Shedding Light on Extra-Virgin Olive Oil
My obsession with olive oil began with a tree. Or rather many trees—hundreds if not thousands of years old—that cover the landscape of Southern Italy. In the region of Puglia, where by some force of will and luck, I found myself living for a couple years, they are everywhere. And they are big and twisted, and ancient and magnificent. The olive trees glowed in the evening sunlight against a backdrop of stone walls, whitewashed villages and blue sea, and I fell hard for those beauties.
Their presence alone can leave you speechless but they also produce something pretty extraordinary from their fruit—extra-virgin olive oil. For those two years I never bought a bottle of olive oil for my kitchen; they were simply gifted to me by friends and neighbors and farmers who made their own (because everyone has a few olive trees on their property), and brought their harvest to a local frantoio (olive mill).
It was during the harvest season of 2011 that I began to understand more of the intricacies of the olive oil–making process. Early that November, I was one of the several hands who picked olives at the home of Nancy Harmon Jenkins, one of today’s foremost olive oil experts. Splitting her time between her homes on the coast of Maine and on the Umbria/Tuscany boarder, Nancy is an authority on all things Mediterranean cuisine and has written several books on various subjects, including extra-virgin olive oil in her book Virgin Territory (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015).
For a few days I quietly picked fruit off the olive trees by hand until dusk and retired indoors for a rustic meal and wine by the fire. I continued on in good company until the harvest was complete and olives ready for the mill. After leaving this rather magical setting, I began to pay more attention to the process of making olive oil and especially, when I returned to the U.S., the quality of extra-virgin olive oil I found in the marketplace.
Being mindful of the food we buy, especially with a product so many of us turn to daily—and since olives are not, nor ever will be, grown in New England—it’s important to pay attention to what’s being offered to us as consumers.
Olives have grown in the Mediterranean for thousands of years. There are numerous terroirs, as well as numerous varieties of olives that create beautiful oils. Much like wine, it takes time to learn the subtleties of each, a journey that should be met with enthusiasm. But unlike wine, high-quality extra-virgin olive oil is just recently making its way into the mainstream American kitchen as a staple item.
As demand is increasing so are the number of producers worldwide. Today you can find olive oils made in places like Chile, Australia and South Africa and more and more good olive oil is coming out of domestic groves in California.
While demand is increasing so too is the desire and need to educate ourselves on the product. Olive oil is a complex subject and there is much to learn about its production, from start to finish. To that end, I’d like to take a moment to clear up a few things that may be tripping you up about olive oil. These are details that take me far from the dreamy Pugliese olive groves to the regulatory side of this increasingly popular commodity—surely less romantic but important to consider if you want to understand what makes good olive oil.
WHAT EXACTLY IS EXTRA-VIRGIN OLIVE OIL?
Regulation of olive oil is complicated, with several classification loops that are not quite closed as the industry growth continues to tick upwards. But put simply, most olive oil goes through several tests developed by the International Olive Council (IOC). Extra-virgin olive oil is required to meet a series of laboratory standards and pass a test from a tasting panel before being labeled “extra-virgin.” On the positive side the tasting panel is looking for fruitiness, bitterness and pungency. On the negative, mustiness, rancidity and metallic elements.
It is important to note that true high-quality oils have much higher standards than those set by the IOC. The very finest olive oils are produced when the fruit is harvested just before ripening, crushed and milled within 24 hours of picking, stored in stainless steel containers. Extra-virgin olive oil should be consumed within a year or 18 months of harvest.
WHAT DOES “FIRST COLD PRESSED” MEAN?
Truthfully, not much. All extra-virgin olive oil comes from the first extraction, by regulation. Since the majority of extra-virgin olive oil is in fact not pressed, as maybe it once was, but made from higher technology centrifugal extraction, “first cold pressed” is more nostalgic marketing language than anything else.
WHY IT IS GOOD FOR YOU?
Extra-virgin olive oil is the cornerstone of the praised Mediterranean Diet. It is high in those “good fats” and the true high-quality stuff is packed with polyphenols, antioxidants that help a host of inflammatory issues in the body. When you taste an olive oil and you feel that peppery kick in the back of your throat, that is the sign of high polyphenol content—a good sign. Some olive varieties naturally have more polyphenols than others, but producers secure the highest polyphenol content when they harvest olives at the correct time and handle them gently.
WHAT’S THIS I’M HEARING ABOUT FRAUDULENT OIL?
Yes, it’s true. Fraudulent olive oil happens. Large producers have been known to mask lower-quality oil as extra-virgin and label it as such, as well as mix extra-virgin with other types of oils and claim it to be 100% extra-virgin olive oil. The Italians in particular have been charged with the brunt of this fraudulent activity, however, for every large producer making false claims about their oil, there are numerous small producers all over Italy hand-picking olives and producing incredibly high-quality oil. It’s important to be aware of what’s going on but not reason enough to steer clear of one of the oldest olive oil–producing countries in the world.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR WHEN BUYING AND TASTING?
This is really the crux of where extra-virgin olive oil has come to—knowing what to look for when you’re shopping. There are tons and tons of low-quality olive oils out there—the fraudulent kind that aren’t what they’re claiming to be, as well as extra-virgin oils that may meet the very loose standards of the IOC but have not been handled and stored properly. Things to avoid are light and heat and retail shop owners are as responsible for this as is the producer since they need to stock and store the bottles properly.
What it boils down to is that you need to shop for oil bottled in dark glass or tins, stored out of direct light, that has as much labeling information on it as possible.
