The author of Extra Virginity uncovers the historical, medical, culinary and spiritual highlights of fine olive oil.
The fountain of youth, the horn of plenty, the philosopher’s stone, the elixir of life: People have searched and yearned for these things, part myth and part fantasy, for as long as there’ve been people. More often than not—much more often—their search has ended in disappointment.
But not mine. Because like many of the better things that happen in life, I didn’t go looking for great olive oil; it found me. I’d been living in Italy, where I still live and work as a writer, for more than a decade, when one of my editors asked if I’d like to write about olive oil. I agreed. As I researched and wrote that article, and the book that grew out of it—Extra Virginity, a cultural, chemical, culinary and criminal history of olive oil—I gradually began to realise that great olive oil is an authentic elixir of life, as well as a culinary game-changer.
Let’s start by clearing up a few common misconceptions. First of all, olive oil is a fruit juice. Olives are stone fruits, like cherries and plums, and when you crush olives you get olive juice, more generally known as “extra virgin olive oil.” Behind this odd term, “extra virgin,” with its dissonant overtones of sacredness and sex, lie simple facts. To rate as “extra virgin,” an olive oil must 1) be made solely by mechanical means—no chemicals, no high heat; 2) have some perceptible fruitiness; and 3) be free of bad tastes or odours. If there are a couple of flaws, it’s a mere virgin. If more than a couple, it’s lampante, derived from the Italian for “lamp oil.” Lampante oil cannot legally be sold as food, only as fuel.
Note that we’re not talking about olive oil, but olive oils: There are 700 different varieties of olives, from which thousands of different styles of oil are made, depending on how early the olives are picked, how much water the trees soaked up during the season and a range of other agronomic factors. They grade from mild, late harvest arbequinas to big, gnarly, early harvest koroneikis and coratinas. Oil is as complex as wine.
Olive oil has a cultural and historical significance stretching back to the 24th century BC. The Greeks and Romans knew the importance of fresh oil. Their agronomists recommended researching the freshest olive oil, oleum viride (“green oil”), for aristocratic tables and perfume-making, while giving the shoddy oil, oleum cibarium (“fodder oil”), to slaves. Olive oil wasn’t just food in classical times, but was put to a wide range of other uses, as a soap, a skin lotion, a religious offering and a cure for hair loss, stomach aches and certain poisons, not to mention as a preservative, a contraceptive and an aphrodisiac. The Greeks considered anointing one’s body with olive oil a crucial feature of civilised living, which set cultured people apart from those unspeakable barbarians who—horror of horrors!—ate butter or pork fat instead of oil, drank beer instead of wine. The Romans, a more practical and business-minded race, saw the commercial potential of olive oil, and grew it into an international cash crop. Wars were fought over olive oil, and great ransoms paid in it.
Emperors like Marcus Aurelius and Hadrian rose to power on olive oil wealth. It’s no exaggeration to say that olive oil was as important in ancient times as petroleum is today. In fact, the word petroleum is from the Latin words petra and oleum and literally means “olive oil from stone.”
The health benefits of the Mediterranean dietary regime have been praised for centuries, but only today are we beginning to learn why. And as modern medical science turns its electron microscope on the Mediterranean diet, olive oil is coming into focus as one of the key active ingredients.
Researchers are drilling down into the complex mix of 200 microingredients in olive oil, discovering compounds with delightfully tongue-twisting titles that we’d do well to make household names. Hydroxytyrosol is one of several powerful antioxidants contained in olive oil, which fight off free radicals and promote healthy cellular function. Oleocanthal is a natural anti-inflammatory very similar to ibuprofen, which inhibits COX-1 and COX-2 enzymes that cause swelling. Oleuropein has anti-microbial activity, and squalene, a hydrocarbon, is beneficial to the skin. Olive oil is a regular cocktail of health.
In vivo proof through extensive clinical trials is still lacking, but there’s strong in vitro evidence that a diet rich in olive oil helps prevent a range of pathologies including coronary heart disease, stroke, cancers, even degenerative disorders like diabetes and Alzheimer’s. Remember, though, that these medical marvels are present in large quantities only in high-quality oil, not its stale, rancid alter ego. Broadly speaking, an oil’s levels of pepperiness and bitterness indicate the levels of healthful properties it contains. An oil that stings at the back of the throat likely contains oleocanthal, and bitterness suggests other antioxidants such as tocopherol (vitamin E) and squalene.