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Cretan olive oil, an elixir of life, features prominently in the famous Cretan diet.
From ancient times to today, Crete olive oil is used copiously in virtually every sweet and savory meal or snack.
While exploring the local food in Crete, we couldn’t help but start at the beginning – with Cretan olive oil.
Wherever we went around the island, we were astounded to see olive groves everywhere. Even food for takeaway at restaurants packed, not ketchup or sauce, but olive oil.
To better understand Cretan olive oil, we met with Terra Creta, Crete’s leading producer of exceptional olive oil.
Along with Emmanouil Karpadakis, Terra Creta’s marketing manager, we followed the journey of olive oil, from fruit to liquid.
Join us and discover more about what Homer called Greek’s “liquid gold.”
An Introduction to Cretan Olive Oil
Olive oil in Crete has been used since the Minoan times. Archeological records show the Minoans, the first Cretan civilization, used olive oil for food, rituals, medicine and more.
Crete olive oil is an age old tradition. It is inextricably linked to the diet and way of life. From the endless fields of olive trees, Cretans use olive oil in every possible way.
Poured over rusk or paximadia to frying, cooking and roasting food, one is never far from a bottle of olive oil. Some Cretans, we learned from Emmanouil, even start their day with a spoonful of extra virgin olive oil.
While the Greeks are the world’s largest consumers of olive oil, Cretans consume more than double their compatriots.
On the island of Crete, the most popular olive variety is Koroneiki. It is a small Cretan olive that thrives in the mild, dry climate and rocky terrain.
About 80% of the extra virgin olive oil on the island is from the koroneiki variety.
Tsounati is the second most popular while Throumbalia (Chondrolia), and Hondrolia varieties are found across the island.
Terra Creta Olive Oil
Terra Creta is located in the Kolymvari region on the west side of the Island of Crete. This region, considered the heart of high quality olive oil production, is located about ½ hour from Chania, our base.
The Kolymvari region is recognized as a PDO or Protected Designation of Origin by the European Union for high quality olive oils.
And, Terra Creta has won more than 75 international awards including the 2020 Best Greek Olive Oil Award.
During our visit, we were most impressed not only by the exceptional extra virgin olive oils but by their passion and sustainability efforts.
AUTHENTIC FOOD QUEST TIP: If you are looking to taste high-quality Cretan olive oil, try Terra Creta Estate Extra Virgin Olive Oil. An exceptional and award-winning olive oil, you will immediately taste the difference. Enjoy the fruity aromas and peppery flavors drizzled over a fresh salad, pasta, fish, or any Mediterranean meal. You can order your Terra Creta Estate extra virgin olive oil on Amazon.
One of The Most Advanced Olive Mills in Europe
To make the best Cretan olive oil, Terra Creta spares no expense. Their modern production facility, stainless steel tanks, olive analysis capabilities are all state-of-the-art.
During our visit, we were fortunate to see the last production of the year. Starting with fresh olive fruits from a local farmer all the way to the production of freshly pressed extra virgin olive oil.
The best Cretan olive oils are produced mechanically. Nothing is added and nothing is removed.
Once the farmers’ information including field or village are captured and inputted into the system, the production begins.
The first few steps involve removing debris including branches and fruits from the olive fruit and taking a sample. The sample is analyzed and provides a quality profile for classification purposes.
The olive fruits are then washed and dried and later transferred to stainless steel crushers. Once crushing is complete, the malaxation stage begins which is important for the taste and aromas.
In the following centrifugation stage, the olive flesh is separated from the juice and extra virgin olive oil is produced.
One of the highlights of the visit was sampling freshly pressed olive oil.
This golden nectar, high in phenolic content was surprisingly pungent, bitter, and with a smooth finish.
Watch Terra Creta Olive Oil Production Process
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
In Crete, almost all the olive oil produced is extra virgin olive oil (EVOO), the healthiest and tastiest grade. And similarly, all the olive oil produced by Terra Creta is extra virgin olive oil.
To source the olives, Terra Creta works with over 1200 small farmers to grow olives for high quality, extra healthy EVOO.
There are three main grades of olive oil. Extra Virgin Olive Oil is the best quality with the highest amounts of polyphenol content.
These phenols have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that help the body fight many diseases.
This oil, from the first pressing of the olives has the best taste, is full of health benefits and has zero defects.
