A Purist’s Guide to Olive Oil
What image comes to mind when you pick up a
bottle of extra virgin olive oil? A small, sunny grove
buzzing with workers rushing their olives to the local
mill for pressing? The reality may in fact be quite
different. While many producers in the Mediterranean
turn out fresh, estate-bottled olive oil, some large
manufacturers may blend oils from Turkey and North
Africa along with local pressings. It’s even possible
that the “extra virgin” bottle in your kitchen doesn’t
meet the extra virgin standards set by the International
Olive Council (IOC), which is based in Madrid.
MASKING AND MASS-MARKET MISINFORMATION
Purchasing high-quality oil isn’t as simple as looking for
the words “extra virgin” or “product of Italy” on the label.
Producers in Spain, Italy, and Greece account for the bulk
of the world’s olive oil. But producers in Tunisia, Syria, and
Morocco have steady output too. Some of this oil is exported
for bottling to countries such as Italy, which has greater cachet
“Product of Italy” on the label could mask the oil’s origins by
implying it was produced there. (To meet U.S. Customs
regulations, the label should also list the countries where the
oil’s olives came from.) “The mass market olive oils may or may
not be blends from different countries, but they rarely come
from one farm,” says Ari Weinzweig, cofounder of Zingerman’s,
a food specialty business in Ann Arbor, Mich.
CALIFORNIA RAISES THE BAR
Most olive oil—producing countries are members of the IOC,
but the United States is not—which means importers and
distributors of olive oil in the U.S. are not bound by IOC
But a new California state law, which went into effect in
January, defines grades of olive oil comparable to IOC standards
and requires producers to follow them. The main
categories are extra virgin: oil with low acidity extracted only
by physical means (ideally within 24 hours of harvest); olive oil:
a blend of heat-refined oils and virgin oils; and olive-pomace
oil: a blend of virgin oils and the oils extracted with chemical
solvents from the flesh and pits of olives after pressing.
Until now, quality control fell to trade groups such as the
North American Olive Oil Association (NAOOA), which
represents companies selling imported oil. “The overwhelming
majority of the industry already follows the international
standard that was created by the IOC. In fact, our members
have to agree to abide by that as a point of membership, and
that is one of the reasons we test their oils,” says NAOOA
President Bob Bauer. His organization would like national grade
standards instituted and supports the California law. Connecticut’s
new regulation, which went in to effect in November,
matches the IOC standards for olive oil sold in that state.
California produces 99 percent of U.S. olive oil and is on
track to plant 10,000 additional acres every year through 2020.
Advocates hope the new standards will help put the state’s olive
oil on a level playing field with imports. “Almost all California
olive oil is at the top grade—extra virgin—so the law probably
won’t have too much impact on California because they’re
already producing really high-quality olive oil,” says Dan Flynn,
executive director of the University of California Davis Olive
Center. “Where the impact will be more strongly seen is with
the olive oil imported into the U.S., which to date really has
not needed to conform to any kind of grade standards.”
Not only will the new law eliminate blend masking and
clarify olive oil grades in California, but other states will
benefit as well, says Patricia Darragh, executive director of
the California Olive Oil Council. “It would be difficult to
send a big shipment to the U.S. and segregate some product
for California, so importers will most likely heed the California
grade standards,” she adds.
TASTE THE DIFFERENCE
When it comes to evaluating the olive oil you buy, the truest
test of quality is its flavor. Weinzweig’s advice? “If it’s not good
stuff, it won’t taste good!” To train your palate, Flynn suggests
taste-testing an inexpensive extra virgin olive oil against a high-end
one to discover the differences.
“Extra virgin can have a degree of bitterness and a degree of
spiciness, which some people might interpret as flaws, but in
fact are positive attributes, as long as they don’t outweigh the
fruitiness of the oil,” he says. Think of how bitterness enhances
dark chocolate or espresso, he suggests; compare spiciness to
the pleasant heat of fresh chiles. “Because really fine olive oil is
used as a condiment, these elements are intended to enhance
the food you’re eating in the same way tannin in red wine can
enhance a dish,” adds Flynn.
For vegetarian cooks, olive oil adds flavor and richness to
vegetable-based dishes. “I like using extra virgin olive oil
because it allows me to get down to much more simple
flavors, tastes, and cooking styles,” says Steve Petusevsky,
executive chef and author of The Whole Foods Market Cookbook.
“If I’m grilling vegetables, I’ll baste them with extra virgin
olive oil, fresh lemon, vinegar, and fresh herbs for a really
simple cooking medium.”
And remember: blends and nonvirgin oils can be great
additions to your cooking arsenal as long as you know
what you’re getting. For sautéing and roasting, supermarket
extra virgins, such as Bertolli, Colavita, and Carapelli, are
reliable. Just save those artisan-made, premium extra virgin
oils to dress salads, dip bread, or finish cooked dishes where
you can really taste the sunshine of the groves and the care
of the producers.
How to Choose an Extra Virgin
1. Look for a seal from the North American Olive Oil Association or the California Olive
Oil Council (COOC) to guarantee the extra virgin grade. Note whether the oil comes from
a single country or is a blend of several countries’ oils, which may be of varying quality.
2. Check the date “If there’s not a pressing or harvest date or a seal on the bottle,
I would be careful,” cautions COOC Executive Director Patricia Darragh. Most oils stay
fresh up to 24 months after pressing.
3. Less is more “Buy in small quantities so you can go through it quickly instead of
storing for a long time,” says Darragh. Dark-colored glass bottles reduce damage from
natural and artificial light. Preserve freshness by keeping in a dark, cool cupboard away
from the stove.
4. Mind the store Buy from a retailer that has fast product turnover, displays olive oil
away from windows or fluorescent lights, and offers tastes before you buy. He or she
should be able to match you up with the right oil, much like a clerk in a wine shop.