The Exquisite Conquest of "Liquid Gold"

Real Academia de Gastronomía

Interesting facts about the olive tree and the oil produced from its fruit, the olive.

Lonely olive tree,
far from the olive grove, next to the fountain,
hospitable olive tree
you give your shade to a thoughtful man
and to clear water.
At the side of the whitening road,
keep your green branches, old olive tree,
the green-eyed goddess, Athena.

Extract from the poem "Olive Tree by the Road" by Antonio Machado.

All cultivated olive trees originate from an ancient wild tree.

Both the ancient tree and the olive tree have adapted very well to the Mediterranean climate. They are slow-growing trees and don't need much water.

The main difference is the fruit: the fruit of the wild tree is small, while the cultivated olive tree produces a larger, fleshier olive.

A Millennia-Old Tradition
The olive tree and its oil have played an integral part in every Mediterranean culture and religion: as a symbol of peace and an element of purification, and also in more practical ways.

The olive tree was first cultivated on a regular basis about 6,000 years ago.

From Rome, where the tree was commonly grown in all homes during the Empire, it transferred to all the countries of the Mediterranean basin.

The production of olive oil, which was used for other purposes as well as gastronomy, spread throughout the Empire. One of the main objectives was to keep the capital supplied at all times. This need gave rise to various commercial routes.

Baetica was one of the most significant supply regions. At the end of the 19th century at Monte Testaccio, in the heart of modern-day Rome, Heinrich Dressel found vessels originating from the towns today known as Seville (Híspalis), Cordoba (Corduba), and Lora del Río (Axati).

Several centuries later, the Arabs improved the crops and the quality of the oils, and expanded their uses.

The Spanish conquistadors took the olive tree to America, where it adapted and eventually thrived, albeit with difficulty.

Thanks to advances in agricultural techniques, the plant can now be found in many different countries around the world, far from the Mediterranean basin, such as China and Australia.

Throughout history, popular beliefs have hailed olive oil for its healing, restorative, and anti-inflammatory properties.

In Ancient Egypt it was used as a cosmetic, sunscreen, and moisturizer; then, from the 7th century, as an ingredient in soap.

For many centuries, until the advent of electric light, it was also used as fuel.

The olive tree has its own important environmental function.

It is an ecological niche for numerous plant and animal species, such as insects, birds, and mammals; a countermeasure against desertification; a fundamental source of oxygen production in the most arid regions; and also an excellent firebreak.

Spain: The Land of Olive Trees
Significant areas of Spanish soil are dotted with olive trees: they are grown all over the Iberian Peninsula and the Balearic Islands.

The olive-growing south: There are around 2,000 oil mills in the country, and around 800 of those are in Andalusia.

Over half the national olive oil production, and almost 25% of world production, comes exclusively from the province of Jaén.

There are currently 29 Protected Designations of Origin, which recognize extra virgin olive oils produced in specific regions, with specific varieties (a single variety or multiple varieties grown in the region), and under specific processing and quality conditions.

There are more than 200 varieties of olives in Spain, and each has its own distinctive qualities that are reflected in its corresponding oils.

Olive-Oil Tourism

Tourism activities related to olive oil production have emerged in some regions of intensive olive growing. They combine nature, gastronomy, well-being, and education on the topic of olive oil. There are also olive-themed restaurants and accommodation, tours around different olive groves, tastings, beauty treatments, and much more.

Olive Oil in Gastronomy
Olive oil is used for seasoning as well as braising and frying, with notable effects on the resulting flavor of the food.

Raw

Each virgin olive oil has a particular taste. To season vegetables or a green salad, an intense oil, such as picual, would be recommended. Milder oils, such as the Arbequina variety, are better to allow other flavors to shine through in the dish.

Frying

Nothing can compare to food fried in extra virgin olive oil: it has a uniquely recognizable smell, appearance, and taste.

In Andalusia, it is common to fry fish in the picual oil typical of the area, although other varieties such as hojiblanca and cornicabra are also suitable.

The smoke point of extra virgin olive oil—the maximum temperature that it can withstand until it begins to break down—is very high, which allows it to reach high temperatures, improving the frying process. Another benefit is that it penetrates food less than other fats.

It is common practice when frying food in Spain to add a piece of bread to the pan.

If it does not float, the temperature is still around 302 °F. If it floats up slowly, the oil has reached around 320–329 °F, the perfect temperature for frying water-rich vegetables and thick fish.

If the bread floats to the surface quickly, the temperature of the oil must be 338 °F to 356 °F, ideal for frying small pieces of food.

Haute Cuisine

Extra virgin olive oil is not only a fundamental ingredient in haute cuisine, but it has also become the star of sensational avant-garde creations such as Ferran Adrià's caviar, Paco Roncero's lollipops and jelly beans, and Dani García's liquid gold ingot.

Oil and the Senses
EVOO tasting transcends entertainment for gastronomes: the rules and criteria are defined by the International Olive Council (IOC) and the European Community. There is also a defined vocabulary of positive and negative terms.

Among the positive attributes are the following terms:

Fruity: Set of olfactory sensations characteristic of the oil, which depends on the variety and comes from sound, fresh olives, either ripe or unripe. It is perceived directly and/or through the back of the nose.

Bitter: Characteristic primary taste of oil obtained from green olives or olives turning color. It is perceived in the circumvallate papillae on the "V" region of the tongue.

Pungent: Biting, tactile sensation characteristic of oils produced at the start of the crop year, primarily from olives that are still unripe. It can be perceived throughout the whole of the mouth cavity, particularly in the throat.

The International Olive Council requires its members to taste from dark blue containers that prevent them from seeing the tonality of the liquid.

However, in a sample tasting it is useful to consider the color and appearance of the extra virgin olive oil.

For both types of tasting, it is recommended that the cup is covered with the hand to heat the oil.

The color can vary from emerald green to golden yellow, with a wide range of shades in between. Colors outside of that range are considered defective.

During the olfactory assessment—considered the most important—it is common to perceive aromas of ripe olives, unripe olives, apples, herbs, figs, green leaves, and almonds.

Other, less pleasant aromas include rancidity, sourness, metallicity, mustiness, and "alpechin" (the dark liquid released by the olives when they are collected up before grinding).

A Paragon of Health
Olive oil has many health benefits when used raw and to season food.

Olive oil is a staple of the Mediterranean diet.

Numerous studies have confirmed the benefits of the consumption of olive oil for the coronary and digestive systems, stimulating the production of good cholesterol and inhibiting the bad sort.

It also plays an important role in protecting the skin.

Real Academia de Gastronomía
Credits: Story

Text: María García, in collaboration with Ismael Diaz Yubero, Spain’s representative at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and Agriculture, Fisheries, and Food Advisor for the Spanish Embassy in Rome. Member of the Spanish Royal Academy of Gastronomy.

Image: Foods & Wines from Spain / Spanish Institute for Foreign Trade / PDO ""Priego de Córdoba"" / PDO ""Les Garrigues"" / Agricultural Cooperative of Juncosa, SCCL / PDO Estepa.

Acknowledgements: Rafael Ansón, president of the Spanish Royal Academy of Gastronomy; Elena Rodríguez, director of the Spanish Royal Academy of Gastronomy; María García and Caroline Verhille, contributors to the Spanish Royal Academy of Gastronomy.

Spanish Royal Academy of Gastronomy

This exhibition is part of the Spanish Gastronomy project jointly coordinated by Google Arts & Culture and the Spanish Royal Academy of Gastronomy.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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