As most of us already know, plants have a starring role in nutrition. One of the key benefits found in more than 8,000 identified plants are phytochemicals. Also known as polyphenols, phytochemicals function as both antioxidants and anti-inflammatory nutrients in the body. One excellent source of polyphenols is extra virgin olive oil. Long associated with the Mediterranean Diet, extra virgin olive oil is also recognized for its high percentage (70 to 85 percent) of monounsaturated, omega-9 fatty acid.
According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, (part of the United States National Library of Medicine — a branch of the National Institutes of Health), “Polyphenols are secondary metabolites of plants and are generally involved in defense against ultraviolet radiation or aggression by pathogens.”
Studies have shown that as little as one to two tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil a day have been associated with significant anti-inflammatory benefits. Of course, it is also important to eat a healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables, healthy nuts like almonds, walnuts and pistachios, whole grains, and proteins such as wild-caught fish and seafood, or lean meats — in addition to consuming extra virgin olive oil.
Many countries treat extra virgin olive oil like fine wine. Refined palettes can distinguish subtleties in taste and aroma. Spain is the largest producer of olive oil in the world with Italy a distant second. Skilled in the art of blending olive oil, Italy is the largest importer of oil from Spain as well as the largest exporter world-wide. Greece, however, consumes more olive oil (per capita) than any other country.
Where to sample olive oils and balsamic vinegars
During the last decade, olive oil purveyors have sprung up across the United States as Americans experiment with the wide variety of olive oils available. In 2011, Rick Empie opened Olive A’Sudden in Palm Desert, California eventually branching out to Palm Springs.
“I got into the business after sampling and buying olive oil and vinegar from a store in Prescott, Arizona,” says Empie. “At the time, I didn’t think about it as a business but I knew I wanted to learn more about it.”
“Our oils come from all over the world, depending on the time of year,” continues Empie. “Right now our oil is coming in from Spain. We carry five different extra virgin olive oils.”
“Extra virgin olive oils can run the gamut of taste — from fruity to an herby-grassy flavor,” says Empie. “We also carry a wide range of balsamic vinegars — balsamic means the vinegars are from Italy — wine balsamic vinegars, dark balsamic vinegars and white balsamic vinegars. I even carry an 18-year-old aged balsamic vinegar.”
Fused or infused
“There are two different types of flavored olive oils — fused and infused,” explains Empie. “Fused means the flavor is added when they crush the olives. Infused oils have the flavor added to the base oil. All of our citrus olive oils are fused and our herbal oils are infused.”
Empie’s most popular herbal oil is the Tuscan, a rich blend of herbs, sun-dried tomatoes and garlic, from Italy. “You can marinate fish with the Tuscan oil, drizzle it on salads or dip bread into it as an appetizer,” says Empie.
On occasion, Empie invites local chefs to demonstrate the creative ways in which to use olive oils and balsamic vinegars. “One of our chefs used blood orange oil to make a chocolate cake,” says Empie. “And his frosting included chocolate balsamic vinegar. The cake was delicious.”
Oil flavors available at Olive A’Sudden include harissa, green chili, sesame, truffle, cilantro, basil, blood orange and Persian lime. Balsamic vinegar flavors include black cherry, cinnamon pear, serrano honey, Cara Cara orange and vanilla, jalapeno and more.
Tips for storing olive oil
Store olive oil in a dark-tinted or ceramic container, away from heat, (the stove), air and light. Keep a small portion available for daily use (dark wine bottles with a pouring spout work well). Store the rest in a cool, dark cupboard or pantry. During the summer, desert dwellers may wish to keep extra oil in the refrigerator. Let the container warm to room temperature before refilling day-use bottles. If possible, don’t buy more than a few months’ oil supply at a time, for maximum freshness and anti-oxidant viability.