Not Simply Pure—Olive Oil

Elizabeth Garone

Writer’s comment: I thought of events I had been involved in, foods and objects that I wanted to know more about: my experience at a nude beach, saffron, beads.... Initially, I picked the nude beach. What a bomb that was! So I kept thinking and finally one night, in the shower, as I was moisturizing with my favorite substance, it came to me—olive oil.
      “Why olive oil?” My classmates and professor queried me. No one appeared excited at the prospect of reading an article on olive oil. At this point, some might say, it was time to find a new subject. But I disagree. The enthusiasm for the subject must first come from you and not necessarily your audience. Like everything else, it will show sorely if you choose a catchy subject (dictated by someone else) but not one that really excites or enlivens you. ( And it’s such a challenge to prove people wrong!)
      Talk to people. Ask them about your subject. Much of the information I found came from simple conversations, not from formal interviews. It is in these casual conversations that you get the anecdotes and tidbits that make an essay worth reading. Finally and most importantly, fun, both for the reader and writer, is the key to writing.
—Liz Garone

Instructor’s comment: Although students who take English 103C are assigned to write certain types of articles—reviews, features, profiles—they generally choose the subject matter of their articles. For their final assignment they must first write a query letter in which they pitch their proposed piece to an actual magazine. This assignment is designed to get them to analyze various publications, their audiences, and the kind of articles these magazines actually publish. For the article itself, students must write a long feature (2,000-3,000 words) in which they demonstrate that they’ve not only learned how to do appropriate research (this often consists of personal and telephone interviews rather than trips to the library), but that they can write a long article which will keep the reader’s attention. To be successful, articles must be both interesting and well-written. Liz Garone’s feature on olive oil is just that. Her range of sources is impressive: friends, cookbooks, ravioli makers, a 12th century Tunisian doctor, and her own memories of growing up in an Italian family—all celebrate the virtues of olive oil. But her article is also seamlessly organized and fascinating in its wealth of detail. Be warned, though—after reading Liz’s piece you may find yourself hungry for Italian food (or perhaps wanting a facial...).
—Eric Schroeder, Lecturer, English Department

When I think of olive oil, a picture suitable for a postcard comes to mind: rows of olive groves, pasta figgoli, Pavarotti singing, and Grandma Garone rubbing olive oil on the heads of my father, Vincenzo, and his brother, Francisco. Their hair would take on the Italian look: dark and sheen, slicked back, reminiscent of John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. Grandpa Garone owned acres of olive groves in a small village outside of Naples in Southern Italy. Each day, his workers collected the olives and made batches of fresh olive oil. When my grandparents came to America in 1925, they smuggled in as much olive oil as they could carry—12 gallons worth—for fear they would find nothing like it here.
      Pungent, thick, and drab to emerald green in color, olive oil comes from the fleshy pulp of the fruit of an evergreen tree grown exclusively in temperate climates: Spain, Southern Italy, Greece, and, more recently, California. In 1775, the first California olive trees were planted around the state at the various Spanish missions. Today, California’s olive oil industry constitutes less than 0.5 percent of world production because only 3 percent of the 110,000 tons grown in California is used to make olive oil. The rest is canned and consumed as olives; preserving the olives costs less and is more time efficient than pressing for oil. California has four major varieties of olive: Manzanillo, Mission, Sevillano, and Ascalano. The Mission, named for the Spanish missionaries who introduced it, is most commonly used to make oil because of its high oil content and its “low pit to flesh ratio.” More than 300 other varieties of olives are grown in California. Sounding like female characters in a Fellini film, the Nevadillo, Picholine, Rubra, Pendulina, and Chemali are five grown especially for their high oil content.
      Today, olive oil is classified by its degree of acidity: extra virgin, superfine virgin, virgin, and pure. What is “extra virgin”? Any of the oils labeled virgin refer to oil which has been cold pressed. Oil of this type is made by shaking the tree, placing the fallen olives into a net, and wrapping it around a cement cylinder. The first oil to fall is “first pressed” and almost always extra virgin. To ensure the best quality, look specifically for the words “first pressing” on the bottle; this guarantees the oil was cold pressed and made exclusively from the initial pressing. This oil is in its most concentrated and potent form. Extra virgin olive oil must have an acid content of less than 1 percent; extra superfine virgin, between 1 and 2 percent; extra extra superfine virgin, between 2—3 percent; and virgin, no more than 4 percent. Olive oil labelled pure is really not pure at all. Made from the leftovers, it is extracted from the paste remaining in the press after the virgin oil has been removed. Sometimes it is blended with the virgin oils for better taste.
