We’re always on a hunt for the best ingredients. It’s a lifelong pursuit.
For many kitchens, ours included, olive oil is at the center of most meals. Unlike most other popular cooking oils, which are extracted using solvents, extra virgin olive oil is actually fresh pressed fruit.
In this article, we’ll kick off an investigation on how to find the world’s best olive oil by speaking with Anita Zachou about Greek olives, and what makes them so iconic.
Anita is an agricultural engineer and professional olive oil taster. She consults on the production of extra virgin olive oil (EVOO), delivers education at global events and in person tastings through her company, Mykonos Olive Oil Tasting.
She lives and works on Mykonos Island in Greece.
I wanted to see if Anita could help me understand what makes Greek olive oil so unique, and what I should look for when picking out our next bottle of EVOO.
A Tradition Since Antiquity
If I was asked to visualize ancient Greece, some of the most powerful imagery that comes to mind is that of olympic athletes being awarded with ceremonial olive wreaths to celebrate a victory.
No matter how accurate or complete my understanding is of Greek history (spoiler…it’s not great), olives have become an important symbol that many of us associate with the land and culture there.
Today, Greece is one of the top producers of EVOO and leads the world in consumption. The average Greek consumes 26 litres of olive oil annually, on a per person basis.
“Olive Oil has been part of Greek nutrition and culture since antiquity,” said Anita Zachou in our recent conversation, “Homer called it ‘Liquid Gold’ and Hippocrates ‘The Great Healer.’”
“Since the first olive tree was planted in Crete around 3500 BC in the early Minoan times, olive oil became synonymous with the Greek nutrition throughout the centuries contributing to health protection and longevity.”
Why Greek Olive Oil Is The Best
The geography, culture and climate of Greece all contribute to the creation of some of the world’s best olive oil.
Greece sits atop mountainous terrain that rises up out of the Mediterranean Sea. The extensive shoreline of mainland Greece along with the 1,400 islands that surround it are subject to mild winters and long summers with little rain. In these conditions, fruit of the olive tree thrives.
“The climate and landscape offer ideal conditions for EVOO that is rich in phenolic compounds,” says Mrs. Zachou, in reference to the antioxidant power of local olives.
“Some of the olives grown here like Koroneiki, Lianolia, Tsounati, and Nemoutiana varieties carry the world’s highest phenolic profile. From a sensory perspective this is also a great source of intense fruity aromas, bitterness and pungency.”
The Famous Koroneiki Olive
When it comes to sampling Greek olive oil, consider the variety of olive from which your oil has been pressed.
The Koroneiki variety has been called “The Queen of Olives” and is among the most well known in the world. While this type of olive can be produced in other countries, Mrs Zachou explains that Greek-grown Koroneiki is a unique tasting experience.
Koroneiki also represents 60% of the olives produced in Greece.
“With distinctive aromas of freshly-cut grass, tomato, artichoke, herbs, green almond and sometimes banana, a buttery, nutty taste and a peppery aftertaste is the ideal olive oil to accompany almost any dish.
If I was to have only one olive oil in my kitchen, it would be Koroneiki EVOO.”
Make a note, Koroneiki pressed olive oil is a great place for a novice taster to begin.
At the same time, Mrs. Zachou suggests that, “every kitchen should have at least three unique varieties of extra virgin olive oil that represent different intensities (mild, medium, robust) and pair well with different foods.”
Other Varieties You Should Try
Outside of the Koroneiki variety, Mrs. Zachou offered a few recommendations.
Each varietal presents a unique set of characteristics that come with distinct aromas and flavors,
- Kolovi olives from Mytilene
- Lianolia olives from Corfu
- Tsounati olives from Crete
- Makris from Alexandroupolis
“Of course there are many more, but this is a good starting point,” says Mrs Zachou.
“In order to experience the height of the flavors, before pouring olive oil on your food keep it in a small glass to smell and taste. Even if you aren’t a professional taster, you will be able to distinguish aromas between varieties.
Trust your senses, and let them guide you.”
What is the Greek extra virgin olive oil standard?
When dealing with a global food supply chain, it can be difficult to understand what stamps and certifications indicate a quality product. There are several standards available, so I asked Anita what our kitchen should look for.
“When it comes to olive oil, Greece has 19 Protected Designations of Origin (PDO) and 12 Protected Geographical Indications (PGI) registered with the Greek Ministry of Rural Development and Food.”
PDO and PGI certification schemes were introduced by the European Union, and intended to help consumers have confidence they are buying an outstanding olive oil from a region with a good reputation.
In order for a producer to use the PDO name and logo, their olive oil must be grown, produced and bottled all within the designated geography. Moreover, the product must meet a high quality standard, be made using designated olive varieties and production methods.
PGI is a similar, but lower bar for producers to meet. In order to achieve the PGO label, the oil must have at least one characteristic tying it to the geography and at least one stage of the production process must have occurred there.
“If you find a Greek olive oil that is registered as PDO, it is a good indicator that the product has strong links to a geographical area with exceptional know-how. The most famous PDO in Greece is Kalamata, which is known as a leading point of origin for the Koroneiki olive.”
How To Get Started
Get out there and start tasting!
You can find a great bottle of Koroneiki extra virgin olive oil at many supermarkets in North America. That is a great starting point.
Anita says that oil from the koroneiki olive is an, “ideal accompaniment for green salads, roasted or grilled veggies, chicken, beef, fish, soft cheese, soups and stews, sauces, legumes, pasta, pizza, and even ice cream.”
It’s not difficult to locate and taste olive oil from each of the varietals Anita suggested.
I was excited to discover a variety of PDO certified Greek olive oil labels on Amazon. Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised, given that more than 60 percent of cultivated land in Greece is home to over to 132 million olive trees.
That’s a lot of olive oil (and table olives) to be enjoyed.
*All photo images for this article were provided by Anita at Mykonos Olive Oil Tasting. If you happen to be traveling through Mykonos, Greece, don’t hesitate to contact her for local recommendations and to schedule an in person tasting.