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The Greek liquid gold May 28, 2007

Posted by grhomeboy in Food Greece.

The best olive oil is this year’s. Freshly pressed can’t be beat.

In a small taverna in Messinia, the gentleman next to me picked up the bottle from the table, held it to his nose and sniffed. He poured a small amount into a glass and swirled it several times. He sipped and rolled it around his tongue before swallowing, and noted it was “last year’s olive oil.”

I was visiting the Peloponnese region to see firsthand the harvesting and pressing of olives into oil. Freshness is key to great extra-virgin olive oil. While that bottle of last year’s oil was still good, the olive oil expert knew it didn’t come close to the fresh grassiness, bitter almond and berry sweetness that the oil held when first pressed.

This year’s pressing has come to an end. The olives that were harvested and pressed into oil in Greece and all the olive regions of the northern hemisphere during November through January are now appearing on store shelves in the cities. It’s time to take advantage of the freshest olive oil you can buy outside of heading to the Mediterranean  during pressing time.

Look on the label or bottle for a date that indicates either when the oil was harvested or the “use by” date. The harvest date should fall close to the end of 2006 or early 2007, and the “use by” dates can be good up to 2008 or early 2009.

As you drive through Greece, you see craggy olive trees, some of them centuries old, growing in the dry, rocky soil. It’s easy to fall in love with the striking countryside. The mountains and hills that rise on all sides and around every bend suddenly drop off to meet the azure sea. White stucco houses with red tiled roofs cling to the hills, and surprises await as you drive around the curves. Four tables are set up with linens, red flowers and carafes of olive oil, waiting for the lunch trade with no visible town or traffic in sight.

The olive harvest in Greece and many parts of the Mediterranean still takes place by hand on small family farms. The olives are laboriously stripped from the trees with small plastic rakes that resemble toys made for playing in the sand. The olives and leaves fall onto nets that snake through the grounds.

They are bundled into burlap bags, gently stacked onto wagons and driven immediately to the local olive mill for processing. Time is of the essence, and the Greeks process their olives around the clock to ensure top quality. The olives never sit for longer than a few hours from the time they are picked to when they are crushed into oil, to ensure top quality. This attention to detail shows, in that 80 percent of the oil in Greece is top-quality extra-virgin olive oil.

The farmers work closely with the olive mills, most ties go back generations. While technology is accepted and flourishes in this ancient land, there are still traditional stone mills such as the Giorgos Skarpalezos Mill in Messinia that processes olives according to classic techniques. As you enter the tiny structure, you have to walk carefully on stone floors that are uneven and worn smooth from centuries of use. The sound of the grinding wheels fills your ears. What strikes the senses most, however, is the heavy smell of olives that envelops you.

The olives are washed and separated from their leaves. First they are coarsely broken, then crushed between two massive horizontal stone wheels, the centerpiece of the room, where they become paste. The olive paste is quickly scooped by hand into heavy linen bags that are stacked 20 high. Pressure is gradually applied from above to extract the oil into a trough below.

The oil is vivid green, and produces a pronounced bite at the back of the throat. In a nod to technology, the oil is pressed using hydraulic power in place of muscle power as in the past. The term “first pressing” comes from this method. Less olive oil is obtained from this traditional method, but the quality is better because it retains the essence of the olive. Unfortunately, demand for this olive oil is high and it’s rarely exported.

Today most olive oil is obtained using the centrifuge method. These facilities lack the romance of the stone mills, but production is surprisingly similar to the traditional method up to the point of oil extraction. Instead of pressing the olive paste to obtain oil, today the paste is spun in centrifuge tanks.

The green fragrant oil rises to the surface and pours out a spout. It’s clearer than traditional stone-milled oil but still retains the fragrance of fresh olives. The pace and demand is great; one small local mill bottled 70 tons of oil between December and January.

Fortunately, those of you who don’t live in Greece or other olive-growing regions can still enjoy the taste of this year’s olive oil. Look for it now before it becomes “last year’s olive oil.”

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