And other reasons to love the stuff ancient Romans called "liquid gold"
Before I moved to Seville, I regarded all fat as the enemy. When I used olive oil at all, I tended to pour a scant half teaspoon on my salad or into a non-stick pan to sauté my homegrown vegetables. So I was mesmerized — horrified, even — the first time I watched a Spanish friend order toast in a café, then pick up the olive oil bottle sitting on the counter and proceed to drizzle and drizzle and drizzle and drizzle… When the crisp, hot baguette was thoroughly saturated, he took a big bite and beamed in satisfaction.
Now I do the same. Because it eventually dawned on me that my friend, all those medical studies, and 150 generations of Mediterranean grandmothers were right: olive oil is good for you. As if that wasn't enough, just this week I was gobsmacked to stumble across scientific evidence that consuming high amounts of olive oil does not make you fat. In fact, it can actually help with weight loss! This was as thrilling as my earlier discoveries of medical research demonstrating that chocolate makes you smarter and coffee can help you live longer. Obviously it’s true, to paraphrase Ben Franklin’s comment on wine, that God loves us and wants us to be happy. Amen to that!
Of course, not all olive oil is created equal. To enjoy its full health benefits, you’ll want to make sure the kind you’re consuming qualifies as extra-virgin: unfiltered, with low acidity, and mechanically pressed rather than extracted using heat or chemical additives. “The best olive oils are made using a simple hydraulic press or centrifuge — they are more like fresh-squeezed fruit juices than like industrial fats,” wrote Tom Mueller, author of Extra Virginity. “The olives are harvested at the moment of the invaiatura, when they begin to turn from green to black; ideally they are picked by hand and milled within hours, to minimize oxidation and enzymatic reactions, which leave unpleasant tastes and odors in the oil. There are approximately seven hundred olive varieties, or cultivars, whose distinctive tastes and aromas are evident in oils that are made properly, just as different grape varietals are expressed in fine wines.”
Like wineries, many olive oil shops and growers are now appealing to foodies and members of “generation yum” by arranging tastings. In Seville, these range from an impromptu stop at a gourmet tienda such as La Oleoteca or a day-long field trip to an olive orchard under the auspices of a professional guide. Last week Rich and I had the incredible good fortune to be invited to visit a Spanish olive oil company with our friend Steve, an exporter who wanted our help in choosing which varieties he’ll be sending to the USA this year. As you can imagine, we leapt at the chance.
This wasn’t our first rodeo. Two years earlier, Steve had invited us to join him on an exploratory tour the facility, Almazara 1945, and last year, when he was ready to make his purchase, Rich and I helped with the tasting. Our main qualifications are 1) we consume plenty of olive oil, 2) we like road trips, and 3) by sheer coincidence we happen to share the same last name as Steve, so we consider one another family. The fourth member of the 2018 tasting team was a Spanish ornithologist named Fran. Earlier this year Steve had pitched in to help Fran capture and band birds for a research project, and now Fran was returning the favor by lending his taste buds to the day’s endeavor. Luckily, Steve actually knows what he’s doing in choosing the oils; to be honest, I suspect he brings the rest of us along mainly for company on the drive out to the countryside.
Arriving at the sleekly modern, fully computerized factory, we were welcomed by a young man named Victor, who told us this year we’d be using an official, industry-standard scoring sheet to rate the oils. Skimming down the list, I saw the categories started out logically enough, with qualities such as fruitiness, sweetness, and astringency, but soon veered off into such unexpected byways as banana skin, artichoke, fresh-cut lawn, ripe apple, and something called tomato raff, which I never did figure out. As Victor passed around cups of oil, we took sips and gamely attempted to discern any hint of tree trunk or mature banana. If anyone said, “Taste any tomato raff?” I always solemnly shook my head and we moved on.
All the oils were delicious, and by the end of the morning it was easy to agree on which we liked best. The Arbequina was fruity, nutty, sweet, and mild, and although Victor pointed out that the smaller fruit size and larger pit make this olive a bit more expensive to cultivate, we knew it would be a hit with American buyers, who tend to like smoother flavors. The hands-down favorite was the Hojiblanca, which was more robust and complex, with a gorgeous long finish. We spent the last half hour tweaking a proprietary blend, but that’s all I’m saying about that, as I’m sworn to secrecy.
