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Olive oil, liquid gold

Some call it liquid gold. Many think it is the most important ingredient of the Mediterranean diet. Due to its high content of monounsaturated acids, it is unanimously considered an essential food in the healthy diet, a natural antioxidant. But when we arrive at the store, do we know how to distinguish good olive oils from others? Why are there such big differences in the price? Are there good options in the Oeste region for those who want to consume local products?

We will try to cover these questions in the following discussion, deliberately basic in some points, to help also our international friends to approach a product that outside the Mediterranean countries is still a relatively unfamiliar product. If we look at the consumption statistics per person, Greece, Spain, Italy, Portugal and Cyprus are at the top, with levels between 12 and 5 liters per person per year. But in France it does not reach two liters and in Germany or the United Kingdom it does not reach a liter. Outside of Europe, consumption is growing notably in Australia and the United States but still with modest amounts. The consumption in China is also growing, although obviously the figures per person are not significant given the size of the population; but it is easy to see the increasing importance that olive oil is achieving there if we see that in recent years the hectares planted with olive trees add the equivalent product as that of the province of Jaén (the main olive oil producer province in Spain), the vast majority of these new trees in the valley of the Bailong River, with a climate similar to the Mediterranean, and a name very appropriate to approach our culture (bailón means dance enthusiast in Spanish).

For those who come to the store and do not know anything about olive oil, the first thing to keep in mind is that the highest quality is the extra virgin olive oil, pure olive juice, with excellent flavor and the best nutritional properties. It is used a lot in salads or dishes that lend themselves to appreciating more that flavor. Perhaps the best way to try and get to know it is simply with bread and some salt, which is a very common breakfast in many homes in the Iberian Peninsula.

The next level of quality is the virgin olive oil and finally the refined, which is used more for stir-fries, as it withstands better the high temperatures and has a lower price.

As with grapes, with olives there are also different varieties, with different flavors. And also protected designations of origin, which must use the varieties of that particular area. There are many different flavors of olive oil and it is just a matter of trying and discovering the ones that suit more our tastes. The color is not very relevant in relation to the taste; normally it is greener if less mature olives are used and more yellow with more mature olives, but in both cases the flavor depends more on the variety of olives than on the color of the oil.

One point that is important to mention and that is different from wine is that the olive oil deteriorates over time and, especially, with light. Therefore, it is convenient to buy and consume the olive oil as close as possible to its commercialization date and keep the bottle stored out of the light. It is for this reason that the best brands tend to use dark glass bottles or wrap the bottle with an opaque plastic.

The Oeste region does not have large olive groves but in the neighboring region of Ribatejo it is a very important product and since medieval times there is evidence of Santarem as a major center of production of quality olive oil. Hence, among the six protected designations of origin in Portugal, one is precisely “Azeites de Ribatejo DOP”.

For those who want to try some of the olive oils that are produced in the area, you can start by three brands that have received several international awards and represent very well the excellence within the local producers.

The first recommendation is Cabeço das Nogueiras, from the young company SAOV, created in 2004 but which has already received several awards with its successful combination of technological innovation and traditional flavor. The second would be Casa Anadia, from a company with great olive oil tradition since the seventeenth century that makes a firm commitment to quality rather than quantity. And the third is Colheita das Lezírias, one of the premium options of the house Gallo, which is one of the most important olive oil companies in Portugal and has its headquarters in the city of Abrantes, next to the river Tajo.

The first one can be found for about 9 euros a bottle of 500 cc, exclusively in specialized olive oil stores and gourmet stores. The second one can be found in Continente, for about 7 euros a bottle of 500 cc. And the third one is the most mainstream and can be bought for about 6 euros a bottle of 750 cc.  

But, returning to the similarities with wine, there are excellent extra virgin oils for very affordable prices, from 5-6 euros per liter, and our recommendation is that each person tries different options and varieties and finds the ones that best suit their tastes. There is a world of flavors to discover.

And you? Do you have any olive oil that you especially like? Any recommendations for our community?