OLIVE OIL: Virgin, refined and pure

The Gourmet Shop in the lobby of the hotel where I stayed in Tokyo was aimed at a Japanese rather than foreign clientele. There was a limited variety of chocolate, a few loaves of bread and some minute bottles, no larger than perfume bottles and wrapped in what looked almost like gold leaf, containing olive oil at astronomic prices. I sighed with relief that at home in Turkey olive oil is a fraction of the Tokyo price. Yet we often fail to appreciate this blessing. Recent research has discovered fossils of olive stems and leaves in the upper part of Miocene rock layers, proving that the olive has been around since the tertiary era. That is an astonishing 25 million years.

Archaeological research indicates that Mesopotamia was the home of the olive, from where it was introduced to Anatolia and Egypt. The olive acquired symbolic significance at a very early stage, and crowns of olive branches symbolising justice appear in the wall paintings decorating the tomb of Tutankhamen who died in 1352 BC. For the Greeks and Romans the olive became a symbol of honour.

Olive oil was one of the most valuable commodities exported by Phoenician traders around the Mediterranean, and oil jars from wrecked Phoenician ships are now being recovered from the sea bed around Turkey’s coasts by underwater archaeologists.

Today the olive remains a major crop in the Mediterranean region, and is widely used in its cuisines. As in ancient times, Turkey still cultivates the olive in large quantities, and is one of the world’s five largest producers, with a total of 82 million trees. The principal olive growing regions are the Mediterranean and Aegean coasts, where vast tracts of land are covered with olive groves. Around the northern Aegean town of Ayvalik, for instance, three quarters of farming land is used for olive cultivation. However, considerable quantities are also grown in other areas of Turkey, such as the southern province of Gaziantep on the Syrian border and the Marmara coast.

Olive are easily bruised, and must be gathered with great care. Harvesting begins in December. Part of the crop, primarily the black sele olive, is preserved in brine, while the remainder are used for extracting olive oil. At a time when such emphasis is placed on a healthy diet, olive oil is once again being recognised as superior to other fats. As a result dishes from various Mediterranean cuisines are becoming a source of inspiration for cooks in search of recipes which combine health with exquisite flavour. Turkish cuisine stands out in this respect as the only one in which dishes cooked with olive oil form a distinctive class of their own known as zeytinyagli.

Today the three principal categories of olive oil are virgin, refined and pure. Virgin oil is merely pressed without any refining process, so retaining the most natural flavour. It is characterised by a greenish yellow colour and fruity taste. The finest of all is virgin extra fine with an maximum acid content of one percent.

Virgin olive oil is obtained by the cold press method, and is preferred when usied uncooked for salad dressings or for pouring over other dishes. Oils with an acid content of 4 percent or over, or which do not come up to standard in terms of colour, aroma or taste, are refined to produce a colourless, tasteless oil with an acid content of maximum 0.3 percent. Known as “light” olive oil, this is mainly used in countries where consumers are not accustomed to the natural flavour of olive oil.The third category, referred to as “pure” is a combination of virgin and refined oils with a maximum acid content of 1 percent. This is the type usually preferred for frying or as an ingredient in cooked dishes. Scientific research in recent years has revealed the benefits of olive oil for health, particularly where the heart and arteries are concerned. At a conference organised in Boston in 1993 by the Harvard School of Public Health, experts recommended a dietary system based on that followed for centuries in the Mediterranean region. Called the Traditional Optimal Mediterranean Diet Pyramid, this system places red meat at the top of the pyramid as a food which should only be consumed a few times per month, followed by eggs, poultry and fish to be eaten a few times per week, and at the base of the pyramid olives, olive oil, cheese, yogurt and other dairy products, pulses, nuts, fruit, vegetables, bread, pasta, rice and bulgur, which may be eaten every day. The Turkish cuisine, which represents the most comprehensive synthesis of eastern Mediterranean cooking, fits this pyramid perfectly. In addition to the score or so zeytinyagli dishes cooked in almost every Turkish household, the regional Turkish cuisine of the Aegean features over a hundred such dishes cooked with olive oil. These dishes, which usually feature vegetables without meat but occasionally seafood, are eaten cold with fresh crusty bread as a separate course or a light lunch by themselves. Here is illustrated a selection of unusual Turkish zeytinyagli and other dishes containing olive oil. All will tempt even the most strong-willed dieter to indulge in these deliciously different flavours.

Assorted Greens with Olive Oil

This simple but delicious speciality of the Aegean region uses local wild greens such as deniz borulcesi (Salicornia europaea), wild radish leaves and dandelions.

Poach each variety separately for a few minutes. Sprinkle with salt and olive oil. Deniz borulcesi should be served with tarator (a puree made with bread crumbs, ground walnuts, crushed garlic, olive oil and seasoning).

Seafood Selection Squid ink noodles, Fried Sturgeon and Shrimps with Olive Oil, Paprika and Garlic. Pickled Red Mullet.

Flour red mullet fillets, fry in olive oil and leave to soak in diluted vinegar, sliced garlic, rosemary, thyme, peppercorns, bay leaves, and sweet basil for three days. To serve, sprinkle with lemon juice, olive oil and chopped dill. Prepare a pasta dough and knead in some squid ink. Roll out and cut as desired. Boil with more squid.

Fresh Blackeyed Beans with Artichokes and Aubergine Pur?e Cook young artichoke hearts around 7.5 cm in diameter with olive oil, lemon and salt. Roast the aubergines in their skins over an open flame, scrape off the charred skin and mash with olive oil., salt, lemon juice and enough milk to make a smooth pur?e. Spoon into the cooked artichoke hearts.

Chicken Kofte with Walnut and Pine-kernel Coating with Chestnuts Roast and shell some Bursa chestnuts. Mix minced chicken with plenty of walnuts, pine kernel,. egg, fresh bread crumbs and seasoning. Cover the chestnuts with the chicken mixture dip in flour and beaten egg and fry in olive oil. Serve hot For the sauce put washed rocket, olive oil, lemon juice and a little salt through the blender.

Fish Kofte with Rocket Sauce Stuffed Squid Poach the bonito and when cool flake the flesh. Grate 3 to 5 onions and cook with a little water. Add currants, pine nuts, flaked fish, 3 slices stale bread, cinnamon, allspice, salt and egg and knead well. Form balls and dip by turn into flour, beaten egg and baked bread crumbs, then fry in hot olive oil.

Clean and marinade some small squid. Prepare a classic stuffing of currants, pine kernels, rice, plenty of onion, cinnamon and allspice and stuff the squid. Close the heads and pack in a saucepan. Add water and cook until tender. Before serving, dip in flour and then beaten egg. Fry and serve lukewarm.

Seabass with Quince in Pastry Swiss Chard and Octopus Pilaf

Arrange cos lettuce leaves finely sliced quince and fresh breadcrumbs on philo pastry. Rub fillets of sea bass with olive oil, sprinkle with black pepper and lay over the lettuce and quince. Cover with more thin slices of quince. Fold the edges of the pastry over and bake.

Fry swiss chard and spring onion in olive oil. Add sufficient water for the pilaf and chopped octopus Bring to the boil and toss in the rice. Cook over a low heat. Melt a roll of clotted cream and stir gently into the pilaf.

Sweet Borek with Mastic and Pine Kernels Served with Raspberry Sauce

Boil milk, corn starch, pine kernels and crushed mastic to a very thick mixture. Set aside to cool and beat in eggs. Fold pieces of very thin pastry in two, spread the ground rice mixture 5 cm deep in the centre and fold over the pastry. Place on a greased baking tray and bake. Serve with a syrup of sugar, water and mashed raspberries.

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