Olive oils, their origins and their technical differences have always presented a friendly national rivalry about whose olive oil is the best and for what reasons.
As you may already know, we love and use a lot of olive oil at The Paella Club and champion this as one of our star ingredients throughout our paella experiences. Of course I will touch on this a little later in the article, but there is a lot more to learn.
Some historians believe olive oil production started somewhere in the Mediterranean Basin or the Middle East, as olive trees are native to these regions.
Olive oil produced in Spain and Italy will be the focus. The main differences that come to mind are the way the olives are pressed, whether heat is used during this process and what type of olive is used. But first let’s look at what olive oil actually is and how it is produced.
The oil in the olive is the fat content of the fruit, which is known as monounsaturated fat. Olive oil is produced in the mesocarp cells of the fruit and stored in a particular type of vacuole called a lipo vacuole. Every cell in the olive contains a tiny oil droplet. Olive oil extraction is the process of separating the oil from the other fruit contents which include vegetative extract liquid and solid material.
Cold pressed vs hot pressed
Olives can be either hot pressed or cold pressed to extract the oil, so let’s briefly look at the differences in both processes.
A recent trip to Napoli in Italy had me learn that the original method of producing olive oil was to use the ‘cold pressed’ technique.
Olive oil is considered cold pressed when the temperature during the extraction process is kept below 27 degrees celsius or around 81 degrees fahrenheit. Due to the temperatures being kept this low during the process, the natural aromas, flavours and health properties are preserved. Cold pressed olive oils are loaded with vitamins E and K, healthy fats, antioxidants and inflammatory nutrients which contribute to good brain and heart health.
Hot pressed olive oil requires the olives to be heated to a very high temperature of around 120 degrees celsius or 248 degrees fahrenheit during the extraction process. This process produces more oil however denatures the flavour and most of the nutritional value. Hot pressed olive oils are also treated with chemicals and are put through a process called hydrogenation, to extend shelf life and produce higher yields.
It takes around 5 kilograms of olives to make 1 litre of oil.
Spain is the largest producer of olive oil in the world. Nearly 300 different types of olives are produced here which make up around 45% of the world’s quota. One common type used to make olive oil is the Picual, which makes up around 50% of Spain’s total crop. This olive seems to be the most popular as it produces plenty of high quality oil which has an excellent shelf life and is high in antioxidants.
Generally speaking, Spanish olive oils are much fruitier in flavour than their Italian and Moroccan friends. Spanish olives seem to produce an oil that is much more yellow in colour than that of the Italian olives. These characteristics are due to the temperate climate in which they grow, differing from the growing conditions in Italy for example.
The Arbequina olive is the prized olive in the Catalan region of Lleida and the oil which comes from this fruit is incredibly versatile and well balanced.
The arbequina is a variety of olive tree. The variety is native to the village of Arbeca, Lleida, in the region of Les Garrigues, which gave it its name. This variety is considered one of the best in the world, both for its production and regularity and for the quality of its oil.
The arbequina olive is considered to be rustic, frost-resistant and adaptable to different climate and soil conditions. It has very low vigour and low resistance to chalky soil, adapts to poor soils and is resistant to the cold weather. Its relatively small canopy allows for higher planting densities than other more vigorous crops.
At The Paella Club we love this oil and as you may have already experienced, we throw it around like a shower head sprays water.
Italy is the 2nd largest producer of olive oil in the world. Typically, Italian olive oils are darker green in appearance, have a more herbaceous aroma and are more bitter in taste than Spanish oils. Around 82% of the olive oil produced in Italy comes from the south of the country, particularly in the regions of Puglia, Cantabria, Basilicata and Sardinia.
Italy is home to over 500 olive varieties used to make oil and these differences floor through to the final product. Olive oils from the northern part of Italy are said to be more delicate and mild. Oils from the central part of the country are said to be stronger and more grassy and those produced in the south are said to have more peppery notes.
It has often been said that Sicilian olive oils are of the highest quality in Italy with the Nocellara olive being the standout olive for producing oil.
This variety also has dual purpose both for oil and for the table.
When used for edible reasons, they take their name from the city of Castelvetrano. These olives are large and green with a mild, buttery flavour. The Castelvetrano olives have a round shape and an intense green colour. They also have a soft and dense pulp that gives them a fruity, delicate taste.
This particular Sicilian olive is rich in dietary fibres so therefore highly digestible. It also helps to fight cellular ageing and prevent various diseases. Moreover, this type of olive guarantees a good supply of minerals, in percentages even higher than those of many vegetables. The amount of calcium and magnesium in edible Castelvetrano olives is comparable to the amounts we can find in breast milk. The oil extracted from the Nocellara olive has an intense green hue, with a bitter and spicy flavour.
Although Spanish and Italian olive oils are the most well known, a trip to Morocco will surprise you as their olive oil is also of a very high quality.
See you again soon at The Paella Club!
Professional Chef, Writer and Paella Club Instructor.