We’ve all heard that olive oil is good for us, but does that account for its surge in popularity? Supermarkets have entire shelves dedicated to olive oils. Olive oil production and sales have created one of the fastest-growing global industries.
Why the oil boom? I set out to learn more about it and how to buy, store and use good-quality olive oil.
High in monounsaturated fat (the good kind) and polyphenols (an antioxidant), olive oil in moderation can have health benefits like lowering the risk of heart disease, according to published studies.
You can find “liquid gold” throughout much of Europe, as well as parts of South America and in California, which has a relatively small production but a Tuscan-like climate that results in a somewhat fruity olive oil.
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Spain is the world’s No. 1 exporter of olive oil, followed by Italy and Greece. However, Italy and Greece produce higher volumes of extra-virgin olive oil than Spain. The Greeks keep much of their oil for themselves, with Greek exports only accounting for 11 percent of the world olive-oil market.
“Tasting olive oil is like tasting wine,” said Marco Todoerti, manager of the store Made in Italy in Miami’s Wynwood district. “The region, land and climate make the difference.”
Personal taste also matters.
When choosing an olive oil, determine what flavor profiles you like, whether it’s an assertive olive flavor, a little bitter-peppery aftertaste or a mild, buttery finish. Avoid oils with musty or rancid characteristics, telltale signs something has gone bad.
Faced with a shelf of olive oils, it’s important to understand what you are buying.
▪ Buy olive oil in dark bottles, boxes or cans. They’re better than clear packaging, which allow light to affect olive oil’s quality.
▪ Check acid percentages. Lower acidity means higher-quality olive oil.
▪ Look for the harvest date. The best extra-virgin olive oil right now was harvested in October, November or December 2014.
▪ Find the source. European laws require that labels note the olives’ origin and where they were processed. If you see olive oil made from olives sourced all over the Mediterranean, don’t pay a premium for it.
From “Virgin Territory: Exploring the World of Olive Oil,” by Nancy Harmon Jenkins (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $30).
1 1/2 pounds fresh fish fillets (fresh shrimp or scallops also work)
1 cup combined citrus juices (lemon, lime, grapefruit, orange)
3/4 cup fruity olive oil
1/3 cup finely chopped cilantro
1 small red onion, minced
1 ripe red tomato, peeled, seeded and chopped
2 small fresh jalapeno or Serrano chiles, seeded and minced
Lemon wedges, for serving
Cover the fish fillets with the citrus juice in a bowl. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 6 hours, or overnight.
Drain the fish and arrange on a serving platter. Mix the oil, cilantro, onion, tomato and chiles and spoon over the fish. Cover again and set aside until ready to serve. Before serving, taste a small piece of fish. You probably will not need to add more acid since the citrus flavors will have penetrated the fish, but serve it with lemon wedges (or limes) in case someone wants to add more.
Yield: 8 servings as a first course.