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The mother of all oils

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By Scott Mechura EBS FOOD COLUMNIST

One day, butter is good for us. Then it isn’t. But wait, then it is again. I guess it just depends on who you ask.

Then canola oil was supposed to be the healthy oil that was easy and inexpensive to produce and was going to save us all. But canola oil, when used as a primary cooking oil, is connected to the most obese nations on earth.

Coconut oil? I once thought I was going to see a fist fight over it between two shoppers in a grocery store. One said it was terrible for you, while the other maintained it was nature’s best oil.

There is one oil that has been right in front of us and is used in almost everything—and it continues to stand up to the standards of even the most holistic of naturopaths. I’m talking about olive oil.

Wikipedia would tell you that olive oil is simply “a liquid obtained from olives,” but it is so much more than that. In fact, the generic word oil, is a derivative of the Latin word oleum, which was specifically olive oil.

Spain is the largest producer of olive oil in the world, with Italy and Greece close behind, though Greece is the biggest consumer of olive oil per capita. While many of us here in the U.S. consume olive oil and utilize in a variety of ways, North America, northern Europe, and southeast Asia are far behind the aforementioned countries in terms of consumption.

Cultivated as early as the eight millennium B.C., the olive tree is native to the great Mediterranean Basin, but more specifically Greece. However, DNA suggests that Neanderthal man consumed olives.

Today there are no less than 700 cultivars of some form of olive. Not to be confused with variety, which is a group of plants within a species, a cultivar is a plant maintained by horticulturists but does not produce true to seed.

Olive trees grow extremely slowly and can live a long time, with the longest one on record being the Olive tree of Vouves, in Crete, which has celebrated over 3,000 birthdays.

Aside from its many culinary uses, olive oil was and still is used for such things as medicine, fuel for lamps, soap, skincare and even religious ceremonies, specifically the Minoans. In Jewish observance, it was the only oil allowed as fuel in the seven lamps of menorahs during the great exodus of the Israeli tribes from Egypt.

Extra virgin is the highest grade of olive oil—though not just any olive or oil will qualify as extra virgin. It must go through a battery of tests for chemical make-up, including measuring free fatty acids, peroxide levels and a variety of other acids. Additionally, by law, extra virgin oil can have no more than 0.8 percent free acidity, which contributes to its desirable flavor.

Unlike sunflower, safflower, grapeseed, canola or coconut oils, olive oils come with provenance and have distinct flavors, depending on soil, climate, and more than anything, country of origin.

As a general rule:

Spanish olive oils tend to be yellow to golden, with some pale green on occasion. They are most often fruity and nutty.

Italian olive oils are generally of a darker green hue and are a bit more grassy and herbal, and have a higher cycloartenol content. More so than Spanish oils.

Greek olive oil tends to be greener, like Italian varieties, but is usually much stronger in flavor profile. It is the highest in polyphenols.

Cycloartenols and polyphenols are beneficial to our bodies in so many ways that it could be another article. This might give the impression that Spanish olive oil isn’t healthy. But I assure you: it is. It’s like saying you aren’t as healthy as me because I ran a marathon and you only ran 20 miles. Suffice it to say that any olive oil is extremely beneficial to us.

Scott Mechura has spent a life in the hospitality industry. He is a former certified beer judge and currently the executive chef at Buck’s T-4 Lodge in Big Sky.

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