Can anyone remember a time when olive oil wasn’t in every middle-class kitchen in the Western world? Its present-day popularity is due to an almost infinite list of factors, not least of which are Jamie Oliver’s “glug” measuring method, the rise of “deli” culture, hipster olive-farm owners and, of course, the stuff’s general deliciousness. The late British cookery writer Elizabeth David played a big part too - she famously claimed the only place she could find olive oil in post-war London was in a pharmacy, though others call this a wild exaggeration.
Then there’s its long history. We love ancient: ancient grains, ancient oils, ancient yeasts and vines. Ancient lends both authority and mystery. Biologists and the paleo people will tell you a few thousand years is nothing when it comes to diet but anything as old as a Bible story does seem inarguably oldish.
Over the last few decades, the additional frenzy around oil squeezed from olives, is due to health claims linked to the so-called Mediterranean diet. I say so-called because everything around the notion of a hold-all Mediterranean diet is pretty much a fairy tale. Extra-virgin olive oil is a food that houses some nutrients we need, this is true, but it’s not magic. Either within or independent from a “Mediterranean diet”, olive oil can no more guarantee good health or long life than butter. If you can show me the evidence for that (no, not “my doctor says” or “my Spanish granny is 95”), I’ll buy you an olive farm. A big one.
Local doesn’t always mean better, either taste-wise or environmentally, but in the case of olive oil it really does. The fraud within the industry worldwide is infamous. Some larger companies pay labs to falsify and sign off on the nutritional information placed on bottle labels; dates of manufacture are changed, places of origin are changed. Absolute traceability is the only way to buy the good stuff. And this means buying closer to the source. Anyway, why wouldn’t you? Our local extra-virgin oils are truly (even extraordinarily) glorious and the SA Olive association has increasingly strict policies around labelling and claims. Their website is a good place to investigate the very best of the golden unctuousness that comes from our olive farms.
Pomace alert! The words “olive oil” are so strongly associated with goodness and culinary excellence that even pomace olive oil, the lowest of the low, doesn’t quite get the thumbs down. Pomace is the solid remains of olives after pressing for oil. We will happily pay four times the amount that regular, industrial vegetables oil costs for something which is also extracted with heat and chemicals, containing none of the nutritional benefits or flavours of cold-pressed oil - in fact containing toxins. Pomace oil shouldn’t even be allowed to state “olive oil” on the label. You know what the ancient Romans did with the pulp our industry now uses for it? They used it as fertiliser. Stay clear, I say, and check out www.saolive.co.za for info on local oil treasures.