Virgin Olive Oil is the level below extra virgin olive oil. Technically, virgin olive oil has a higher acidity level than extra virgin. It has reasonably good flavors and odors and experts can detect some defects.
Lampante olive oil is the lowest level grade of oil made from olives. It is typically not for human consumption due to poor flavor, high acidity levels, or unpleasant aromas. It is generally shipped to refineries for processing.
World’s First Olive Oil Online Traceability System
An innovative company, Terra Creta in 2006 developed the first online traceability system for olive oil in the world.
When you buy Terra Creta extra virgin olive oil, each bottle comes with a 6-digit number. Simply enter the digits on the Terra Creta website and see exactly where your oil is coming from.
From the production date, expiration and laboratory tests, you know exactly what you are getting.
What impressed us most is the ability via Google Maps to see the specific groves where the olives come from.
As Emmanouil told us, “it’s all about transparency from tray to market.”
Tips For Buying High-Quality Greek or Cretan Olive Oil
While watching the olive oil production, we peppered Emmanouil with questions and tips for selecting, storing and cooking with olive oil.
He dispelled many myths and we share below five tips to guide you when buying olive oil.
1. Be Aware of Misleading Olive Oil Labels
When choosing an olive oil, pay close attention to the label. Labels such as “salad oil”, “light olive oil”, “pure olive oil” or “cooking olive oil” are in most cases blends and not virgin olive oil.
Look for the “extra virgin olive oil” label which are oils of exceptional quality, aroma and taste.
Greek or Crete extra virgin olive oils are among the best in the world for their high polyphenol content and low acidity levels.
Great quality extra virgin olive oils tend to have bitter, fruity and pungent taste profiles. Don’t let that turn you off.
The taste profiles are shaped by several factors including polyphenols which are full of health benefits.
2. Look for Region or Estate Name on The Bottle
Spain, Italy and Greece are the top three largest producers of olive oil. And olive companies are required to label the olive oil source.
Avoid oils labeled broadly like “Product of Italy” as it only speaks to where it was bottled and not necessarily where the olives were grown or pressed.
Instead, read the labels carefully and look for the true country of origin. Better yet, if the olive oil bottle has an estate name, farm or cooperative that is a very good sign.
You are better off buying olive oil that comes from a single place.
3. Choose The Container For Your Extra Virgin Olive Oil Wisely
Buy extra virgin olive oil that comes in dark glass bottles, a tin can, a stainless steel or a ceramic container.
You want to protect the liquid gold from natural or artificial light which deteriorates the oil. With that, avoid buying olive oil in plastic containers or clear glass bottles.
At home, store your extra virgin olive oil in a cool dark place and not next to the stove top.
If you have more than one good bottle of extra virgin olive oil, store the extra one in the fridge.
Then, take it out two days before you need to start using it.
4. Best Before Date – The Fresher The Better
Unlike wine, olive oil is best consumed fresh. The common practice is that olive oil should be consumed 18 – 24 months from the date of bottling.
Look for the expiration or “best before” date on the bottle to guide your purchase. Typically the end date is two years after bottling.
Find a “best before date” furthest away from your purchase date to ensure optimal freshness.
However, the higher the quality of an EVOO, the longer it can last properly stored, without any noticeable differences.
Once you open a bottle of good EVOO, it is recommended to consume it within 3 – 5 months. Using it fresh will allow you to enjoy its nutrients, flavors and aromas at the highest levels.
Keeping your consumption habits in mind, buy extra virgin olive oil in the amounts you’ll use and not more.
Olive oil does not improve with age. If you have more than you can consume, transfer what you need into smaller bottles and store the rest in a cool, dry, and dark space.
5. Yes, You Can Cook with Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Contrary to popular belief, you can cook and even fry with extra virgin olive oil. You can cook almost anything with olive oil including cakes, baked goods, pastries, cookies and more.
For frying, extra virgin olive oil is stable and can be used for frying upto 374°F or 190 °C. As Emmanouli told us, most people don’t cook above 350 °F or 180°C, so extra virgin olive oil is totally appropriate to use.
Generally, olive oil is preferred for cooking over vegetable oils. Many vegetables oils are extracted in refineries from seeds or nuts, using chemical solvents, heat, and intense pressure.
A recent study comparing different types of oils, showed extra virgin olive oil retained its antioxidant properties when heated and cooked.