      According to Clint Miller, manager of Lucca Ravioli Company in San Francisco, the specifications are enforced by the International Olive Oil Industry and must be obeyed by the olive oil industry worldwide. The terminology was “invented” as a standard to regulate a previously unregulated industry and subsequently to improve the quality of olive oil worldwide. More than 60 geographical regions produce olive oil, and all have agreed to abide by the percentages and specifications. Spain is the largest producer and exporter of olive oil.
      While the use of these standards began in the 1950’s, olive oil has been around for centuries, dating back to at least 3000 B.C. on the island of Crete. The Greeks rubbed it on their faces daily to make smoother, clearer, more delicate skin. I remember the first time I tried that, purely by accident. I was in the shower at my parents’ house and had forgotten my moisturizer. Eying an unopened bottle of E. Sapel Extra Virgin Olive Oil on the counter, I grabbed it, jumped back into the shower, and covered my entire body with it. For the whole day, I smelled like my grandmother’s kitchen. My father even complimented me on my new perfume. Only later when he went to make the salad dressing did he notice the less than full bottle. That night, my legs were still smooth and soft. There were none of the usual signs of a New York winter: scales or dryness.
      I have been stealing my father’s olive oil ever since. These days, I am a little more discreet; when I go to visit, I bring an empty moisturizer bottle and siphon small quantities from his perpetually stocked collection. According to the experts, olive oil can be kept for up to two years as long as it is stored out of direct light to prevent rancidity; sunlight destroys it. Olive oil left in the refrigerator will turn opaque and appear fermented. The cold does not actually hurt the oil, only solidifies it. Unlike wine, olive oil does not improve with age. It is supposedly best used one year after pressing. I think the fresher the oil, the better, especially if it is for your skin. Therefore, buy or pilfer only in small quantities.
      I am not alone in using olive oil as a moisturizer. Kiss My Face, a company in New Paltz, New York, came out with a line of skin and hair products with Greek olive oil and Aloe Vera as the two main ingredients. “For centuries, Mediterraneans have nourished and conditioned their hair and skin with olive oil while here Indians utilized the amazing properties of the Aloe Vera plant” reads the back of their conditioner bottle. (This script would have you believe olive oil and Aloe Vera had just been rediscovered.) My advice is take the $5.95 you would spend on packaging and buy yourself: 1 good bottle of extra virgin olive oil, 1 egg, 1 lemon, and 1 can of beer. After shampooing, combine these ingredients and rub them into your hair. (Only use 1/4 cup of olive oil, not the whole bottle!) Leave the mixture on for 5 minutes, then wash it out. This is an old folk remedy for shiny, conditioned hair, and it really works. Nothing beats the real thing—especially not when you are using first pressed, extra virgin olive oil.
      Olive oil’s uses are varied and limitless. I remember when I told a friend about my wonderful discovery of using olive oil as a moisturizer. He said he had been using it as a sexual lubricant for years. According to him, women love it. It makes them feel as if they are with an Italian man. Upon hearing about this unusual practice, a woman I know confided in me that as a teenager she had heard the line that when used as lubricant, extra virgin olive oil works as a form of birth control. After the destruction of Acropolis and its olive tree by the Persians in 480 B. C., the tree of the temple of Erechteum sprouted in its place as an eternal symbol of fertility. In a recent television advertisement for a national brand of olive oil, Bertolli, the olives are described as “pressed gently but with vigor” during the oil making process. (With words like these, it is easy to forget the subject is olive oil.)
