Fossilized olive leaves found on the Greek islands of the Aegean are said to be 50-60,000 years old, and the systematic cultivation of olives trees is said to have begun on the island of Crete in Neolithic times. Greek ties to the olive tree run deep, indeed.
Greece is one of the top three olive oil producing countries, and Greek olive oil is the finest in the world. Here's what to consider before you buy:
Top Grades of Olive Oil
Extra Virgin Olive Oil: Exceptional quality, aroma and taste. The oil is from the first pressing of the olives with no chemicals or hot water added during processing. Acidity up to 0.8 percent. About 70 percent of Greece's olive oil is "extra virgin."
Virgin Olive Oil: Also from the first pressing, the quality is not quite as exceptional. Fine aroma and taste, acidity up to 2 percent.
There are also several lesser grades.
Color and Clarity
Green oil is most likely a product of green olives, harvested before ripening, and is highly prized by many. Golden-yellow olive oil is generally the product of olives that have been allowed to ripen longer. Both green and golden-yellow oils can be extra virgin oils. Olive oil can also be cloudy if it has not settled, which is not an indication that it's poor quality.
Taste and Smell
A bitter or sharp taste usually indicates that the olives were not ripe when picked. Oil made from ripe olives has a mild, fruity taste. Taste is entirely a matter of preference, and oils made from both unripened and ripened olives have wide appeal.
If an olive oil smells bad, don't buy it or use it. Rancidity caused by oxidation is the most common reason for a bad smell, and it causes the oil to smell like dirt.
While the International Olive Oil Council allows acidity of up to 3.3 percent for human consumption, consumers should look for acidity levels under one percent and lower in an extra virgin olive oil. Acidity affects the taste and is a determinant of quality.
What it Says on the Label
To be assured of excellent quality Greek olive oil, read the label. It should be clearly marked "Extra Virgin Olive Oil," and acidity levels will be at or below 0.8 percent. Look for the area or region where the oil was produced, and verify that it is, indeed, from Greece.
Consider Testing More Than One
Try buying more than one olive oil in small containers to taste and experiment. You may find that taste (and price) differs in extra virgin olive oil (and other grades) from brand to brand, even when the color looks the same. Shop smart, and shop Greek!
Olive oil used for making dressings and sauces, and drizzling over fresh vegetables, salads, and cheeses should be fine quality extra virgin Greek olive oil to allow full enjoyment of the exceptional taste and aroma. For high heat cooking, where the aroma is degraded, consider a lower grade (and less expensive) olive oil.