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Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Some facts about Greek olive oil

Friends who have visited me from Taiwan or North America always say to me that the extra virgin olive oil we have in Greece smells really good, and after they sample the olive oil with bread or vegetables, they tell me that my olive oil tastes so good and not just smells good.

In fact Greek olive oil is awesome but little known. Read the rest of this post and find out why.

That’s right, real extra virgin olive oil smells good, but the imported “extra virgin” olive oils my visiting friends buy from their hometown supermarkets do not smell the same.  Well, the truth is that if it does not smell good, it is probably blended with other types of oils or it is rancid but is being sold as fresh extra virgin olive oil.

My blogger friend, TaTsou, recently has been approached by some olive farmers in Sitia, Crete who are seeking his help in promoting premium quality olive oil abroad.  TaTsou had served his community service in lieu of military service in nearby town in Crete.  He contacted me since I am also interested in promoting Greek olive oil and especially after my own previous bad experience of buying a bottle of so called Italian made “extra virgin” olive oil in a N. American supermarket, after opening up the bottle the oil had a strange smell.  I feel compelled to share some knowledge with readers about olive oil and especially the goodness of the Greek olive oil.  I am contemplating on starting a separate blog that will cover various topics that are centered on olive oil.

olive field in North Kynouria Βόρεια Κυνουρία
I remember seeing TV news of Greek farmers dumping produce on highways, but didn’t understand what could have triggered such protests that could cause highway congestions and public discontent.

The “potato revolution” started from late February in northern Greece (the story was blogged about here by the Tails of Athens, and reported here by the Guardian), and after reading the details of the stories, I just realized that: It costs Greek potato farmers about 20 Euro cents to produce one kilogram of potatoes, but the wholesale middlemen buy them for not more than 15 Euro cents per kilogram and get the crop to supermarkets where potatoes are sold for at least 65 Euro cents per kilogram, so for decades the middlemen are the winners but both consumers and farmers are the losers.

I feel it is the right thing to do to help the Greek olive farmers since it will benefit both consumers as well as olive farmers.

olive flowers can be seen in late spring
My knowledge is that this year, if I were to sell my excess olive oil (oil that I don’t need to keep for my own family consumption) to the oil processing plant, I will be paid only 2 Euro per kilogram by the processing plant, this is much less than it costs me to produce the oil, namely expenses incurred for fertilizers, branch trimming, maintenance of fields, and olive collection labor, oil extraction fees.  The oil processing plant in turn will sell the oil to those packing companies which are large and famous, but they mix up olive oils from different sources, despite this they can mark-up the price and make huge profits.  So it makes sense to keep my excess oil to give as gifts to other families and friends who have no olive farms or are in economic crisis due to austerity measures.  For small scale oil producers this fact (making no profits) does not matter so much economically, but for the full-time farmers with many olive trees, they may suffer losses after counting so many kilograms of olive oil.   

Greece has by far the largest per capita consumption of olive oil worldwide, over 26 liters per person per year; Spain and Italy, around 14 (from under the subtitle "global consumption"), and because Greeks consume so much olive oil per person, it follows that they want to produce the best olive oil for themselves.  It is very logical that one would want to make the best product for his own consumption, as it turns out Greece has the “highest percentage” of extra virgin olive oil production in the world, about 80% of olive oil produced in Greece is extra virgin, but with such high quality production, the quantity is compromised, and this is one of the reasons why Greece does not have the largest tons of olive oil output, another reason I believe is related to demand and marketing, if Greeks don’t know where to sell their good olive oil, why should they produce more?

What is the definition of extra virgin olive oil?

Before defining “extra virgin olive oil”, one must first understand the definition of “virgin olive oil”.

Virgin olive oil” is the oil obtained from the fruit of the olive tree solely by mechanical or other physical means under conditions, particularly thermal conditions, that do not lead to alterations in the oil, and which have not undergone any treatment other than washing, decantation, centrifugation and filtration.  The acidity of virgin olive oil is less than 2%.

Extra virgin olive oil” comes from virgin olive oil and contains no more than 0.8% acidity; extra virgin olive oil has a superior taste.

I have my own olive farms in 3 different places and last harvest season (winter 2010-2011) we had olives crushed and processed at 40 degree Celsius to produce our olive oil, but this season (winter 2011-2012) we cold-pressed our olives and were able to produce olive oil within 0.25% acidity (much lower acidity than the 0.8% defined by the IOC i.e. International Olive Council), so I guess it could be called “superior extra virgin olive oil” but the output was compromised, the benefit though is that the oil smells and tastes really fantastic.

Extra virgin olive oil accounts for less than 10% of oil in many producing countries; but the percentage is far higher in the Mediterranean countries with Greece: about 80% of olive oil produced is extra virgin, Italy: about 45%, and Spain: about 30%.  If Greece were to produce less percentage of extra virgin olive oil, the total output of olive oil production will be increased.  Besides, many Greek farms are unattended for, so full production potential has not been reached.  But now with the unemployment rate for young people in Greece being nearly 50%, I assume many young people will go back to till the land and start rural life.