AUTHENTIC FOOD QUEST RECIPE: Traditional Greek or Cretan food tend to use copious amounts of olive oil for the flavors and healthy high phenolic content. This simple Boureki recipe is a baked layered dish with potatoes, zucchini, Cretan cheese, and mint. A delicious traditional dish from Crete, make it at home with Cretan extra virgin olive oil.
7 of The Best Cretan Olive Oil
Our culinary travels in Crete gave us a chance to try many different Cretan olive oils. The selection below are some of our favorites and some that are also available online.
1- Terra Creta Estate From Kolymvari
For a versatile olive oil for everyday use, look no further. This olive oil from Terra Creta is a PDO or protected designation of origin from Kolymvari region.
As noted earlier, the Kolymvari region on the western side of Crete is a designated area for its high quality olive oil.
Made from the koreiniki variety, the olives are harvested from the Samaria Gorge to the beaches of Kolymvari in Chania, Crete.
This olive variety is known for its fruity aromas, peppery finish and low acidity profiles. When you buy the olive oil, you can trace its origin using the traceability number printed on the bottles.
On the Terra Crete website, you get the full laboratory analysis and satellite images of the fields from which the olive oil originated.
This olive oil has received multiple awards around the world. We love its versatility and personally use it for cooking, baking as well as on salads.
2- Terra Creta Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil
This olive oil from the Terra Creta estate line is certified organic from olive groves that have adopted exclusive organic practices. About half the farmers Terra Creta works with grow only organic olives.
This means that no pesticides or fertilizers are used to grow the olive trees. And the olive oil is packaged in recyclable containers.
What’s fascinating about the way this olive oil is made is that everything that comes from the olive groves is reused.
The olives leaves collected during the first part of the production process are used by local farmers for their animals.
The water used to wash the olives during the process is used for the irrigation of the olive groves.
And finally, the waste from the seeds removed during production is transformed and used to heat the water for the mill.
This organic olive oil is fruity with a mild profile making it ideal for everyone. It is recommended to use with your organic produce, raw or for cooking.
3- Grand Cru Monovarietal Extra Virgin Olive Oil
We first discovered the Grand Cru olive oil during our visit to Terra Creta. It quickly became our favorite extra virgin olive oil.
Made in collaboration with farmers dedicated to sustainable farming, this olive oil is the premium brand from Terra Creta. It is a monovarietal extra virgin olive oil also from the koroneiki variety.
The olives are harvested at the right timing to achieve a superior organoleptic profile. The same day, they then go through a production process dedicated to organic and premium olive oils.
The result is an olive oil that has a green and rich fruity aroma with a smooth and pungent finish.
This olive oil has won many awards including the best Greek olive oil recognition from around the world. It is ranked among the 10 best olive oils in the world in 2020, according to the EVOO agency.
We reserve this olive oil for salads and to drizzle over cooked vegetables, as well as to eat fresh with cheese and bread.
Unfortunately, the distribution of this olive oil is limited. However, you can find Grand Cru on Amazon priced higher than other extra virgin olive oils. Once you savor the unique flavors in this oil, it will become your reference point for other extra virgin olive oils, as it has become for us.
You can read more about the farmer’s project and how Terra Creta established a new approach to olive production.
4- Sitia Olive Oil From Eastern Crete
The first time we heard about Sitia for olive oil is when we landed in Heraklion, Crete’s capital.
Sitia is a port town in the easternmost region of Crete called Lasithi. This region is well known for its favorable climate and thriving olive trees.
Many small olive oil producers in Sitia, like most of Crete, work with cooperative mills to press their olives.
You can find different types of olive oils coming from the Sitia region. Sitia Olive Oil is one of the olive oils from Sitia that stands out.
Sitia Olive Oil is a PDO protected extra virgin olive oil with a very low acidity of 0.2. It is a fruity olive oil giving it a smooth and fresh green taste with a light spicy finish.
This olive oil is produced from the Koroneiki olives and has high polyphenol content making it one of the best Cretan premium olive oils.
A quality oil, it is ideal for salads, baking and cooking fish, chicken and vegetables and more.
5- Pamako – Ultra Premium Olive Oil
While in Chania, Crete, we had the opportunity to experience an olive oil tasting with gastronomy expert, Aspassia Stavroulaki.
