Olive oil is IN, which is interesting considering it’s been around pretty much since man discovered that life was easier with iron tools. After all, how many food staples can you find in both the Old Testament and your kitchen?
So, proving that everything old is new again, olive oil — specifically, extra-virgin olive oil — is not only the star ingredient of The Mediterranean Diet, a hip weight-loss stratagem, it’s the only cooking oil advocated by holistic health guru Dr. Andrew Weil and the hero in medical studies of everything from cardiovascular health to gallstone mitigation.
To top it off, it’s Rachael Ray’s fave. Any fan of the popular Food Network personality can tell you — EVOO is an essential component to tasty salads and fine cooking.
Grocery shelves reflect the trend with an everincreasing range of olive oil types — the “lite” version with little olive taste, the authentic standard from Italy, the dark Kalamata oil from Greece, the organic Paul Newman brand line and the flavored or infused oils, from lemon to chili pepper.
“Extra-virgin (olive oil) is the thing that you really want to use,” says Perry Rea, who last year opened Arizona’s only commercial olive mill in Queen Creek. “All the other oils have a portion of refined oil in them.”
Refined oil, says Rea, is expelled by processes involving heat, solvents or both. Typically, he says, olives rejected as too low-grade for extra-virgin olive oil are used for refined oil.
In contrast, extra-virgin olive oil is made from “pressing,” the term that persists in the industry even though olive oil manufacturers now use centrifugal force to separate olive and oil.
The downside to extravirgin olive oil is that it has a shorter life span than its refined counterpart, which can sit on the shelf for years. Extra-virgin olive oil will eventually oxidize after it’s been bottled and should be used within a few months. Its longevity can be affected by where it’s stored, so a dark cabinet is preferable. You can tell it’s rancid by an off smell. Rea keeps his stock from oxidizing by storing it in airtight 55-gallon drums.
The trick, he says, is to not buy it in bulk unless you use it in bulk — such as the 35 local restaurants that now buy oil from Rea.
Household-sized bottles of Queen Creek brand can also be found at AJ’s Fine Foods or at the busy storefront Rea opened this year on a whim in front of the mill. Products include a variety of stuffed olives, olive oil lip balm, aromatic olive oil body lotion and, of course, extra-virgin olive oils.
Natalie Pheifer, who works at the mill, says her favorite is the blood orange-infused oil, which, she says, works great with the Asian cooking she does. “I also cook a lot of lamb, and it goes just beautifully,” she says.
Beyond the extra-virgin distinction, olive oils can be blended to achieve different tastes, from buttery to peppery, says Rea. The flavor hinges on the type of olive — such as Mission, Frantoio or Grappolo — and the degree of ripeness when harvested, says Rea, a trained master blender.
He uses his own 1,000 trees for oils and stuffed olives as well as orchards maintained by the University of Arizona’s agricultural program and the Gila River Indian Community (where there are 50,000 trees). Additionally, he gets oil from locals bringing in their own olives for pressing during the harvest season from mid-October to December. In the custom of European cooperatives, the mill exchanges olive oil for olives rather than charging a fee.
While the oil isn’t certified as organic, Rea says pesticides are not necessary for locally grown olives.
“We are very lucky in Arizona because there are no natural predators that will harm the olives,” he says.
Rea says the olive oil business was a natural fit for him, his wife and his three teenage daughters, all of whom participate in the creation of olive oil-based products. It was at dinner four years ago that the couple made the sudden decision to move here from the East Coast — leaving behind his family’s lucrative business of making automotive parts for GM, Nissan and other major manufacturers (they had 13 locations in the U.S. and Canada).
“I’m a first-generation Italian — both of my parents are from Italy — and a big part of that is cooking,” says Rea. “And olive oil is in every dish we make.”
How olive oil is made
Harvesting: Olives are harvested by hand or by gentle release methods. No pesticides are used because the primary threat, the olive fly, cannot survive Arizona summers.
Cleaning: Stems, twigs and leaves are removed with a defoliator; then olives are washed with water.
Crushed: A hammer mill grinds the olives, crushing the entire olive, pits and all, into a coarse paste. While the pits add flavor, most olive oil is derived from the flesh.
Mixing: The olive paste is blended slowly for up to 40 minutes in a large mixer with spiral mixing blades. The process is called malaxation, which allows the small oil droplets to combine and form into bigger ones. This first stage of separation is necessary before the mixture is put into a centrifugal decanter.
Separation: Centrifugal force in a two-stage step is used for the final separation of oil from solids.
Decanting: Oil is transferred to an oxygen-free stainless steel drum with a conical bottom where the oil and water separate naturally. The oil is then passed through a paper filter to remove impurities.
Blending and storing: A master blender mixes the oils to acquire a target taste, whether fruity, peppery, grassy, bitter or buttery. The mixed oil is transferred to oxygen-free stainless steel tanks, where it is kept fresh until bottled.
Source: Queen Creek Olive Mill