In her book Nancy Harmon Jenkins gives some very honest and helpful buying tips for the consumer:
First of all, don’t be seduced by cheap prices and loss leaders. I can assure you that the oil on offer unquestionably will not be very good. Unfortunately, the converse is unreliable: Just because a bottle comes at a fancy cost is no guarantee that the oil contained therein will live up to its price tag. Some of the most expensive—indeed, I dare say, the two most expensive—oils on the market are not worth the prices being asked.
Second, stay away from oil in clear glass bottles. Light is one the greatest enemies of the fine olive oil and there is no excuse for a conscientious producer bottling his or her oil in clear glass. Oil should be packaged in dark glass, UV-resistant glass, or best of all, in opaque tins.
Third, and as a corollary, don’t buy any oil, even in a tin, that has been displayed in a sunny shop window or on a high shelf under hot, bright shop lights. Even the tin will not protect the oil from eventual contamination in such situations.
Fourth, read the labels: As of mid-2012, European legislation requires olive oil producers to state on the label both the origin of the olives and the place where they processed; if and when oils from various origins have been blended together by the producers, that too must be clearly stated.
…More conscientious producers may give you more information, such as the variety of the cultivars used, the date of the harvest, and the date of bottling. Only the date of bottling, or the use-by date, which is 18 months from bottling, is at this writing required by law. Harvest date is the most relevant information of all, but only the very top producers include it on the labels.
…So the final bit of advice for purchasing good, reliable, well-made olive oil is this: Taste. And taste. And taste. As often as you can.
What you are looking for in the taste of an olive oil is a flavor profile with a balance of bitterness, pungency with added possible elements of fruit, grass, butter, nuts and more, depending on the olive variety. For example, the Greek Koreneiki olive has a bold fresh flavor with hint of apple, the Arbequina found mostly in Catalonia, Spain (now very popular for growers in California) has a grassy aroma with a distinct almond flavor. Frantoio olives, abundant in Italy, are fruity and peppery, and Chemlali, grown in northern Africa, have a sweeter, nutty taste. As I mentioned earlier, some varieties have more healthy polyphenols than others and retailers have begun to display this information as well.
I use olive oil every day and it is the thing I consistently bring home when I travel to a part of the world where it is produced. And yes, I even fry with it. I take my lessons from the Italians, who use olive oil for absolutely everything. My two Italian grandmothers, who both have nearly reached 100 years old and have cooked with olive oil all their lives, are a good enough endorsement for me.
I hope that, as your olive oil education continues, you will think less of a higher price tag on a good bottle of extra-virgin olive oil, just as you would on a good bottle of wine. The oil, in the end, will last you much longer than the wine.
To heed Nancy Harmon Jenkins’ advice, get out across the state and taste, taste and taste. Ask questions of your retailers and discover oils you love. Here is a list of a few local olive oil retailers to get you started:
Appetito Foods Upon returning from Umbria, Italy, a few years ago, Joseph Votta decided to bring back some olive oil, and Appetito Foods was born. The Providence-based Appetito Foods sources directly from olive farms in Italy and Greece, selling extra-virgin oils and balsamic vinegar from producers with whom Joseph has a direct personal relationship. He chooses the finest oils, made from small family producers.
Appetito Foods does not have a retail store but sells at the Mt. Hope Farm and Attleboro farmers’ markets, online and a variety of retail shops throughout the state (listed on their website).
Nectar de la Vida The newest addition to the olive oil scene in Rhode Island is Nectar de la Vida in Warren. Owned by Maureen Botelho, this shop offers a variety of high-quality, index-tested extra-virgin olive oils and vinegars from around the world. Maureen doesn’t stop there, though. She also offers a daily menu of prepared foods made with her olive oils that includes a sandwich board, soups and salads. Her baked goods are also made with olive oil instead of butter.
460 Main St., Warren NectarDeLaVida.com
Olive del Mondo Opened in 2012 by Jennifer and Salvatore Fuccillo, Olive del Mondo is an independent shop on Hope Street in Providence. With the philosophical foundation that food is medicine, Jennifer and Salvatore take the health benefits of extra-virgin olive oil very seriously. Their full-transparency policy allows you to see as much information as possible about the olive varietal, crush date, taste panel analysis and the growers themselves. There are other great items for the kitchen, including vinegars, books, homemade soaps and a shelf dedicated to Rhode Island–made products, many of which are made at Hope & Main in Warren.
815 Hope St., Providence OliveDelMondo.com
Olive Tap The Olive Tap is Wayland Square’s fine olive oil destination. Opened by Greg Holtkamp, who came from a restaurant operations background, The Olive Tap is the seventh store with this successful family franchise. Olive oils are third-party tested from around the world, rotating harvests from the Northern and Southern hemispheres so that the freshest oils is always in stock, labeled with its crush date. To draw in food lovers, the store hosts Friday night tastings with food and wine, as well as cooking classes every other Saturday in the Olive Tap demo kitchen.
485 Angell St., Providence TheOliveTapProvidence.com
Virgin & Aged This shop in Newport specializes in high-quality olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Owner Beth Remy has a large selection of single-origin extra-virgin olive oil varieties from small growers that are particularly high in polyphenols. And keeping with the customer demand for flavored oils, she sells 18 different infused oils, including Persian lime, chipotle and basil, among others. Virgin & Aged sells both online and in their retail shop and creates great custom gift baskets that will ship anywhere.
395 Thames St., Newport VirginAndAged.com
Tony’s Colonial and Venda Ravioli on Providence’s Federal Hill each carry a large selection of Italian olive oils.
Portugalia in Fall River, Massachusetts, has a large selection of Portuguese olive oils.