Cooking School

All about olive oil, from Portugal to your table

By: Jennifer Melo

Olive orchard at Quinta Vale do Conde, Mirandela, Portugal<br>Photo by Jennifer Melo Author: Canadian Living Credits: Olive orchard at Quinta Vale do Conde, Mirandela, Portugal<br>Photo by Jennifer Melo

Cooking School

All about olive oil, from Portugal to your table

By: Jennifer Melo
It's a cool, misty morning at Quinta Vale do Conde olive orchards near Mirandela, a northeastern region of Portugal. Holding a twig that's tastefully jeweled with olives, Lucia Gomes de Sa, an award-winning olive oil producer, reveals a glimpse into the passion she has for the product she crafts.

Addressing a group of eight journalists, she clutches the olive twig to her chest, closes her eyes and asserts, "I want to make an olive oil that's unique and has value." Sa, who favours local and eco-responsible farming practices strives for a product that's "unique and sustainable," she explains "with characteristics from this area."

Traditional olive orchards
Sa is just one of the olive oil producers of the region who practise traditional farming methods rather than the modern methods of higher-yielding plots, more popular in southern Portugal areas. Here, the olive trees are spaced out with room to grow and tower overhead.

On Sa's orchards, olives are harvested with a tractor that's armed with a large umbrella-like contraption that captures olives as they are rattled loose from their branches.

Douro's olive harvesting
Harvest is done a little differently at Quinta Do Crasto, where the vineyards and olive groves are perched on the sloping hills of Douro Valley. With just a look at the hilly terrain here, it's easy to see how it poses a challenge at harvest time -- tractors couldn't possibly navigate the steep inclines without running the risk of tipping over.

So at Quinta do Crasto, harvesting requires a large net that's laid out at the base of the tree. A worker uses a handheld machine that clamps onto the tree's trunk and rattles the olives free from their branches, sending olives and leaves falling onto the netting below.

Super intensive and intensive olive orchards
On the other side of Portugal in the south-central Alentejo regions Evora and Bejo, the highest-yielding olive orchards in the country are carefully managed to produce olives most efficiently.

Super intensive (about 1,200 to 1,900 trees per hectare) and intensive (300 to 400 trees/hectare) orchards are home to smaller olive trees than the ones found in the north. Some of these orchards boast an efficient drip irrigation system, with modern technology that helps farmers to create the best olive-producing conditions. The soil's moisture levels and fertilization needs are carefully controlled and monitored.

Page 1 of 4: Learn how to make olive oil and get olive oil nutrition facts
on Page 2
How to make olive oil
Ever wonder how the olive oil that makes its way to your table went from olive to oil? 
Here's a basic roadmap of its journey.

Step 1: Remove leaves and stems
After harvest, olives are received at a mill, dumped onto conveyor belts and separated from leaves in a machine that blasts air, sending leaves flying to one side while the weight of the olives sends them falling onto another conveyor belt below.

Step 2: Crush olives
Olives are rinsed at some production facilities and then mashed. Most modern facilities use metal crushers but a few traditional stone mills continue to do the job.

Step 4: Extract the oil
Olive mash heads to a centrifugation or pressing and decanting process that separates oil, water and any lingering solids or sediments. During decanting, oil rises to the top and the water and sediment settles at bottom. Then olive oil can be filtered, if desired, and stored for aging.

Step 5: Bottle it
The bottling process comes next, with olive oil filling bottles that get labels pressed onto them, sealed, and packed into shipping boxes. Then they journey to your grocer’s before gracing your table.

Fast facts about olive oil
-It takes 5 to 6 kg of olives to make 1 L of olive oil.
-Portugal is the 8th biggest producer of olive oil in the world. Its neighbours to the east Spain, Italy and Greece lead the pack of the world’s biggest olive oil producers. 
-Just one to five per cent of minor components affect an olive oil's colour, smell and taste.
-when crushed and pressed, olives output 50 per cent water, and 50 per cent holds olive oil (about 20 per cent, on average) and pomace (solids).

Nutrition facts about olive oil
Olive oil receives praise for its nutrition virtues, most notably as a healthy fat -- monounsaturated fat -- that lowers levels of heart-harming cholesterol (LDL cholesterol).

