Tomorrow is Extra Virgin Olive Oil Day, what a great opportunity to have a closer look at this noble fruit and Olive Oil production in Turkey.
Olive oil is the gold standard of all oils. Loaded with antioxidants, it is monounsaturated fat and everyone needs fat in his or her diet. The Mediterranean Diet is considered the healthiest diet. The cornerstone and foundation of the Mediterranean Diet is extra virgin olive oil.
The value and unique characteristics of olives and olive oil have been acknowledged for centuries and are gaining even more prominence today. Cultivation of olives is concentrated in specific regions of the world, primarily in the countries bordering the shores of the Mediterranean. Turkey is one of those fortunate countries and is ranked as the world’s second-biggest producer and olive oil and takes pride of place in Turkish cuisine.
The history of the olive in Turkey
Further proof of the olive’s long history in Turkey is the 1300-year-old tree growing in Mut or the olive oil stores found in Izmir.
The olive is mentioned in The Iliad when Zeus extols the delights of a breakfast of mouthwatering types of olives savoured at thyme-scented Gargara (Kücükkuyu), where the blue of the Aegean meets the green of Mount Ida.
Olive oil production in Turkey
The way in which the oil is extracted from olives is another tradition that has not changed in millennia. The extraction method today is the same as six thousand years ago. The olives are merely crushed into a mash to which pressure is applied to extract the oil without any chemical processes. The oil is then separated from the fruit vegetable water.
Technological developments in the early nineteenth century saw the advent of hydraulic presses, which are used nowadays alongside centrifugal systems, the most widespread of which is known as the continuous system.
In the continuous or fully automated system, the olives are first sorted by variety, stripped of any leaves and crushed in a machine that finely grinds the olive stones at 3000 rpm. Water is added to the crushed olive pulp and the resultant mash is beaten. Next, the olive pomace is separated from the oily juice. The olive oil is then separated from the vegetable water and transferred to a filter tank. These kinds of olive oils are virgin or extra virgin grade, depending on their acidity, and can be consumed straight away as if they were a fruit juice.
The last sediment is removed and the olive oil is left in the settling tank. Virgin and extra virgin olive oil are then packed in drums, cans or bottles. The olive pomace left over from the extraction process is re-crushed and used to make soap, while the spent pomace is used to make fuel pellets.
To obtain quality olive oil, the olives must be processed as soon as possible after harvest. Quality deteriorates if the fruit is left to lie. The olives must also be properly cleaned before entering the extraction process and olive oil must be stored properly.
The olive tree and olives
The olive tree blossoms in the spring.
Stone hardening and fruit ripening begin in the summer months. The fruits start to change colour in November first turning from green to violet and then to black as they ripen. This stage is known as véraison.
The ripe olives are harvested from November to February. The quality of the olive oil produced is heavily dependent on how the olives are picked. The best olive oil is obtained when the olives are picked from the branches one by one. Other methods are to leave the olives to drop to the ground and then pick them there or to use suction machines.
Olive varieties: flavour and quality
Unlike other fruits, olives cannot be eaten straight from the tree. Various processes have evolved over time to remove their sharp bitter taste. At first, the olives were placed in water. Later, they were sweetened by dipping them in ash, vinegar or limewater. To preserve them, they were pickled in brine flavoured with lemon, fennel, mastic, thyme, peppermint and other herbs to make them more pleasant tasting. Alternatives to brining were to store the olives in must, wine or even honeyed water.
In all, 84 olive varieties are produced in Turkey.
How to buy olive oil
Find a seller who stores it in clean, temperature-controlled stainless steel containers topped with an inert gas such as nitrogen to keep oxygen at bay, and bottles it as they sell it. Ask to taste it before buying.
Favour bottles or containers that protect against light, and buy a quantity that you’ll use up quickly.
Don’t worry about colour. Good oils come in all shades, from green to gold to pale straw – but avoid flavours such as mouldy, cooked, greasy, meaty, metallic, and cardboard.
Ensure that your oil is labelled “extra virgin,” since other categories—”pure” or “light” oil, “olive oil” and “olive pomace oil” – have undergone chemical refinement.
Try to buy oils only from this year’s harvest – look for bottles with a date of harvest. Failing that, look at the “best by” date which should be two years after an oil was bottled.
Though not always a guarantee of quality, PDO (protected designation of origin) and PGI (protected geographical indication) status should inspire some confidence.
Some terms commonly used on olive oil labels are anachronistic, such as “first pressed” and “cold pressed”. Since most extra virgin oil nowadays is made with centrifuges, it isn’t “pressed” at all, and true extra virgin oil comes exclusively from the first processing of the olive paste.
Keep olive oil in a dark bottle to ensure that antioxidants are not lost.
The fruity taste of extra virgin olive oil can be lost at high temperatures, but olive oil releases its full aroma when it comes into contact with heat. To ensure you get the best of your oil, use a minimal amount when cooking, and afterwards just drizzle your favourite variety while the dish is still hot.
Sources: Days Of The Year/Olioofficina/Guide to Istanbul/The Guardian