Answers to some slippery questions about olive oil

March 18, 2009|BY GINA KIM

Excerpts from an interview with Dan Flynn, executive director of the year-old University of California-Davis Olive Center, which is partially funded by oil made from the trees on campus.

Q: Why has it taken so long for Americans to get on the olive-oil wagon?

A: Olive oil has not been a part of our culture -- large parts of the United States are more into vegetable oils and butter. But consumption has been growing pretty rapidly for the past 25 years or so.

Q: How rapid is "rapidly"?

A: Just to put it into perspective, the average Greek person will consume 24 liters of olive oil a year while the average American consumes about three-fourths of a liter a year -- about the size of a wine bottle. I would expect that's different in California, where we consume more because of the Mediterranean influence on our food.

But now we're consuming 10 times per capita what we did 25 years ago. And even with our low per-capita consumption, we're the fourth-largest consumer of olive oil in the world -- that's based on sheer volume, so we're just behind Spain, Italy and Greece.


Q: Why should we care what grade of olive oil we're eating? Is there a big difference?

A: Yes, there is. What most people are used to in the United States frankly is the flavor of defective olive oil. One way to look at it is when an olive oil has defects, it means either the fruit was defective before it was milled or it's been stored improperly -- and so you're tasting the flavor of spoiled food.

Q: What should we look for when buying olive oil?

A: Freshness is No. 1. Olive oil doesn't get better with age. So look at the date on the bottle and see if there's an expiration date.

Q: How do you know when an olive oil has gone bad?

A: You have to taste it. Rancidity is the key factor -- rancidity occurs when oxygen interacts with the oil.

Q: What makes olive oil unique?

A: If you do a search in the Bible or even the Quran, you would see olive oil pop out a lot -- it has a long, long history. ... It's one of the few oils that's made simply by grinding the fruit and extracting the oil without any solvents or heat, which is the way most seed oils are produced. Most vegetable or seed oil is refined comparatively to how crude oil that goes into your car is refined.

Q: We keep hearing about the health benefits of olive oil. What are they?

A: Olive oil is high in monounsaturated fat, which has been correlated with improved cardiovascular health. It also lowers bad cholesterol, and I believe is the only oil associated with that kind of effect. It also has a lot of antioxidants associated with fighting cancer.

(Gina Kim can be reached at


Serves 4

1 medium head of garlic, cloves peeled and thinly sliced4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil8 (1/2-inch-thick) baguette slices1 quart chicken broth1/2 teaspoon dried hot red pepper flakes4 large eggsSalt to taste1/2 cup packed small fresh cilantro sprigs4 lime wedges

Cook garlic in oil in a deep, 10-inch heavy skillet over low heat, stirring occasionally, until tender and pale golden, 8 to 10 minutes. Transfer garlic to a bowl with a slotted spoon.

Add bread slices to skillet and cook over moderate heat, turning once, until browned, about 4 minutes. Divide toasts among 4 large soup bowls.

Add broth, red pepper flakes and garlic to skillet, and bring to a simmer. Break 1 egg into a cup and slide egg into simmering stock. Repeat with remaining eggs. Poach eggs at a bare simmer until whites are firm but yolks are still runny, 3 to 4 minutes.

Transfer eggs with slotted spoon to toasts and season with salt. Ladle soup into bowls and top with cilantro. Serve with lime wedges.

-- Olive Press

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