Furthermore, olive oil is a staple of the Mediterranean diet. It's thought to heal or prevent heart disease and diabetes, fight cancer with its antioxidants, strengthen immune and digestive systems, and improve skin.

Casa Do Azeite, the national association of Portuguese olive oil, delivers the nutritional breakdown of olive oil is as follows:

Per 1 tbsp/13 mL serving of olive oil
108 cal.
12g total fat
1.9 sat. fat.
0 g trans fat
9.3 g monounsaturated fat
0.8 g polyunsaturated fat
0g cholesterol

Page 2 of 4: Learn what to look for when buying olive oil, plus how to store, serve and cook with olive oil on Page 3

Buying olive oil
Don’t judge an olive oil by its colour. Or its acidity level. When choosing an olive oil, consider its grade (extra virgin, for example)  taste and aroma.

Green olive oil is simply the product of green olives, while golden olive oils come from riper olives. The acidity of an olive oil is affected by free fatty acids that are influenced by olive freshness and ripeness but it doesn’t indicate quality.

Storing olive oil
To prolong its shelf life and retain its flavour and nutrients, keep olive oil hidden from light, dampness, air and heat. Inside a dark kitchen cupboard that’s not too close to the stove will do.

Serving olive oil
You’ve probably enjoyed olive oil as a salad dressing or used for dipping with bread and paired with balsamic vinegar. Try these additional tasty ways to get your fill of olive oil.

1. Drizzle olive oil on toast at breakfast.
2. Eat like the Portuguese. Pour some olive oil onto a plate of boiled potatoes, cod fish, onions and chickpeas. It’s the star ingredient in this simple, delicious and nutritious dinner.
3. Mix olive oil into homemade vanilla ice cream for a creamier mouth feel and rich flavour.

Cooking with olive oil
Olive oil is typically eaten raw to best retain its nutrients; drizzled over salads, or used as a dip for bread.

But when heated, it holds its nutrients better than other oils, according to the International Olive Council. It also forms a barrier/crust on food, so you can avoid oversaturating your food with oil -- and those extra calories.

Olive oil has a high smoking point (250 C) so it’s a good option for frying. Fried olive oil can be reused up to five times and it increases in volume when heated so a little goes a long way.

For frying, opt for ordinary olive oil rather than virgin or extra virgin for the most budget-friendly choice.

Page 3 of 4: Learn how to hold an olive oil tasting in your kitchen on Page 4

Just like wine varietals, there are several olive varieties that affect the characteristics of olive oil. Galega, Portugal's national variety and Cobrançosa represent the biggest Portuguese varieties, according to Casa do Azeite.

To hold your very own olive oil tasting at home, try up to three bottles of olive oil from various countries of origin and put your taste buds to the test.

8 steps to olive oil tasting
The following tips from Casa do Azeite will have you sampling like a true professional.

1. Pour about 15 mL of olive oil into a glass. Professional olive oil tasters use a dark blue glass to avoid being influenced by the oil’s colour.
2. Immediately cover the glass with your hand to trap the oil’s aroma. The professionals use a watch-glass, a small round glass that sits on the mouth of the tasting glass.
3. Use your other hand to grasp the glass’s base and warm the oil.
4. Gently swirl the olive oil in the glass.
5. Hold the glass up to your nose, remove your hand from the glass’s opening and inhale slowly and gently. Cover the glass’s opening with your hand again. What do you smell?
7. Take a sip of olive oil, let it fill your entire mouth, inhale and then let the oil flow down your throat. What do you taste?
8. Take notes and describe aroma and flavour of the oil. 

Cleanse your palate by sipping on water and snacking on an apple slice between each oil tasting.

Olive oil tasting notes
There are many ways to describe an olive oil’s smell and taste. If you’re having trouble finding the right word to match your experience, consult the following list of common words used by olive oil judging panels.

Positive attributes
Sweet (neither bitter nor pungent)
Green leaves
Dried fruits (typical of northern Portuguese olive oil)

Negative attributes

The next time you're at your local Canadian grocer's and see a bottle of imported olive oil on the shelf, consider its journey from olive to oil. From orchards, mills, production plants and bottling facilities, to your table, olive oil is a product of pride for the producers who craft it. So savour it.

For a virtual tour of Portuguese olive oil production, check out the Photo gallery: How to make olive oil.
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Cooking School

All about olive oil, from Portugal to your table