Legend has it that when Athens was being built, the people of the new city were looking for a deity to watch over them. Athena, goddess of wisdom and warfare, wanted the job, so she gave the city an olive tree and, based on this gift, which bore little green fruits that produced oil, the people chose her as their protector.
Indeed, olive oil has quite the history; Hippocrates called it “the great healer” and Homer “liquid gold.” For thousands of years it has been the basis of the Mediterranean diet and modern science can now back up what the ancients knew intuitively – that olive oil helps decrease the risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes and tackles a host of other health problems.
As with wine, the key to choosing a good olive oil is knowing how to read the labels. “Extra-virgin” is the highest designation given to olive oil, meaning it has undergone minimal processing so the flavours and aromas remain intact. Beware the word “pure;” ditto the label “light.” Oil is, by definition 100-per cent fat, so what “light” really means is that it has been processed to strip away colour, odour and flavour.
Unlike wine, olive oil doesn’t improve with age, so look for one that lists a harvest date and don’t buy anything older than two years. Store it in the dark as exposure to light and heat will cause it to deteriorate quickly. And disregard the myth that you shouldn’t cook with olive oil because of its low smoke point. It’s actually the impurities in the oil that tend to smoke, so as long as you’re using extra-virgin olive oil, it’s a healthy choice. Just don’t use your most expensive, estate-bottled, fruitiest or most pungent for cooking – those should be for finishing dishes, drizzling on salads or soaking up with fresh bread.
All products shown here are extra-virgin olive oil.
Butter-Infused Olive Oil
Use this creamy oil anywhere you’d use melted butter – on popcorn, shrimp or crab, or mashed potatoes. It’s healthier and a good conversation starter.
$14 for 200 mL at Soffritto, four locations, soffritto.ca
Domenica Fiore Olio Reserva
A fruity, medium-bodied organic finishing oil from Umbria, Italy, it’s lovely drizzled on fish or grilled meat.
$22.98 for 250 mL at the Italian Centre Shop, 9919 Fairmount Dr. S.E., 403-238-4869, italiancentre.ca
This delicately flavoured organic oil hails from Tunisia and is excellent for everyday cooking, plus it comes in a functional and sustainable package.
$21.99 for 2 L at Calgary Co-op, select locations, calgarycoop.com
This estate olive oil from Calabria, Italy, is a long-standing Calgary favourite, for its peppery bite and connection to the local Caracciolo family.
$45.95 for 1 L at Mercato, 2224 4 St. S.W., 403-263-5535, and Mercato West, 5000, 873 85 St. S.W., 403-263-6996; mercatogourmet.com
Vezorla Sierra De Cazorla Royal
Peppery and delicate, this organic Spanish oil was grown, picked, produced and bottled in the Cazorla region.
$39.99 for 500 mL at Lina’s Italian Market, 2202 Centre St. N.E., 403-277-9166, linasmarket.com