Greek Olive Oil
Greece has a long and proud history of pressing Greek olive oil and it is very closely linked to the food and culture of the country. Evidence has been found of olive cultivation and Greek olive oil production going back over 50,000 years.
Over the years, olive oil has been used for cooking, religious ceremonies, for lighting in oil lamps and for personal skin care products including soaps, cosmetics and lotions/oils.
Greece is the third largest producer or olive oil, behind both Spain and Italy. The island of Crete is the center of commercial olive oil production in Greece. Greek olive oil is well renowned for its quality and a lot of top quality olive oil is made from Kalamata olives. In the prestigious New York International Olive Oil Competition held annually in New York City, Greek olive oils are always winners of top awards for quality.
In an acknowledgement of the quality of Greek olive oil, in 2015, Costco changed their house brand Kirkland Olive Oil to olive oil sourced from Greece.
Buying Olive Oil
There are several grades of olive oil which denote the quality and flavor.
Cold pressed, extra virgin or virgin olive oil is generally what you want to buy. Virgin means it is from the first pressing of the olives. Cold pressed means no chemicals or heat were used, only pressure to squeeze the oil from the olives creating a healthy and natural oil.
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Cold pressed Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO) is the highest quality olive oil. It is good for salad dressings and other cold (raw) uses. High quality and aromatic. Unfiltered EVOO will be cloudy and filtered oil should have a clear color. In order to be labeled EVOO is has to have low acidity levels. This is olive oil in its purest form, basically freshly pressed olives put into a bottle. It is also the most expensive type of olive oil.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO) can be used for low to medium heat cooking. You do not want to use cold-pressed oil for cooking.
So yes, if you are a heavy user of olive oil you probably need both Cold pressed EVOO and EVOO in your kitchen as they have different uses and flavor profiles.
Olive oil is considered to be one of the healthiest oils and is an integral part of the healthy Mediterranean diet. There are many health benefits of a diet high in olive oil including improved heart health, lower risk of diabetes and other diseases including Alzheimer’s, osteoporosis and cancer.
If you want more information on what type of oils are healthy and what is the best use of certain types of oil for cooking, this article on Healthy Cooking Oils might be helpful.
Olive Oil in Greece
One of the things we found fascinating about Greece is the fact most families grow their own olives and then have them pressed for personal use. Olives and olive oil in Greece is very much a family affair, and this tradition still continues today.
Naxos produces a lot of agriculture and olives have been and continue to be an important crop both for commercial production and for personal cultivation.
In the Naxos village of Eggares you can visit a traditional olive press and see how the process of making oil took place before industrial machines. The small museum is very well done. Someone walks you through the traditional process of making olive oil and you can ask questions. There are old pictures of the mill and village. There is also a video explaining the process. At the end of your visit you can taste various olive oils and olive products including olive jam, tapenades and olives. The small shop also has a variety of other olive oil-based products including soaps and lotions.
Originally there were over 90 of these small manual olive presses in villages throughout Naxos. Each family would bring their olives to the mill to be pressed. You paid for the use of the press with a small percentage of the olive oil produced. Each family would grow enough olives to produce olive oil to cover their own needs, thus not needing to purchase oil.
Over the years as industrial machines were introduced to press the olives, pressing has become more centralized and these small mills in the villages are no longer used. However, the tradition of each family growing their own olives, harvesting the olives together and then pressing their own oil does continue. Now the olives are taken to the large mill, processed (more quickly) and each family pays a small fee per litre (or you can still pay in olive oil if you prefer).
At one restaurant we ate at, Picasso, on the beach front in Naxos, the family olive oil was for sale. Their family olives were grown on Crete. They were able to produce more than is required for personal use by the family and the excess was bottled and sold, thus providing a modest income. This is not uncommon for families producing larger amounts of olives.
It is fantastic this family tradition has survived. And it is healthy. Producing olive oil from your own trees, freshly harvested means you are getting fresh, pure oil. I love the self sufficiency of it, the health aspects and the way it brings the family together.
If you want to learn firsthand about the importance and tradition of olive cultivation and olive oil production to the Greeks, it is well worth a visit to Eggares and the traditional olive press.