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Greek olives are the best

'for a taste as old as cold water'.

Forget art and culture, democracy and philosophy, the Olympic games and the theatre — the most precious Greek gift to the world is it's olive oil.

Although other countries produce more commercial quantities, over 75% of Greek olive oil is the superior extra virgin oil with half of that exported all over the world.

Top quality Greek olive oil doesn't need any more recommendation than its country of origin. Greece produces more than 430,000 tons of olive oil annually and three quarters of that is premium quality first pressing oil.

And Greek olive oil is the basis of the famous Mediterranean diet and considered one of the healthiest ingredients in any meal.

The travel writer Lawrence Durrell once said of the taste of Greek olives — "...older than meat, older than wine. A taste as old as cold water..."

The most famous of Greek olives are those of Kalamata and Amfissa, but there are actually many places in the Greek countryside where olive trees are grown and olive oil is produced.

Indeed, you can't escape olive trees in the Greek Islands. They are part of the very fabric of the landscape and woven deeply into the culture too as almost every Greek family owns a trees or tends an olive grove.

Olives go back a very long way in Greek history. It is thought cultivation began over 7,000 years ago and olives are known to have been harvested commercially in Crete in 3,000 BC.

It may have been Greeks who first noticed that olive trees thrive near the sea and perhaps why almost no Greek island is without a plethora of olive groves.

The olive tree, Olea europaea, is certainly a very hardy plant. Drought, disease and fire-resistant, it grows very slowly and can live to a ripe old age.

Many olive trees are reputed to be hundreds of years old, while an olive tree in Crete, the Finix Olive, claims a 2,000 year pedigree while Kos swears that Hippocrates first taught the rudiments of medicine beneath a tree that still stands in Kos Town.

The colour of the olive can tell you when it was picked. Harvesting runs from October to January and the greenest olives are picked early while the blackest are picked in December and January.

The varieties of Greek olive are many and varied but the following are considered the best.

Kalamata olives

Kalamata olives are purple black fruit that is renowned for its tangy flavour. It is produced in the Peloponnese and particularly in Messinia and Laconia areas

Amfissa olives

Amfissa olives are prepared olives made from Conservolea olives once grown in the Amfissa valley at Delphi, in the central Greece. Today, around 70% of the green and black table olives produced in Greece are Amfissa.

Chalkidiki olives

In recent years Chalkidiki olives has become a very popular variety. Grown around the Mount Athos peninsula the olives are very large and known locally as 'gaidourolia' or 'donkey olive'.

Megaritiki olives

Megaritiki is small and fruity olive cultivated in the Attica region for use as a table olive and for making olive oil while the Konservolia was once the ubiquitous Greek table olive variety and grown throughout central Greece.

There are different grades of olive oil and the best is always the most expensive. For premium quality olive oil always buy cold pressed extra virgin.

It has a very smooth taste and an acidity of not more than 1.0%. It comes from first pressings of freshly harvested fruit and meets the ultimate standards.

Next is 'virgin' or 'select'. This oil also has an exceptionally fine taste with an acidity level below 2.0%. It comes from first pressings that must meet defined industry standards.

For cheaper oil with a good taste choose 'Pure'. The acidity is low at 1.5% and it's a mixture of lower quality refined oil and virgin or extra virgin.

'Refined' olive oil is the main commercial product and it has had acidity, colour and aroma removed. Next comes 'Lampante' oil obtained from the second pressing of the crop and, although cheap, it has a high acidity and a coarse flavour.

The cheapest and worst olive oil is 'Sulfide' which is extracted from the remaining pulp with solvents then refined repeatedly and not really suitable for cooking.

The tradition of the olive growing and olive oil production in Greece spans more than five millennia and Greeks will say that, without question, Greek olive oil is the best in the world.

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