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Olive Oil – Real or Fake – Who Decides?

The olive tree is so connected to the Mediterranean civilisation, that a Greek myth says that when Zeus had to decide which goddess assign the town of Athens, between the two contenders Poseidon and Athena, he chose Athena because she had given the humanity the most useful gift: the olive tree. The sacredness of this tree upon the Jewish people is attested by the Bible: a white dove announced the end of the Flood carrying an olive branch in its beak. The gnarled and twisted olive tree, able to live up to 1,500 years, characterizes the landscape of the warm coasts of Mediterranean countries and it is a symbol of their culture.

The origin of the olive tree is so ancient balsamic vinegar of modena as the Mediterranean civilisation. The olive was cultivated in the Mid East area in 5000 B.C. Phoenicians were trading the olive oil and contributed to diffusion of this “liquid gold” in the other Mediterranean areas, especially in Greece. Greeks probably exported it to Romans who in their turn transplanted the olive trees in their possessions in Spain and North Africa. With Romans, olive oil was an important good, so much that they established a kind of stock exchange, the arca olearia, where batches of olive oil were exchanged and the prices fixed. In ancient times, the olive oil was firstly an aliment, but was also used as a medicine and a cosmetic: Greek athletes were used to anoint the body with oil. In the XVIII and XIX centuries, olive oil becomes an important raw material for industry and means also energy for lighting. It is a fundamental asset in the economy of the time.

During the centuries, the olive oil has always kept a relevant place in the cuisine of Mediterranean countries, being generally preferred to butter and other vegetal condiments such as palm and corn oils, more used in the Northern countries. As it is well known, the modern studies in the nutrition field have recognized important qualities to the Mediterranean diet and to the olive oil, which is a fundamental component of this.

Most studies concord that olive oil, which is composed for 98% of oleic acid (a monounsaturated fat), has a positive effect in lowering the bad component cholesterol (LDL) and in increasing the good component (HDL). The beneficial effect of olive oil in protecting the arteries may be imputable not only to its oleic acid component, but also to the numerous and not fully known substances constituting the residual 2% (the non-saponifiable component), which today are intensively studied. Furthermore, several studies conducted in the Mediterranean area are showing a possible positive effect of olive oil in protecting against some of the most common cancers (breast, colon, uterus and prostate). Again, the effect may be due also to the mostly unknown components of the non-oleic part of the olive oil.

The olive oils destined to alimentary usage are basically classified in two types on the basis of their acidity:

– extra virgin olive oil (the most demanded) has an acidity not greater than 0.8%

– virgin olive oil (often simply said “olive oil”) has an acidity not greater than 2%.

Both types must be produced by a mechanical process called “cold pressing”. Apart their unique sweet and spicy taste, these oils are considered the most healthy condiments existing and can be eaten both cooked and raw. In fact, the high smoke point of the extra virgin oil (210° C) makes it ideal to fry.

Liguriais one of the few areas (the other ones being in proximity of lakes, such as Garda) in Northern Italy where the olive tree is traditionally cultivated. Were the Benedectin monks, during the Middle Age, to provide a great improvement in the olive cultivation. They introduced the renowned quality taggiasca (from the village of Taggia, where a monastery was founded) and the technique of terracing. The taggiasca olive is mainly diffused in the Imperia province and generally in the whole Western Liguria. It can be considered the queen of the Ligurian oil, since it originates the most of the production, giving the appreciated smooth and soothing oils, with the characteristic final sour taste. Lavagnina, Razzola, Rossese, Lantesca, Olivastrone are the qualities diffused in the Eastern Liguria. They originate delicate oils, but with a more accentuated bitter taste.