Olive oil: from lamp fuel to tanning agent to cooking ingredient

Carmen Jones knows more about oil than does any Saudi potentate. Olive oil, that is. As a cooking teacher, Ms. Jones is especially interested in olive oil as used in the kitchen. But as spokeswoman for the International Olive Oil Council, she's aware of its uses beyond the frying pan or baking dish.

''Some people use it as a tanning agent. Soap, lotions, skin creams, and hair products, too, can be made from it,'' she says, rubbing a drop into the back of her hand.

''Smell it. It's the best way to tell the character of the oil, or if it's gone rancid,'' she explains, stretching out her hand and inviting a sniff.

Olive oil is rich in history as well. It figures prominently in biblical narratives, and some cultures regard it as a symbol of peace. It has anointed the heads of biblical saints and British monarchs and fueled the lamps of Plato.

For over 6,000 years the oil has been pressed from the smooth oval fruit of the olive tree. Some venerable trees have born fruit for over 1,000 years.

The Pilgrims patiently awaited the arrival of olive oil as it made its long journey from the Mediterranean to England and finally to the New World.

In spite of its early use in North America, it is still regarded as a somewhat ''ethnic'' ingredient. ''Perhaps that's because most of it is imported, '' Ms. Jones suggests. ''Most of our California olive groves produce table olives rather than oil.'' Although olive trees start bearing fruit in 4 to 8 years, they do not reach full production for 15 to 20 years.

Still, olive oil is catching on in America. Nine million gallons were imported last year from Spain, France, Tunisia, Portugal, Italy, and other countries.

The individual characteristics of olive oil are difficult to categorize.

''Like grapes,'' Ms. Jones continues, ''olives change from year to year - depending on sunlight, rain, and other weather conditions. An oil you liked one year may be quite different the next.''

''One of the misconceptions is that olive oil doesn't keep well,'' she explains. ''Actually it has a shelf life of about two years and doesn't have to be refrigerated except under the most extreme conditions.''

Ms. Jones suggests keeping it tightly capped and in a cool, dark place. ''It's air, not temperature, that's the enemy of olive oil,'' she says emphatically. Plastic containers will react with the oil and should not be used as storing containers.

Some of the best grades of oil are sold under the ''virgin'' and ''extra virgin'' categories. These labels refer to olives gathered and pressed under strict climatic and handling conditions.

Many oils are labeled ''cold pressed.'' This phrase really doesn't mean much today, Ms. Jones says. ''Almost all olive oil is 'cold pressed' by huge hydraulic machines.''

At a demonstration given by Ms. Jones at the Creative Cuisine Cooking School in Cambridge, Mass., a spicy applesauce cake made with olive oil was passed to the attending audience.

''Ugh, it sounds terrible,'' remarked a woman next to me.

''This is absolutely delicious, I can't believe it!'' she exclaimed halfway through the first bite. Spicy Applesauce Cake 1 cup brown sugar 1/2 cup olive oil 1 1/2 cups canned applesauce 2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour 2 teaspoons baking soda 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves 1 cup raisins 1 cup coarsely chopped walnuts

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Combine brown sugar and oil in mixer, and beat until light. Add applesauce and mix.

Combine flour and all spices. Add flour mixture all at once to applesauce and mix well, making certain no visible flour remains. Stir in raisins and nuts.

Spoon into a well-greased, 9-inch-square baking pan and bake until lightly brown, 20 to 25 minutes. Remove, let cool in pan, and dust with powdered sugar. Cut into squares and serve.

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