      Besides being a symbol of fertility, the olive branch has been recognized as a symbol of peace, plenty, and wisdom since ancient times. No one can forget the white dove returning to Noah’s ark with the olive branch in its beak, recognized by Noah as a symbol of peace, the end of God’s wrath. During the 12th century, a Tunisian doctor, Abu Abdullah Mohammed ben Mohammed el-Huseiny el-Ali Billah, prescribed an emulsion of dried orange peels and olive oil to rid the body of tapeworm in his Treatise of the Simple Remedies. Another use, this one invented by the Greeks, was as a cure for drunkenness. Before drinking heavy amounts of alcohol, the Greeks would swallow a tablespoon of olive oil, which would prevent them from getting sick during the night or the next morning. A carpenter I know uses olive oil as a wood conditioner to protect the oak cutting boards he makes by hand. He says it also works great for fixing squeaky doors. The only problem is the cost. Olive is one of the more expensive types of oil, second only to walnut and avocado oil. Different brands and qualities vary greatly in price, ranging from $2.89 for a 16 ounce plastic bottle of Oberti “Gourmet Quality” Pure Olive Oil to $5.19 for an 8.45 ounce glass carafe of Gaeta Itri Extra Virgin Cold Pressed Olive Oil. If you can afford it, I recommend the Gaeta Itri, both for its unsurpassed taste and moisturizing properties. As earlier mentioned, avoid the oil labelled pure. Both your legs and mouth will be sorry if you don’t.
      While there are many non-traditional uses of olive oil, its main use is still in cooking. Olive oil symbolizes good taste and high quality ingredients in today’s cooking. Italians consider it the sine qua non in their food as well as in other Mediterranean cuisines. Lee Iococca recently came out with his own line of specialty products, including none other than extra virgin olive oil. Not surprisingly, here in the United States, olive oil has found its way into desserts. Pastry chef extraordinaire Lindsay Shere has a recipe for Olive Oil and Sauterne Cake in her cookbook Chez Panisse Desserts. A new line of flavored extra virgin olive oils—basil, garlic, and cultured truffle—was recently introduced by the California Truffle Company at quite a steep price, especially for the distinctive truffle variety.
      The United States has seen a recent increase in olive oil’s popularity; consumption jumped from 32 million pints in 1983 to 58 million in 1988. It is difficult to assess what percent goes where: on the body or in the mouth. Today, companies tout olive oil as the best edible oil on the market because of its amazing health properties. Olive oil contains no cholesterol. (This is no major feat, since all vegetable oils are cholesterol free.) Nevertheless, recent studies show olive oil to actually reduce the harmful cholesterol (LDL) in the body while maintaining the more healthy cholesterol (HDL).
      The two top companies in the United States, Bertolli and Berio, have recently “invented” what they term light and extra light olive oil. As with most of the new “light” products on the market, the oils contains no fewer calories and no less fat than the real stuff. But this was obviously not on the minds of the marketing men and women when they developed it. Those in the business, at least at Bertolli and Berio, believe the reason for olive oil’s small share of the edible oil market is its full-bodied and aromatic flavor. Americans do not want too much flavor in their food, especially not in their oil. And olive oil tastes too much like olives. So these two companies have come up with a blend of light-colored and mild tasting oils. Bertolli feels so secure in their new product that they are spending more on its advertising campaign than is the whole olive oil industry combined. In the eyes and mouths of Italian chefs and fans of Italian cuisine, these companies have done nothing more than find a use for the oil which, because of its indistinct flavor, is commonly discarded.
      Olive oil was meant to be full-flavored and potent, enhancing foods not hiding in them like other oils. Kuleto’s, a yuppy but delicious restaurant in San Francisco, started the West Coast trend of serving bowls of extra virgin olive oil with baskets of homemade bread for dipping. In France, Greece, and the hills of Tuscany this is common practice. But here in the United States, it is unique, compared to the bread and butter usually served in Italian restaurants. By serving the oil with the bread, Kuleto’s is supposedly emulating Italian culture, at a pretty high price. Would this practice be so popular if olive oil tasted more like Crisco?
      The distinctive flavor, as well as the romantic and pastoral images conjured up by traditional strong olive oils, make this oil a winner in today’s overflowing market. Even the painter Renoir had something to say about olives: “Regardez cette lumiere dans les oliviers: Ça brille comme un diamant.” (Look at the light in the olive trees: it is brilliant like a diamond.) It is the oil that makes them shine like diamonds. And it is the bucolic images of the Italian countryside that will draw consumers back again and again to the richness of olive oil, both in flavor and on the body.