During our tasting, Aspassia invited us to try Pamako olive oil and pair it with different foods.
This extra virgin organic monovarietal olive oil is made from the tsounati variety of olives.
The tsounati olive trees have origins from the Minoans time and some of them are said to be “monumentals”.
From the bottle design, to its refined taste, this unique extra virgin olive oil is a work of art.
Created by a young Greek entrepreneur, Pamako has gone on to win many awards in the last 5 years.
It has fresh and fruity flavors, a spicy finish and a soft bitter taste. For such an exclusive oilve oil, we recommend eating it raw and drizzling over salads, appetizers and more, rather than for cooking.
6- Biolea – Cold Pressed Organic Olive Oil
Biolea cold pressed olive oil comes from the Astrika Estate nestled at 300 meter elevation on the westside of Crete.
This family run factory specializes in the production of artisanal and organic olive oil. They focus on making olive oil in the traditional way using stone mills and cold press.
The olive oil of the koroneiki variety comes solely from the olive groves on their family estate. Their family farm and olive groves have been certified organic for more than 20 years.
In addition to being certified organic, they also have an environmentally conscious approach to preserving the soil and environment.
While this practice results in lower yield, they are proud to produce olive oil with the least amount of processing.
Their goal is to offer olive oil that retains the most flavors, aromas and health benefits of the olives.
The Biolea olive oil is fruity with a mild sweet taste, ideal for salads, or for drizzling on cheese and bread.
If you have the chance to visit Chania, Crete, don’t miss the opportunity to tour their facility. We like their focus on sustainable tourism and the delicious local food you can enjoy on-site.
7- Ellora Farms Olive Oil From Southern Crete
This olive oil from Ellora Farms comes from the Messara region of Crete, in the southern part of the island.
The Messara region is known as the most important agricultural region of Crete. Home to olive trees, vineyards and produces, Messara is the largest plain in Crete.
An excellent region for olive farming, olive groves have been cultivated since the Minoan times.
This olive oil is a PDO protected extra virgin olive oil made with the koroneiki variety sourced from the Messara plain.
This extra virgin olive oil has a nice fruity aroma with a medium spice level. It is a universal olive oil for your kitchen, best used for cooking, baking or salads.
Ellora farms has been very successful at exporting its extra virgin olive oil in Europe and in the US.
Similar to Terra Creta olive oil, they offer traceability for their single-origin olive oils.
With award-winning olive oil from Messara and the Kolymvari regions of Crete, Ellora farms olive oils are a solid choice.
Olive oil is one of the most used and least understood cooking ingredients. Our fascinating visit to Terra Creta gave us a deeper understanding for the much used oil that is always on our kitchen countertop.
Seeing the mechanical production and learning the science behind premium extra virgin olive oil was enlightening.
Tasting the range of flavor profiles and especially the fruity and pungent Grand Cru has turned us into olive oil snobs.
If you are in Crete, Terra Creta offers olive oil experience tours that you can join.
When buying olive oil, the label holds the clue. All we need to know is how to read the label and decipher the jargon.
One additional tip from Emmanouil is to have different kinds of olive oil in your kitchen. Have at least two to three. One for cooking and one or two others to eat raw and drizzle.
Experiment with the different aromas and taste profiles from spicy to fruity.
If you’ve never had olive oil from Greece, consider giving them a try. Go for Cretan olive oil produced from Koroneiki olives.
The high phenolic content, low acidity, and unique intense aromas will please your body and delight your taste buds.
In the comments below, please let us know what olive oil you typically have in your kitchen?
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Special thanks to Emmanouil Karpadakis and the Terra Creta team for an insightful and behind-the-scenes look into the production of Cretan olive oil.
Rosemary is the editor-in-chief and strategist at Authentic Food Quest.
Traveling slow since 2015 with her partner, Claire, she has explored the cuisine in 45 countries and more than 240+ culinary cities.
Her writing about local food specialties has been featured in Lonely Planet, Business Insider, Honest Cooking, Food Insider, and Huffington Post.
As a food and travel writer, Rosemary has co-authored three books, including one in collaboration with Costa Brava Tourism.
Rosemary is an avid runner when she’s not eating and exploring new destinations. She has run ten marathons and counting.
Before Authentic Food Quest, Rosemary held senior-level strategy positions in advertising.
Find out more about Authentic Food Quest