One of my favourite regions in Italy is Tuscany.
Italian extra virgin olive oil is world renowned and it is probably safe to say that it is the bedrock of Italian cooking. Not only is it used liberally as a cooking oil to sear, baste, grill, and sauté; it is a dressing, a condiment, and a rub. So when I received an invitation to spend not only a weekend in Tuscany but also to go olive picking, I jumped at the opportunity.
Traditionally, November is olive picking time in Italy and it seemed that I had chosen the ideal weekend to go-pleasant temperature and a sprinkling of sunshine. Olive picking days start early and usually end at sunset and like on most grooves it’s all manual. It’s a hands-on job, in fact, in these small family own grooves little has changed over the centuries.
The tools are as basic as they come, a net, a hand rack, ladder and crates. Olive laden trees with their feathery leaves are racked branch by branch as the olives rain down onto the net carpeting the ground below.
I was only halfway through my first tree when I realized how time consuming the process was and also how very physical. If I wished to make it to sunset I needed to pace myself.
Steadily, crate by crate began to be filled with jewel-coloured olives. Working through the day surrounded by nature in the open air, with my bare hands combing the branches of these gently yielding ancient plants was also therapeutic. While the trees I picked from were just over 60 years old, the oldest olive tree in Italy is said to be over 3,500 years old- oh the stories these trees could tell.
After two days of picking we had harvested over 300 kgs of olives. At this stage, I wanted to follow my olives all the way to the mill where they are pressed the olive juice, or what we call extra virgin olive oil (EVOO). To ensure the highest quality EVOO olives are pressed within 24 hours of harvesting.
Luckily when I arrived at the mill production was in full swing. The process was simple and fast:
The olives were placed on a conveyer belt where there were cleaned;
They were immediately moved to the grinder where they were grounded into a paste;
Next the milled paste is malaxed or churned slowly;
After the paste is placed onto fibre mats where they are pressed and the oil is separated from the vegetable, water and solids;
The separated EVOO is collected and later bottled.
While the harvesting process was more difficult than I expected, the milling process was simpler than I thought. The real challenge, however, lies in getting this high-quality EVOO to your table. So here are some very interesting facts I’ve learned about EVOO that would surprise you.
Firstly, extra virgin olive oil is the juice exacted from the olive, unadulterated-no chemicals, heat, or further processing. Now I bet you will be shocked to learn that the vast majority of what is sold around the world as, ‘extra virgin olive oil,’ isn’t virgin at all.
In fact, Tom Mueller, the author of “Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, confirms that, “Real extra-virgin olive oil is fresh-squeezed fruit juice; after all, olives are stone fruits, like plums or cherries. The fake stuff is dead liquid industrial fat.” Mueller claims that 70% of imported olive oils sold in the United States are fake and diluted with cheap vegetable oils. Even worst, The New York times warns it’s closer to 80% and “much of the extra virgin olive oil flooding the world’s market shelves is neither Italian nor virgin.”
So what are you buying? Well the experts say, its either it’s low quality falsely marked as virgin or extra-virgin – and not even from Italy – or it’s been mixed with other oils of dubious provenance. At worst, it’s not olive oil at all but a vegetable oil disguised with colouring and aroma.
Sadly, it highly possible that the EVOO in your kitchen is possibly an imposter- a blended oil diluted with a cheap soybean, canola or seed oil or mixed with lower-grade olive oil that’s been chemically refined. It turns out that even the trusted well-known brands are in on this deception.
Olive Oil fraud is big business, it’s supported by complex networks that are well established globally. So as a lone wolf consumer how do you ensure what your buying is the really deal. The bad news is that there are no guarantees. Unless you are buying directly from a scrupulous producer or making your olive oil yourself, like I did, there is really no telling what you are getting.
That being said, here are a few things that you should be aware of when selecting your next bottle of EVOO.
Have you ever simply opened a fresh bottle of olive oil and just tasted it?
Just like different grape varieties used for wines, there are more than 1,000 olive varieties, each with its own unique taste characteristics.
Olive oil is ‘the juice of olives’, and therefore its taste depends on the characteristics of the olive variety, where the olives are cultivated and the harvest of any particular year.
For this reason, there is a great variety of flavours, from smooth, ‘sweet’ ones to those with bitter or peppery notes of various intensities.
Bitterness is a characteristic of olives, as is spiciness.
Fresh, grassy, bitter, together with fruitiness are attributes present and well-balanced in the best extra virgin olive oils.
2. Expiration Date
Unlike wine, olive oil does not get better with age.
Reputable olive oils have expiration dates printed on their labels. They should also have the harvested and pressed date- which should be no more than 24 hours apart. Now with widespread fraud, even these labels are not always honestly recorded. An unopened bottle of EVOO when stored properly- darkly coloured bottle at a cool temperature has a shelf life of approximately 2 years from its harvest date. Opened and stored at room temperature and out of direct sunlight it should be consumed within one year after opening.
3. The Bottle
Avoid anything in a clear glass bottle, no matter how pretty and enticing the label. Light is the great enemy of olive oil and the oil inside will likely have lost most of its flavour and aroma. Look for extra-virgin olive oil in dark glass bottles or, better yet, opaque tins.
4. Seal of Approval
High quality extra virgin olive oil are labelled with a stamp of origin- “Protected Designation of Origin” or PDO/PDI stamp indicating the precise geographical origin of a particular extra virgin olive oil to ensure the quality of that region’s agricultural products.
So check your EVOO passport:
The European Union’s PDO ‘Protected Designation of Origin’ stamp
Italy’s new 100% Quality Italian stamp
The California Olive Oil Commission’s “Extra Virgin Seal” for California oils
Once again the bad news for consumers is that even these supposedly strict control standards have been compromised and have not escaped the fraudster.
5. Cold Pressured