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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 15 December 2018

Our pressing affair with olive oil

Harvested for thousands of years, it still surprises us. How well do you know your olive oil?

A Palestinian farmer examines olives about to be pressed in the West Bank city of Ramallah on October 13, 2009. Palestinian farmers across the West Bank are starting to harvest their olives, with many making their own olive oil and soap for themselves and to sell. AFP PHOTO/ABBAS MOMANI
A Palestinian farmer examines olives about to be pressed in the West Bank city of Ramallah on October 13, 2009. Palestinian farmers across the West Bank are starting to harvest their olives, with many making their own olive oil and soap for themselves and to sell. AFP PHOTO/ABBAS MOMANI

Some 8,000 years after olives were first harvested and pressed to produce oil by the civilisations of Greece and Syria, vast tracts of olive trees, with their green and silvered leaves, can be found across the Middle East and Europe.

Culinary expectation has never made more demands of this green liquid gold. First, let’s be clear about one thing: colour is not indicative of quality. The best oils range in colour from emerald green to golden yellow. The key is in the flavour. There are hundreds of types of olives, ranging in taste from tart and fruity to a more sophisticated, bitter finish.

From rich, smoky, fruity Kalamatas, dolce (sweet) Castelvetranos to wildly intense Qaisis, there are countless varieties of olives to get to know and savour.

With so many to choose from, it’s an opportunity to be creative in your cooking: from marinating to seasoning and stuffing. The list of uses for olive oil seems infinite and the possibilities have inspired chefs around the world to create dishes the celebrate the different seasons.

These little green gems start their long journey from tree to table holding on tightly to craggy landscapes, weathering the most extreme of climates. As luck would have it, the varieties get their distinctive qualities from their genetics, region and climate. Bursting with different flavour profiles, from extra virgin to fine virgin oils, a drizzle of olive oil on a simple dish can make taste buds tingle.

Most of the world’s olive oil supply is produced from trees grown in Spain, Italy, and Greece, but other areas, including France, the Middle East and California, are in on the fun, too. For instance, Spanish olive oil has a green-golden yellow colour with more fruity and nutty flavours. Italian oil tends to be dark green, with a herbal, grassy flavour, while Syrian oil is golden with a green hue that is very aromatic.

It is no secret that olive oil has health benefits, from lowering levels of blood cholesterol, yet maintaining “good” HDL-cholesterol, to supposedly minimising the risk of some types of cancer, a result of its high antioxidant content, especially vitamin E.

Studies have also suggested that olive oil can help reduce symptoms of hypertension. In short, olive oil is a healthy fat, packed with beneficial fatty acids and powerful antioxidants, and has long been a dietary staple for some of the world’s healthiest populations.

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That given, it’s surprising that many people believe olive oil is unsuitable for cooking. Studies have shown that olive oil is one of the most stable vegetable oils under cooking and heating conditions, such as frying and sautéing. This is because olive oil is high in monounsaturated fatty acids, which are resistant to heat.

In addition to this, the antioxidants it contains protect the oil from damage during heating, even over high heat for long periods of time.

Every variety of olive oil has its specific uses in the kitchen. The secret to cooking with olive oil, like anything else, is to find harmony among flavours. Don’t overwhelm your dish, but find a balance that will allow the oil to be fully appreciated.

A good rule of thumb is to pair like with like: robust oils work with strongly flavoured or seasoned foods, such as meats, spicy dishes and cured fish. On the other hand, a mild oil is best suited to mellow flavours that would not be overpowered by anything stronger, like salads and desserts.

This simple, yet flavoursome Spanish recipe takes advantage of spicy garlic and sun-dried chillies, which also grow abundantly in the Mediterranean.

It’s optional, but cooking this in a Spanish terracotta casserole dish (known as a cazuela) adds something exotic and traditional. The delicious full-flavour of garlic and the warm, smoky heat of dried chilli will infuse together in a good quality, buttery extra virgin olive oil.

If you fancy an afternoon snack, more commonly known in Spain as a merienda, to share with friends, where both savoury and sweet can be enjoyed, then this is the recipe you need to know.