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Home / Things to do / Food and Drink / Olive Oil
Olive Oil

In England it is brown sauce, in France it is fresh cream, in the US it’s probably ketchup, but in Crete the basic ‘sauce’ is olive oil. Actually it is much more than that; it is the Alpha and Omega in cooking. It is healthy, an anti-oxidant, it keeps the bad cholesterol down and the good one up. And it tastes delicious!

Since antiquity olive oil has been the undisputed base for Cretan cooking and the primary source for trade. Indeed, the first home to olive trees in Greece was Crete. In Minoan times, Cretans would grind the olives by hand in stone mills. In the 1960s, at the archeological site of Zakros, a little cup complete with olives preserved in water and vinegar was unearthed. Unbelievable but true, after 3,000 years they were still in an edible state!

The symbol of Crete, olive oil drenches the island’s culture, history and religion. Until the last century olive oil was not just a traditional ingredient. It had monetary value: you could buy and sell with it. It was used in the ‘lýchnos’, the little oil lamp to give light; Even today babies at their baptism are anointed with olive oil. With an annual consumption of 38litres per head, Crete consumes almost twice as much olive oil as the rest of Greece, compared to 25litres in the rest of the Mediterranean and 200ml in Germany. Although it has always occupied a prominent place in Crete, the Venetians were the ones who turned Crete into one of the main export centres for olive oil by planting and cultivating the trees. This continued more or less during Ottoman rule, until today there are 35 million olive trees spread over the island. With an annual production of around 100,000 tons of olive oil, over 75% of the entire annual production can be labelled as extra virgin. In Italy this is 50% and in Spain a mere 30%.

Abundantly used in Cretan cuisine, olive oil and olives, together with ‘hórta’ (wild greens) and bread have helped generations of Cretans survive famine. Even today most Cretans own or have family that owns olive groves. December is picking time: with the traditional harvesting method still in use, olives are carefully thrashed out of the trees – either with sticks or with rotating electric devices. Nets are spread under the trees to catch the ripe fruit that is then collected in jute sacks.

Haste has to be made to press the olives into oil, for in contact with oxygen the fruits develop a bitter taste and all too easily loose their fine, slightly fruity aroma. For best quality results, the temperature while grinding and pressing must not exceed 30°C / 86°F, as this would have a negative effect on the aroma and the vitamins.

About 11 kilos of olives are needed to produce 1litre of oil. Olive oil is sensitive to light, heat, air and damp. If stored in a cool, dry and dark place it keeps for up to 18 months. The non-pressed preserved olives, however, never survive that long: served on small plates and offered around, the delicious fruits are usually eaten within minutes!

Olive oil is classified according to its flavour, colour, aroma and its oleic acidity (fatty acid content, the most important element in determining its grade). As with wine, some people may argue that no oil from two groves tastes alike.

Extra virgin olive oil is derived from the first cold pressing of olives without refining. It has an oleic acidity of less than 1%. It includes no additives and is hardly interfered with, even in harvest and processing. With its fruity taste and aroma, the light and delicate consistency makes it perfect for dressings.

Virgin olive oil also comes from the first pressing without refining, but may have an acidity level of up to 2%. Although its flavour intensity may vary, it is milder than extra virgin olive oil.

Olive oil has a final acidity level of no more than 1.5%. At the initial pressing this level will be much higher, but is brought down to its legal limit by blending the refined oil with premium quality extra virgin olive oil. Milder in taste and colour, olive oil is preferred for frying or flavouring foods that may be overwhelmed by the intensity of extra virgin oil.