Olive oil, the elixir of life

All kinds of food-related businesses cluster around Detroit’s Eastern Market, site of one of the oldest farmers’ markets in the country.

One of them is Gabriel Import Co., a Mediterranean grocery store. It’s a food-lover’s paradise. There are numerous types of olives, hummus, falafel, stuffed grape leaves, oney-drenched pastries, many types of feta and other cheeses.

Taking up serious shelf space in the tiny shop are a dozen or more varieties of olive oil, most of them from Greece. Owner Mike Sandros, who has Greek and Lebanese parentage, insists Greek olive oil is the best in the world.

The best of the best

And the best of the best, says Mike, who emigrated from Greece as a teenager, is from Kalamata, on the Pelopponesian peninsula in the south part of the country – yes, the same place those almond-shaped black Greek salad olives come from.

In the Kalamata region, says Mike, there are 10 to 15 million olive trees.

Greece is one of the world’s largest producer of olive oil, but not the world’s largest exporter, he says. That’s because Greek families use so much themselves. Greece is the world’s largest per-capita consumer of olive oil.

“A Greek family will use a can in two weeks,” says Mike, motioning to the three-liter cans behind him on the shelf. “Just like the Chinese eat rice with every meal, the Greeks eat olive oil with every meal.”

They pour it on their salads, cheese and bread. They cook with it and bake with it.

And, like the father in My Big Fat Greek Wedding who thought Windex was the cure for everything that ails you, Mike is convinced of olive oil’s health benefits. Scientific studies back him up. Olive oil may help people lower their levels of bad cholesterol while raising levels of good cholesterol.

“On Crete, the island south of Greece, the men are 76 percent less likely than Americans to have heart attacks,” he says. “Every man there drinks a small cup of olive oil every day.”

Mike’s brother still lives in Greece and has access to all the best olive growers, from whom Mike imports his oil.

But Greek olive oil isn’t that easy to find in the United States. Because Greece is in the Euro-zone, they export first to Europe; the U.S. gets what’s left over. Actually, says Mike, Italy doesn’t grow enough olive oil to export, so the Italian brands we purchase may be blends that include Greek oil.

Look for EVOO

The olives are usually picked in the fall, when they’re green and bitter; they’re ground up and the oil is pressed out. The oil put in clay barrels for six to eight months to become sweet. This first pressing is what’s known as extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO). When you buy olive oil for salads or for dipping bread, look for extra-virgin oil that’s labeled “first cold pressed.” Oil that’s labeled “pure” is fine for cooking, but it might not have as delicate a taste as EVOO.

The price depends on the year’s olive crop. A single tree can yield anywhere from 25 to 200 pounds of olives, Mike says.

Although Greek olive oil can be more expensive than oil from Spain or Italy, it’s worth it, Mike insists it’s worth it. He sells three-liter cans for $25 to $40. “For a typical American family, that will last six to eight months,” he says.

EVOO is also great for sautéing, but don’t plan to use it for deep frying because it will burn. You also may not want to use EVOO for baking, because it has such a pronounced flavor – but using a blend of olive oil and other vegetable oils would work for frying and baking.

Here is a recipe for a delicious salad dressing that uses extra-virgin olive oil. It tastes different with cider vinegar than with Balsamic vinegar, so try it both ways and see which you prefer.