I have just finished the book and I must report now that most of what I thought I knew about olive oil is either completely wrong or only partially correct. Either way, there is ample material and justification for another blog about extra virgin olive oil.
First, it is important to know what extra virgin olive oil really is – or more correctly, what it should be!
The standards for extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) have been set by several governing bodies, including the European Union and the International Olive Council. To qualify for EV status, an olive oil must be processed solely by mechanical means (i.e., no chemical processing), it must be kept at temperatures lower than 86° F (30° C), and it must pass several chemical and organoleptic (taste) tests. The tasting panel is expecting rich olive flavors, a pleasant acrid sensation on the tongue, and a peppery sensation on the mouth and throat. It is worth a few minutes to read the full description of the standards on the Olive Oil Times web page.
Second, it is important to know why we should even be concerned about EVOO. Other than the fact that it has a superior flavor to other oils, eating EVOO has proven health benefits. EVOOs are rich in polyphenols which are powerful antioxidants. Antioxidants reduce the effect of free radicals in the body and thereby inhibit the proliferation of cancer cells. (Much more information about the health benefits of EVOO is available online and, of course, in the book Extra Virginity. I was amazed at what EVOO can do to keep us healthy!)
So far, so good, but to state the problem in one sentence: There is no enforcement of these standards! Consequently, the oil in the can or bottle on your store shelf is frequently not what is described on the label. More specifically, when the label says EVOO, many times the oil inside is technically not extra virgin. In addition to receiving a product of inferior quality, we are paying more than what the container is worth!
Much like with wine grapes, there are many varieties of olives. These are called cultivars, and there are roughly 700 olive cultivars in the world – each with its own taste characteristics. As one might expect, some cultivars taste better than others, but all are capable of producing oil. Again as one might expect, clever food chemists and engineers (hopefully none of my former colleagues) have discovered ways to eliminate disagreeable flavors and aromas by chemical treatment (much like caffeine is removed from coffee). The resulting oil is edible and safe, but it hardly qualifies for EVOO status – having violated the prohibition against chemical processing. With no enforcement of the rules, converting inferior oil to ostensibly better oil that will command a higher price has become a standard practice in many areas.
I mentioned in my earlier blog on olive oil that most of the olive oil imported to the U.S. from Italy actually is not oil produced in Italy. Fortunately, most of the popular brands that I have examined state this quite clearly on their label – albeit in very small and difficult to find print. These non-Italian oils are produced primarily in Spain, Portugal, Greece, Turkey, Morocco, Tunisia, and South America and exported to Italy for blending, bottling, and export.
Importing and exporting olive oil does not happen quickly, and time is important. As a matter of chemistry, the antioxidants, which help to make EVOO so special, like to react with other compounds and do so easily, particularly at elevated temperatures. The 86° F temperature limit on EVOOs was imposed for very good reason! These reactions also occur at lower temperatures, but at a much slower rate. Consequently, oils that spend weeks or months traveling from one country to another (and then a third) are clearly not as fresh and certainly not as nutritious as oils bottled the same day the olives were picked and crushed (as many fine EVOOs are).
In light of all of this, you may be tempted to give up on olive oil entirely – but I sincerely hope it is only a temptation. There is a way for us to get what we are paying for.
I will submit that your kitchen should be stocked with two EVOOs, one for cooking and one for eating. By eating, I mean using on foods after they have been cooked, or for salads or dipping. You should be comfortable with the taste of both oils, but especially the finishing (eating) oil. It should be intensely fruity, acrid (remember this is a good thing), and peppery. I should mention here that true EVOOs are rated as robust, medium, or delicate – terms chosen to reflect the intensity of the three important taste sensations. If the sensations of the robust oil are too much for you, move down a notch. Clearly, tasting before you buy is important.
Fortunately, there are an ever increasing number of EVOO purveyors offering tasting opportunities, especially in and around metropolitan areas. I suspect if you “google” Olive Oil Store you will find one nearby that you can visit and experience the taste of a real EVOO. You’ll pay a bit more, but it’s worth the premium. This is now your finishing, or eating, oil. No cooking allowed. You’ll destroy the polyphenols!!
Now you need a good cooking oil. I suggest a can or bottle of anything with the label: Product of [country name]. I prefer the country be Italy, Spain, or Greece. This means the oil inside was produced in that country. I’ve discovered excellent cooking oils in the $15 to $20 per liter range.
Author Mueller has created a web site entitled Truth In Olive Oil, where he offers his opinions of several specific EVOOs and where to buy them. If I’ve piqued your interest, this is a good place to start. I also have two recommendations of my own, but remember these are oils that satisfy my taste requirements – not necessarily yours. For cooking, I use Saica Brand Castelvetrano Oil, a product of Sicily. My preferred finishing oil is Frantoia, a product of Italy. Both are robust EVOOs.
I would enjoy (and learn from) hearing from you about the EVOOs you’ve discovered and use. I suspect other readers might, too. You can share your experiences by clicking on the Comments link at the top right or bottom left on this blog and then entering the information in the pop-up window that appears. I look forward to hearing from you.
P.S. I have another recommendation. Please stay away from oils labeled just Olive Oil, or Light Olive Oil – regardless of the price. You’ll need to read Extra Virginity to learn all the reasons why, but to sum up with a generalization (meaning there could be exceptions): the oils in these bottles would be very distasteful were it not for the (sometimes extensive) chemical processing they received. You are better advised to select the least expensive EVOO, even if it is not pure extra virgin!