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Olive growing world

Extra virgin territory


Olive oil might be one of the healthiest cooking mediums. But it can't magically turn pakodas into diet food.

The first trip I made to the olive growing world was to Andalusia in Southern Spain around five years ago. Along with 11 journalists from Canada, USA, Russia, Serbia, China and India, I visited olive groves, travelled through Andalusia's trademark low hills covered with neat rows of olive trees for miles and ate a series of meals cooked entirely in extra virgin olive oil. We met olive farmers, farmhands from outside the EU (they are hired at low wages), chefs, administrators from Spain's Ministry of Agriculture and even chefs from the erstwhile El Bulli who had come to cater a the launch of a book launch on - what else? - cooking with olive oil. The trip was an eye opener.

Indians can be forgiven for thinking that Italy is the world's only olive oil producing country. The only olive oils you see in Indian supermarkets are Italian brands. I saw on this trip, and subsequent visits to other olive-growing countries - Italy, Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan and Greece - that the olive tree dominates the Mediterranean landscape, which extends to three continents, Asia (Jordan, Syria, Lebanon), Europe (Portugal, Spain, Italy, France) and North Africa (Algeria, Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco).

In Baena, a rather undistinguished town not far from Cordoba in Andalusia, there is a large cooperative of olive oil for supermarket brands. While we were being taken around the factory, we saw towering piles of cartons that said, 'Product of Italy'. But we were not in Italy. The bosses in the cooperative thought the scam was a huge joke. Spain grows the most olives in the world and Italy manages the feat of exporting more olive oil than it produces. With a little help from its friendly neighbour.

The enormous demand for olive oil is a consequence of how it is portrayed in the world today: as a magic elixir that cures all ills. There undoubtedly is such a thing as the Mediterranean diet and it does include industrial quantities of olive oil (only the extra virgin first-press ). But the famed diet contains the prototype of a healthy lifestyle. This involves clean air, plenty of walking, a high proportion of vegetables, a relatively small quantity of meat and lots of seafood. There are other factors as well. Wine is virtually the only alcohol drunk and meal times are sacred.

In the Mediterranean region, no matter which part you are in, grabbing a coffee and sandwich to gobble in the car is unheard of. A burger in place of lunch is an unknown concept, as are TV dinners. In that part of the globe, when you eat, that's all you do, usually in the company of your family. So the consumption of olive oil is only one piece of a jigsaw puzzle. It's a mistake to assume that just cooking regularly with olive oil precludes disease.

While Spain is the largest producer of olives (it has no fewer than 300 million trees for a human population of 30 million ), Greece is the largest user. Every other country has parts that don't grow olive trees, like the extreme north of Italy. In Greece, on the other hand, both the archipelago and continental Greece grow olives and use them extensively in their cuisine. On the island of Crete, I did not meet a single person who did not have at least ten trees in his backyard. In Tunisia, on the other hand, hardly any olive oil is consumed by the locals. It is all for export, that too, in the form of container loads rather than branded olive oil, which commands a higher price.

What usually happens to oil from Tunisia and Turkey is that it gets shipped in containers to Italy. It's then blended by master blenders, along with nameless olive oils from Greece and Spain. The end result is a beautifully bottled brand which becomes a household name in Italy and highly sought after in the rest of the world.

I wish that Tunisian olive oil did make its way to our shores more frequently than it does. Like Indians, Tunisians eat rich stews made with chilli paste, turmeric, cumin and cardamom seed besides cardamom and cinnamon. Tunisian olive oil tends to be far more neutral in flavour as opposed to, say, the rich fruitiness of Cretan olive oil that is made chiefly from an olive called koroneiki or Andalusian olive oil that's made from two extremely intense olives called picual and picudo.

The trouble with Italian varieties of olive such as picual, koroneiki and leccino is that the cuisine that has developed around them has no parallel in India. Thus bell peppers are roasted and sprinkled with good olive oil as a wonderfully tasty cold starter in Southern Europe. The principal ingredient is simple and the oil is the icing on the cake so to speak. That's not how Indian cuisine works, so the olive oil we import would do well to be bland and neutral rather than fruity or astringent.

But let's not forget our indigenous cold pressed oils in the race for good health at a high expense. At one time, mustard oil and sesame oil were cold pressed, and even today reviving them would bring good health to greater numbers. Though extra virgin olive oil is a healthy oil, we shouldn't think of it as a medium to fry pakodas.

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