Monday, June 27, 2011

INGREDIENTS - Olive Oil (Azeite)

Considering all the cultural and gastronomic links that unite Portugal and its former colonies in South America which constitute present-day Brazil, it's no great surprise that Brazil today has a tremendous appetite for olive oil. For what could be more emblematic of Portuguese cuisine than the liquid gold that is the gift of the European olive tree (Olea europaea)? Early Portuguese explorers and settlers arrived on the shores of Brazil bearing bottles of precious olive oil, and from its earliest days the nascent cuisine of Brazil made liberal use of the oil. Brazilian cooks of all kinds to this day employ the oil to fry foods and to season and flavor them.

Brazil's appetite for olive oil (azeite in Portuguese) is staggeringly large. Since virtually all of the olive oil consumed in Brazil is imported, import statistics can give us a handle on the size of the market. In the last year for which statistics have been published, 2009, 44,000 tons of olive oil were imported. Preliminary estimates for 2010 suggest that the total for that year will have increased to 50,000 tons - that is 100 million pounds of oil, or approximately 50 million quarts or liters.

About 95% of the oil that is imported to Brazil comes from the lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, principally Iberia (Spain and Portugal), Italy and North Africa. The Mediterranean is where olives were first cultivated, and where olive oil was first produced, even before the Mediterranean became a Roman sea. Today, people who inhabit the Mediterranean basin, from the Middle East to Portugal, and from southern France and the Balkans to Morocco and Egypt consume more olive oil than in any other part of the world. But the Brazilians aren't far behind.

In Brazilian dishes which come directly from the Portuguese kitchen, or which are inspired by the cuisine of that country, olive oil is almost always the only vegetable oil used. Salt cod (bacalhau) without a liberal sprinkling of olive oil is unthinkable, and Portuguese-inspired soups and stews invariably emply olive oil. But even dishes which can't be traced back to European roots, like the Afro-Brazilian dishes typical of Bahian cooking, often call for olive oil - sometimes in combination with other oils, like corn oil, or the brilliant-orange palm oil called dendê.

As Brazil's economy grows, and the average Brazilian's ability to afford olive oil increases, it is expected that the import market for olive oil will continue to grow in the years to come. Some Brazilian agriculturalists and food scientists are beginning to wonder if the country really needs to import all of the oil that it consumes and are questioning why there is no domestic production of olive oil. Flavors of Brazil will highlight their efforts in our next post.

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