Definition of lower-grade olive oils

For olive oil classification of lower-grade types, which most Greeks have little knowledge about since they produce high-end quality olive oil, please go to the link below, it is an official document link to the olive oil classification by the IOC:$FILE/655a.pdf

What is the definition of “first cold pressing”?

Referring to the Reference area at the end of this post, here is the excerpt from the EU document:
(a) the indication "first cold pressing" may appear only for virgin or extra virgin olive oils obtained at a temperature below 27 °C from a first mechanical pressing of the olive paste by a traditional extraction system using hydraulic presses;
(b) the indication "cold extraction" may appear only for virgin or extra virgin olive oils obtained at a temperature below 27 °C by percolation or centrifugation of the olive paste

The health benefits of olive oil

This Mayo clinic link explains some of the health benefits of olive oil

The main type of fat found in all kinds of olive oil is monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs). MUFAs are actually considered a healthy dietary fat. If your diet emphasizes unsaturated fats, such as MUFAs and polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs), instead of saturated fats and trans-fats, you may gain certain health benefits.
MUFAs and PUFAs may help lower your risk of heart disease by improving related risk factors. For instance, MUFAs may lower your total cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels. MUFAs may also help normalize blood clotting.

healthy diet includes using olive oil instead of butter in spaghetti 
How to use olive oil in cooking

When I first came to Greece, I was still used to stir-fry vegetables (and sometimes meat too) by using other types of oils, and was using olive oil occasionally for salad and dipping bread.  Back then my in-laws were wondering why I was buying other types of oils from supermarkets when we ourselves have over-supply of good quality olive oil.

feta cheese with olive oil
After learning the potential health concerns related to high temperature cooking in frying pans, I started to fast-boil vegetables (heating water to its boiling point and dumping in vegetables to cook for a short time) then after removing water just add salt and olive oil for taste, sometimes chopped-up garlic are also added for more intense taste.  I also boil spaghettini / capellini and after removing water my kids really love to eat them with the combination of extra virgin olive oil and Kikkoman soy sauce (not advertising for this brand but this is the only good soy sauce imported that I can find in Greek supermarkets).

Greek people leave their vegetables (such as cauliflower or broccoli) boiling for too long, after removing water they add salt, lemon juice, and olive oil for taste, but I think for best nutritional values, the boiling time should be reduced.

For Taiwanese, they should re-think whether traditional stir-frying is a healthy way of cooking, maybe they can reduce stir-frying frequencies and sometimes use fast-boiling cooking method.  If you still insist on high temperature stir-frying or deep-frying, then blended lower grade olive oil or other types of oils are more suitable for your purpose because extra virgin olive oil loses its nutritional values and burns more easily on high temperature cooking.

boiled beetroots with olive oil & vinegar, garlic mashed potatoe 
Finding alternative transportation means for olive oil

I find the most challenging part of promoting Greek olive oil is the high shipping / transportation cost.  Other than using the regular parcel delivery service by ELTA (Hellenic Post, i.e. Greek post office), the Greek government does not have any special promotional fares (or programs) in place for direct olive oil shipment from farmers to consumers in order to boost Greek exports of olive oil.  Poor Greek farmers are selling oils to friends, their community agricultural co-op, and to smart Italians who have been buying them in bulk quantities to re-pack into smaller bottles.

I hope the future Greek government or some private competitors to the ELTA Hellenic Post will soon provide in-expensive shipment, efficient transportation means to boost our olive oil export potential.

Olive oil is liquid gold

Everyone knows what solid gold is, but not everyone knows what liquid gold is, well olive oil was called “liquid gold” by ancient Greek poet Homer.

Considering the main color of olive oil (some are golden while others may be greenish) and more importantly the health benefits of it, indeed Homer was right!

Thinking of buying direct from farmers?

Different region and different variety of olive trees may give slightly different taste of olive oil.  So I do not recommend one over the other as taste is always depended on personal preference   As a matter of fact, I like to try different olive oils produced from various trees and from different regions, so sometimes I swap my oils with friends.

TaTsou's farmer friend's "mountain" brand olive oils
For general enquiry of TaTsou’s farmer friend’s olive oil, write to this address lasithi.olive.oil AT

For potential buyers of their olive oil, write to this address orino.olive.groves AT

For the location of Sitia (The island of Crete is located on the lowest part of the map, and Sitia is on the most eastern part of Crete) see this link:

For general enquiry of my olive oil, which will be commercialized in the near future, write to this address oliveoilftt AT

my olive oils in a gift box
For more olive photos, click here.


1. Article 5 (a) in the text of this EU document (EUR-Lex-32002R1019) defines the labeling standard for “first cold pressing”

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