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An ode to olive oil

Anuradha Shenoy | August 22, 2005

What do former US president Thomas Jefferson, Nobel Prize winning poet Odysseas Elytis, British literary critic and author Aldous Huxley, Indian born British travel writer Lawrence Durrell, renowned Spanish dramatist Federico Garcia da Lorca, and the father of epic poetry, Homer, all have in common? The answer -- each has composed an ode to olive oil.

image What is it exactly about olive oil that makes it 'ode worthy'? Well, taste might be its biggest draw, but the talking point (especially these days) is its monounsaturated fat, which lowers cholesterol.

Research has proven that benefits extend to prevention of breast and pro-state cancer as well as melanoma. In addition, it possesses certain medicinal properties that make it ideal for external applications such as massages.

V N Dalmia, chairman, Dalmia Continental, has been composing his own odes to olive oil for the last two years.

Until 2002, the olive oil sector in India was predominantly unorganised. Shopkeepers would independently procure bottles in small quantities and stock them on their shelves. Interestingly, it was then an indulgence used by the upwardly mobile for massages, and almost never as a food condiment.

In 2003, that changed.

Dalmia had been scouting around for an interesting proposition in the arena of imports -- both wine and mineral water were high on his preference wishlist -- when a chance encounter with an Italian friend named Leonardo got him considering the benefits of importing olive oil.

He commissioned a market survey.

A subsequent visit to Italy led to his purchasing Nicola Pantaleo, an Italian olive oil manufacturing plant. He began to import the oil (already bottled) and christened the brand Leonardo in honour of his friend.

Leonardo (with 100 distributors nationwide) is not the only organised player in the olive oil market. Of the current marketshare of an estimated 1,700 tonnes of olive oil imported into India, Leonardo claims 15 per cent of the market share with 255 tonnes, while Colavita has 150 tonnes or 11 per cent.

Other imported brands on store shelves are Bertolli, Fragata, Figaro and Costa d'Oro.

Though olive oil is produced principally in Spain, Italy, France, Greece, Turkey, Portugal, Tunisia and the United States, the brands available in the Indian market are predominantly Italian, with one American brand (Bertolli).

Is there a clear favourite?

Apparently not, says Wazir, a shopkeeper in Delhi's Khan Market. "Olive oil is like wine -- there isn't one best wine, it depends on which flavour or brand you like best."

Guglielmo Gali, the trade commissioner at the Italian Trade Commission, clarifies: "The flavour of each varies depending on the country it comes from. Conditions of soil and weather can produce variations in flavour across regions within a country like Italy."

The typology of olive oils is decided through the process with which it is extracted, as well as the age of the olives it is made from.

'Virgin' oils are obtained from the fruit of the olive tree solely by mechanical or other physical means under conditions that do not lead to alterations in the oil, and which have not undergone any chemical treatment.

'Extra virgin' olive oil, the most popular, is the product of cold pressing, a chemical-free process. This oil should contain no more than one percent acid, and is considered the finest and most flavourful of all.

The olives used in the making of this oil are pressed within 24 hours of being plucked from the tree. Pure virgin olive oil and ordinary virgin olive oil have a content of up to two and three per cent oleic acid respectively. The olives used in their making are pressed after 24 hours of being plucked.

Then there's pomace, which is extracted from the pulp of the pressed olives. The extraction procedure requires chemical solvents, and ideally it is blended with 10-15 percent extra virgin oil.

Extra virgin olive oil is best when drizzled on salads, in dressings, or with bread. The fruity flavour of the oil adds flavour to the dish. Pure virgin olive oil is used for cooking on a low flame, as a marinade for grilling, and as base for seasoning food. Ordinary virgin oil is best for medium temperature cooking, while pomace is ideal for deep frying.

Narayanan Rajagopalan, president and COO of Leonardo Olive Oil, believes the increased demand for olive oil in the Indian market is a result of increasing health consciousness. In addition, he believes the willingness of Indian consumers to experiment with olive oil as a cooking medium has increased.

Chef Swarup Salgaonkar, of the Hotel Lotus Suites in Mumbai, disagrees. "The increased demand for olive oil is predominantly due to the Italian, Greek and Lebanese restaurants coming up in the metros," he says. "Indians aren't substituting olive oil for any other oil as their cooking medium. For example, south Indian dishes would only taste good in traditional coconut oil."

Whatever the reason, Dalmia is confident he made the right decision two years ago. Rupam Sarkar, executive chef, Starters and More, a Mumbai restaurant, has already begun pushing the envelope by not just making olive oil-based entrees but also desserts.

The dessert menu includes rice pudding flavoured with olive oil, fresh fruit in olive oil, and even an olive oil-based ice cream. Rajagopalan reveals Leonardo wants to take olive oil from a luxury good to a fast moving consumer good.

Will the next step involve mid-level Indians cooking with olive oil? "Hopefully, yes," says Dalmia.

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Sub: Oil For Deep Frying?

Most of south india dishes use oil mainly for deep frying purposes. It would be great if you provide some information about oil that is ...


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In south India coconut oil is not the only oil used. Especially in Tamil Nadu & Andra pradesh the groundnut oil or gingelly oil are ...


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