Portugal’s Savage Islands
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The secret of great olive oil is to be found in Portugal



The people living in Portugal's green valleys and hills have harvested olives for several millennia, dating back to the time of the Romans.  Olives are an integral part of Portugal's culture, landscape cuisine and traditions. Some say that the colors of the green in a Portuguese flag stands for olives, while the red is for wine. In many areas, the olive groves are growing near the vineyards. In fact, olive growing is a lot like grape growing.  The variety of olive, the region in which it is grown and the climate of that region all contribute to each olive's unique taste and texture. In today's newsletter we hail the humble olive, giver of tasty and healthy olive oil.

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The Portuguese word for olive is "azeitona" and for olive oil, "azeite." Olive trees are "oliveiras" and an olive grove is an "olival."

While most Americans will be surprised to learn that some of the world's best olive oil comes from Portugal, anyone who loves Portuguese food can explain why. The Portuguese are olive snobs and are very, very picky about their olive oil. While Americans shop for "virgin" or "extra virgin", Portuguese will inquire as to which region the olives were grown, and will look for acidity levels, color and brand names in their olive oils. And the Portuguese use olive oils as Americans use ketchup—an omnipresent condiment. The Portuguese put it on everything from vegetables to fish to salad and no table is complete without a "galheteiro"--oil and vinegar holder. A meal always includes a dish of olives, complete with a pottery dish for discarding the pits.  Olive oil is also a vital ingredient in many dishes, including Refogado-- onions reduced in olive oil.

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Portuguese olive oil comes in different grades. The best is always the cold-pressed extra virgin. The better the quality, the better the flavor,
texture and shelf life. Portugal is in the top 10 producers of olive oil in Europe, accounting for about 2 percent of consumption and more than 1 percent of production.

Travelers to Portugal will see that the country's landscape is often defined by its olive groves—from the wild hills of the Northeast, to the granite
mountains of the Centro de Portugal region, to the open plains of the Alentejo. Each region has its own type of olives and its cuisine is influenced by the local variety. In the coastal Centro Region, a small, bitter black olive is grown, while in the Castelo Branco, they are plump and brown. The Alentejo region produces the marvelous green olive. A good cook who wants to recreate these regional flavors will have a shelf of different oils to do so.


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