Now, sadly, it is necessary to raise the issue of EVOO yet again. Earlier this month, this time thanks to the CBS program, 60 Minutes, I learned the situation with counterfeit olive oil is much worse that I had imagined or reported. Since I have been, and will continue to be, an outspoken proponent for extra virgin olive oil, especially the Italian and Sicilian oils, I think it is necessary and appropriate to share at least a summary of the latest disturbing news with you, too. You can view the full CBS report on YouTube.
To be a bit melodramatic, the byline for this report could be, “The Mafia Strikes Again!” In fact, in Italy it’s called Agromafia because of the extent to which the Mafia has infiltrated the food industry there. And it’s not just olive oil that is suspect. Italian wines and cheeses also are often mislabeled and sold as higher quality, and higher priced, goods.
CBS reports that late last year, 7,000 tons of counterfeit EVOO from North Africa was seized by the Italian authorities. In the last two years, 59 thousand tons of mislabeled or adulterated food has been confiscated before it could be sold in Italian markets or exported. Not surprisingly, Tom Mueller was interviewed as part of this news report. Mueller estimates that 75 to 80 percent of the oil exported from Italy to the United States and sold here as extra virgin does not meet the technical qualifications for that classification. Stated more personally, when we buy Italian EVOO, there is a better than 3 in 4 chance that we are being cheated!
Some of you will say, “Then don’t buy Italian oils!” Frankly, and very sadly, you’re probably correct. I’m not quite ready to throw in the proverbial towel, however – but I’m close. To be clear, my passion for Italian oils is driven mostly because of my heritage, and not because Italian oils are better than others. Authentic Italian (and Sicilian) EVOOs can be superb, but the same can be said for EVOOs from many other parts of the world. My personal list of non-Italian favorites are produced in Spain, Greece, and California. I also have experienced extraordinary oils from Lebanon (thanks to a Kalamazoo purveyor of middle eastern products).
To those of you that love EVOO as much as I do, I suspect you already have your favorites. To those of you who buy EVOO more casually, I recommend you avoid anything from Italy – unless the label clearly states that it was estate bottled (you will also know by the higher price). They may be more difficult to find in some areas, but oils from other areas can be excellent and are much more likely to be authentic. Most important, each authentic EVOO has a unique taste, so in the final analysis you must be completely satisfied with the effect it has on your palate.
[Sidenote: Thanks to my brother-in-law who first recommended it, and for those of you with access to Trader Joe’s, I suggest you try their Extra Virgin California Estate Olive Oil. It is made from Arbequina olives; it has a robust olive flavor; and it is reasonably priced. Mille grazie, Den! ]
I cannot conclude this blog without including something positive, so I will tell you about three recipes that I have posted recently.
First, I found yet another use for 6 IN Brand Ground Tomatoes: Goat Cheese in Tomato Sauce. The recipe was inspired by two readers, Donise and David. Mille grazie to you both. It is ultra-simple to prepare, spicy and delicious, and was a huge hit with guests over the holiday season!
I recently enjoyed a bowl of delicious Smoked Cheese Soup at a local restaurant (Martell’s, for those of you living in the greater Kalamazoo area). I’ve learned not to ask the chef for recipes, but I do often ask for a list of principal ingredients. The answer this time was, “Smoked cheddar cheese and Bell’s Two Hearted Ale” (a superb locally brewed beer). That prompted me to decide to create my own version knowing that the restaurant’s soup also clearly contained some veggies! I decided to use as many Italian ingredients as possible so I could call it Italian Smoked Cheddar Cheese Soup.
I will close by sharing a childhood memory that is as vivid as any I have – my mother’s Banana Cream Pie. It was my father’s favorite, so she would make it for him frequently – complete with a Graham Cracker Pie Crust and Pie Meringue. It became one of my favorites, too. I’ve had her recipe in my files for decades, but I have only made the pie a few times. I made it again so I could include a picture and the recipe with this blog. It tasted as good as I remembered it. Perhaps you’ll give it a try, too.
Goat Cheese in Tomato Sauce.
Italian Smoked Cheddar Cheese Soup.
Banana Cream Pie.