I rose from the table, wiping the last of the oil from my lips, feeling replete and mellow. In a world where we are warned away from so many foods we once held dear, it’s tremendously comforting to know that something we love to eat is as beneficial as it is satisfying. So next time you’re in a Spanish café or your own kitchen, go ahead and slather on the extra-virgin olive oil with a clear conscience. Your body and your soul will thank you.
Unlike some of my more practical and better-organized blogger friends, I don't accept sponsorships of any kind or do product placement or promotion. Everything I talk about on this blog is here to help you plan your own adventures. However, I know I'll have people writing in to ask about Steve's olive oil, so here's where you can buy it on Amazon. Enjoy!
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5/18/2018 06:11:48 pm
im drooling....even tho its the middle of the night in NZ. Always love to read your blog Karen.....helps me to feel Im right back there in the fold ( and everywhere else!). Thrilled that Ika has met you both. Love to Rich and you
5/19/2018 07:05:28 am
Wonderful to hear from you, Christine. Rich and I think of you often and reminisce about the good times we shared when you were living here in Seville. We were gobsmacked when we realized Ika was a friend of yours; what are the odds? Good to know that even a world away, you are still dancing and drooling over olive oil.
5/18/2018 06:43:30 pm
Thank god. Another great food added to the yes! list. Now let's work on potato chips.
5/19/2018 07:09:14 am
Tobey, I tried Googling "health benefits of potato chips" and all I came up with was articles such as "Why Potato Chips Aren't Always the Worst Option." I will keep digging!
5/18/2018 07:12:18 pm
I've been slathering Spanish extra virgin olive oil on my food for decades, and I do not have a weight problem. At 5'2", I've weighed 100 pounds for the past 30 years. My personal preference is "bio" (organically grown) Spanish extra virgin olive oil, which is blessedly inexpensive here in Spain.
5/19/2018 07:12:19 am
You're so right, Alicia; one of the great benefits of living in Spain is all the high quality olive oil — including reasonably priced organic extra virgin. Much of the oil we tasted and that Steve sells is organic; just one more reason to feel great about slathering it on our food!
5/21/2018 12:49:47 pm
Yum - what more need I say? Totally jealous
5/21/2018 03:22:24 pm
It certainly was yummy, Carolyn, and we were wildly lucky to get to try so many kinds at once. Fortunately, there are tastings popping up everywhere these days, and you can find good quality olive oil in plenty of stores so you can set up your own tasting (or simply binging) whenever the mood strikes. Enjoy!
5/22/2018 10:36:09 am
Love posts like this one, and I love olive oil. I've seen olive oil pressed in Albania -- very interesting. I live in France now and have a bottle of Spanish bio olive oil straight from a small producer just across the border, no middle man. I can buy from a local producer here as well and it's also delicious, but expensive. Beware of supermarket stuff. Funny story: I lived in Palestine for a while, and for love or money could not find olive oil in the shops. I was flabbergasted. My husband asked his Palestinian colleagues where to get olive oil, and the next day there was an avalanche of Coke and water bottles filled with olive oil for us. Everyone got their oil from their own home village, and of course everyone said theirs was the best ;) We had it for months on end and when we left we got another load to ship with us (to Ghana, where they have coconut oil ;)
6/2/2018 08:52:03 am
I love the way everyone is so proud of their olive oil. It's such a wonderful part of the Mediterranean culture. How lucky you were, Miss Footloose, to see it pressed in Albania and to have the chance to try your husband's Palestinian colleagues' home pressed oils!
5/30/2018 07:38:03 am
Thank you so much Karen for this post! It´s a great way to know what Steve´s up to when I am away! hahaha
6/2/2018 08:53:23 am
Don't worry, Pia, we are keeping an eye on Steve while you've been away. Maybe EVOO potato chips should be his next business venture?
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Winner of the 2023 Firebird Book Award for Travel
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TO I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain.
Wanderlust has taken me to more than 60 countries. Every week I provide travel tips and adventure stories to inspire your journeys and let you have more fun — and better food — on the road
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