The Art of Olive Oil Production
It’s not surprising that the best Extra Virgin Olive Oils today are still made using time-honored traditions that have been passed down from generation to generation. Though a few steps have been replaced with modern-day practices to better control quality, artisanal growers know that there is only one way to produce the very finest. Olive Oil & Beyond is the only place in Orange County, CA, that seeks out and imports the finest premium olive oil.
Olive picking is an important operation that contributes significantly to the quality and cost of Extra virgin olive oil. The sensory (organoleptic) quality of virgin olive oil depends, among other variables, on the ripeness of olives and therefore the period of harvest. To obtain quality oil the olives should be healthy, picked from the tree (not from the ground) and taken without delay to the oil mill for processing. Unmistakably, picking the olives by hand and crushing within four hours is the golden standard. It is the most crucial step in guaranteeing the highest organoleptic qualities (aromas, flavor, color, chemical properties) from the olive to the bottle. Careful hand-picking prevents olives from quickly deteriorating caused by damage and bruising. Yet is not always possible to manually pick the olive from the tree because of cultivation techniques, the size and the shape of the plant and the orchard terrain. It is a small batch process revered by top producers, but unfortunately, it requires a considerable number of hired workers and it is an investment unattainable for most. Because this is a costly practice, most olive oils found in grocery stores today are produced by mass producers using Mechanical shaker or facilitating machine. Only growers with processing mills located on the estate can transport the freshly picked olives within just a few hours or less to prevent fermentation.
Once the olives are sorted, removed of debris and washed in cold water, the olives (including the pits) are crushed. Though stone and granite wheels are still used today as they were for thousands of years, stainless steel rollers or millstone crushers with their non-porous surface are more preferred, resulting in a thick smooth paste of oil, water and vegetable matter. “10-11 pounds of olives are needed to produce just 1 liter (4 cups) of olive oil.”
The olive paste obtained after crushing must be mixed to achieve the maximum oil yield. The mixing operation consists of a slow and continuous stirring of the olive paste to break up the oil/water emulsion. Among the few methods used for extracting the oil, the centrifuge method (known also as the Continuous System), is a more modern day process adopted by artisanal growers. The centrifuge spins the paste at a high velocity -since oil is lighter than water it naturally separates during this process though it will take an additional spin in another centrifuge to remove any remaining vegetable water. No chemicals or heat are applied, as these deplete the oil of good nutrients naturally found in olives. The resulting oil is left to settle for one month in inert, glass-coated tile or stainless steel containers, producing an unfiltered
extra virgin olive oil, naturally high in nutrients, full of flavor and texture.
Types of Olive Oil
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Extra virgin olive oils are produced from the first pressing, which is performed within 24 to 72 hours of harvesting. Mechanical or hand pressing are the only methods used to obtain extra virgin olive oil. No heat or chemical processes are used. The oil obtained from the first pressing is the only olive oil that can be classified as extra virgin (or virgin, depending on the natural acidity level).
Premium Extra Virgin Olive Oil
“Premium Extra Virgin” refers to the best olive oil possible in terms of acidity, quality, aroma, and flavor. Some brands may have natural acidity rates as low as 0.225%. Because it is the most expensive, it is best to use premium extra virgin for dishes in which the olive oil will not be heated. Heating olive oil causes it to lose some of its flavor, so it isn’t necessary to use the most expensive grades for cooking. Use premium extra virgin olive oil in salads or as a condiment when flavor is of most importance.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
To be classified as extra virgin, the acidity level of the olive oil can be no greater than 1%. Like premium extra virgin, it is best to use extra virgin for dishes in which the olive oil will not be heated, such as in salads or as a condiment
Virgin Olive Oil
Virgin olive oil grades are produced in the same manner as extra virgin grades. The oil is not refined or processed after pressing. The natural acidity levels are greater than extra virgin grades, ranging from 1.5% to 3.3%. The flavor and aroma of virgin olive oil is of the highest quality. The oil obtained from the first pressing is the only olive oil that can be classified as virgin (or extra virgin, depending on the natural acidity level).
Fine Virgin Olive Oil
Fine virgin grade is a high quality olive oil with a maximum acidity level of 1.5%. It is less expensive than extra virgin grades, which makes it an excellent substitute when budget is a consideration.
Virgin Olive Oil
Virgin olive oil has a maximum acidity of 2% and can be used just like any of the higher grades. It is much more reasonably priced and is versatile in that it can be used generously in cooking and yet it has enough flavor to be used in salads or as a condiment.
Semi-Virgin Olive Oil
Semi-fine virgin olive oil has a maximum acidity level of 3.3%. It has good flavor, but it is less tasty than higher grades. It has the same health benefits as any of the higher grades and is best used in cooking.
Lampante Virgin Olive Oil
Lampante virgin olive is the lowest grade of virgin olive oil and is not fit for human consumption. It has a natural acidity above 3.3% and may also have an unpleasant taste and aroma. Lampante virgin olive oil is usually shipped to refineries for processing in order to remove the defects. (See, “Refined Olive Oil”.)