Olive oil persists as one of the most delicious, nutritious and versatile culinary arts ingredients. Olive trees have a rich history with evidence of wild specimens dating back to the 12th millennium B.C. Cultivated olives appear to have come on the scene six millennia ago in Asia Minor but, nowadays, olive oil is found in cuisines from around the world and olive trees are farmed in North, Central and South America, the Middle East, Africa, China, Japan and Australia.
The fruit of the olive tree cannot be eaten directly from the tree in most cases, but must be processed first. Depending on the type of olive, region of locale, and local customs, the processing techniques vary, but generally include soaking the olives in a sodium or potassium hydroxide brine or repeatedly rinsing them in water.
Olive oil is held to international standards by the International Olive Council. To qualify as ordinary virgin olive oil, olives must be pressed without any process that would alter the resulting oil and must have less than 3.3 grams per 100 grams of oleic acid whereas extra virgin olive oil, or EVOO, must contain less than 0.8 grams.
Top chefs are going to make sure that their favorite olive oils are held to these standards. A lawsuit filed last August by a California group including Bravo's Top Chef contestant David Martin aimed to hold olive oil distributors responsible for mislabeling cheaper and poorer quality oils as EVOO.
Real EVOO has long been recognized for its healthful properties, with its antioxidants, monounsaturated fatty acids and lack of cholesterol and trans fats. Recent findings documented in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition also demonstrate that consumption of olive oil may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease. Though it can be used for cooking, EVOO is the most aromatic, delicious and healthy when it is consumed raw.
Though most Americans associate olive oil with savory dishes, it can be found in sweet recipes such as lemon olive oil cake from FillipoBertolli.com or the olive oil and coconut brownies from The New York Times. To learn more about olive oil, check out classes available through culinary schools. There are schools that offer classes and seminars extolling the virtues of EVOO, and how to use it to cook and bake for increased flavor and health.