2% in 1995 vs. 1994. A large share of the exports went to the European Union, especially Spain.

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The olive was probably introduced to Spain by the Carthaginians in the 4th - 5th century BC, when they controlled much of the Iberian peninsula. Between 60-65 AD, olive oil from the south of Spain started to be traded in Rome, as Italian oil production was insufficient to meet domestic demand -- which continues today.

In Spain, 10% of total cultivated land is planted with olive trees. This is 215 million trees, spread over 5.3 million acres. Spain produces about 45% of the world's production, Italy 25%, Greece 20%. California is responsible for ½ of 1% - with Australia and South America less.

While Spain produces more than 60 varieties of different olives, and there are as many varieties of table oils in Spain, as there are zones of production. The names are generally associated with the tree, the leaf color/size, the shape of the fruit, area of production, or the oil obtained. Four of Spain's well-defined production zones are designated. Andalusia, which comprises eight provinces, accounts for 75% of Spanish production, the equivalent of 25% of worldwide production. The province of Jaen produces 200-250,000 tons of olive oil, the equivalent of the average production of Greece, the #3 producer worldwide.

Italy has 73% of the US market, Spain 14%, Turkey 8%, and Greece 5%. Spain can produce more, but uses about half as much olive oil as Italy does.

Distribution among the Spanish provinces is approximately:

Andalusia: 75% Castile/LaMancha: 14% Extremadura: 6% Catalonia: 4% others: 1%

The most widely grown variety of all olives is the Picual, which represents 97% of the trees in Jaen and 37% in Cordova. 50% of Spanish olives are of the Picual variety, which is 20% of the world's olives. This is a vigorous tree with a well-developed canopy. The fruit is ellipsoidal and medium to large sized, and the oil yield is high, about 27-28%, although the average is about 22%. The oil is bright gold, pleasantly fruity in aroma, and pungent in taste. Maturation takes place between the second week of November - third week of December. It usually contains 75-80% of monounsaturated oleic acid, and a low linoleic acid content of about 4%.

The Hojiblanca olive (white leaf) gets its name from the silvery color of the underside of the leaves, Cornicabra (Goat's Horn) from the shape of the fruit, Arbequina from its town of origin (Arbeca), etc. The Hojiblanca variety represents about 15% of Spanish olive trees, and is grown from the north of Malaga, to the south of Cordova, and east of Seville. The tree is of average size, the fruit-bearing branches are long, and the canopy is of medium density. The fruit is oblong-shaped and weighs about 1.4 grams. The average oil yield of about 17-19% from the Hojiblanca is lower than that of the Picual variety. The oil is bittersweet and green to gold, and brings out flavors of fried food. It has about 75-77% oleic acid, and an average linoleic acid content of 7-8%.

The Cornicabra and Lechin varieties are next in popularity, each representing about 12%. The Cornicabra tree is of average size with medium-length branches. The fruit weighs between 3-3.5 grams and average oil yield is 23%. It is highly sensitive to cold, is pampered, and of outstanding quality. The Lechin tree is also of medium size and has short branches. Fruit size is fairly large, from 3.5 to 3.8 grams and average oil yield is 25%.

Spanish extra virgin olive oils are designated by "Denominacion de Origen" (officially demarcated producing areas) for virgin olive oils. Catalonia has two D.O.s: les Garrigues (also called Borjas Blancas) and Siurana. The two DOS in Andalusia are Baena and Sierra de Segura.

  • Les Garrigues oils, made from Arbequina and Verdiell olives, tend to have a nutty flavor with a peppery finish, ideal for vinaigrettes and marinades.
  • Siurana oil, made from Arbequina, Rohal, and Morruda varieties, are sweet, aromatic, and good for making mayonnaise.
  • Baena oils, made from Hojiblance, Picudo, Picual, Carrasquena, and Lecin varieties, are strongly fruity or smooth, and are good with salads or stews.
  • Olives grown on Sierra de Segura's rugged terrain must be hand harvested. This regions oils, made primarily from the Picual olive, are fruity and good with salads and in frying.

Two of the four regions, and unique characters of the oils from these regions are outlined below:


1.  Andalusia, in the south, has two DO's - Sierra De Segura province of Jaen, and Baena in Cordoba. This region primarily produces Picudo and Picual varieties. They are noble oils, with a notable sweet olive taste, fruity shadows, full flavored, rounded, with an exquisite finish and aftermath.

2.  Catalonia, in the north, has two Do's: Borjas Blancas in the province of Lerida, and Siurana in the province of Tarragona. This region produces the highly regarded Arbequina olive. They produce smooth, sweet oils, not at all spicy, with an aftertaste of dried fruit and more than a hint of almond depending on when the crop is harvested. The oil is labeled either "frutado" or "dulce". Frutado is the early harvest, has a green tint, and a pleasant taste of bitter almonds.

Spain is the world's leading producer of olive oil, with an average annual production of 6-700,000 metric tons. In 1997, Spain produced an incredible 950,000 metric tons - approximately half the world's production.

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Next to Spain, Turkey is the largest olive producing country in the world. It is estimated that Turkey has 90,000,000 olive trees. The origin of the olive oil tree in Turkey is lost in time. We do know that the olive tree is one of the oldest cultured plants of Anatolia (Turkey). There are records indicating that the olive was known in Anatolia even before the Greeks. Tests have finally been deciphered which show that a fruit known as the "zertum" was known, and widely used by the local people in the time of the Akkadians. The Turks' acquaintance with olive oil began with their migration from the steps of Central Asia (and taking over Anatolia from the Eastern Roman Empire). Eventually other nations lived in Anatolia with the Turks, and eventually blended in the Ottoman melting pot.

As a substantial portion of Turkey is in the Mediterranean basin, olive oil traditions run deep. Olive oil dishes have always had a place of pride in Ottoman cuisine. A bowl of cold pressed olive oil is brought to the table every morning, where ground oregano and red pepper are added. Bread is toasted, then dipped into the flavored oil. Olives are always chosen first in Turkish meals.

Rich or poor, the Muslim always breaks his fast with olives. For centuries Turkey has exported substantial quantities to Italy, Greece, Russia, and the Middle East.

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