Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Buying Extra Virgin Olive Oil: Fresh is Best!

Because there are no Federal Standards for Extra Virgin olive oil in the United States, our country has become the dumping ground of inferior, adulterated olive oils from Europe. The words “Extra Virgin” offer no quality guarantee. A label containing this renowned phrase can be slapped on a bottle of spring water or soda pop and sold as Extra Virgin olive oil. Is this an illegal activity? No, except, perhaps, in California. Most American consumers of olive oil are consuming a product that is flavorless, flawed and lacking in the health benefits they are desperately seeking. The Western Farm Press reported on November 30, 2009 that California Olive Council Executive Director Patricia Darragh has been sharply critical of a lack of federal standards for olive oil. “We have become a market for oil that is potentially adulterated or mislabeled,” Darragh said.

This is unfortunate given the health benefits of olive oil are extolled in the press every day. The benefits are an established, scientific fact. Most consumers get that. What they don’t understand is all olive oils are not the same. They are unaware and confused about buying and using this natural nectar to maximum its flavor and health benefits.

How can you be assured of buying quality Extra Virgin olive oil? To begin, the source of the oil is crucial. The mislabeled, adulterated oils from Europe referred to earlier are usually "bulk" olive oils. These are found commonly on the shelves of mega supermarkets. They are cheap. When you see the words “Imported" or "Packed from Italy,” run. The source of fruit for these oils can be from most anywhere in the Mediterranean, and perhaps, cut with other seed oils. Some bulk producers are now listing on the label the countries supplying the fruit. Moreover, the age of the oil is usually a mystery and the shipping and storage conditions are often suspect. Consequently, flavor, freshness and health benefits are lacking.

Now here's what you want. Quality can be found with estate Extra Virgin olive oils. With these olive oils the when and the where are known. The individual grower has sole control over the process from tree to bottle. The fruit is usually handpicked (some excellent oils are mechanically harvested). With these dedicated, hardworking folks there's no sourcing fruit from another country. Their trees are family. The tender loving care is evident by their flavor and freshness.

Now, how do you know if it's an estate olive oil? The answer often lies in the fine print... the harvest date. The front or back label should state the date or year of harvest. The label will read, "November 2008" or simply the year. Some oils from the recent 2009 harvest are available now. These are referred to as new, nuovo or nouveau Extra Virgin olive oils. Intense pungency and pepperiness are their trademark, and super healthy. Most of the oil from the 2009 harvest will become available by early spring.

Why is the harvest date important? Olive oil is not like wine. It does not get better with age. The fresher the oil, the more flavorful and healthful it is. Oxidation and deterioration begins immediately after the fruit is picked from the tree, if not before. Olive oil should be consumed within 18-24 months from the harvest (18 months is better). In the northern hemisphere olives are harvested in the autumn, usually October, November and December. The southern hemisphere harvest occurs during our spring. Presently, the freshest available oils are from the southern hemisphere, except for the recently harvested new oils.

Alternative to the harvest date, a Best Used By (expiration) date is commonly listed on the bottle or label. Generally, this date is two years (or 18 months) subsequent to the harvest. For example, if the bottle indicates it’s Best to use by 12/10,” then you know the olives were harvested in the autumn of 2008. Buyer beware, many gourmet retailers will gladly sell you a three or four year-old olive oil for $35-40.

To what regions of the globe should be you looking for these estate growers? Your options are vast and fun. Here's a sampling of treasurers. First the earlier negative reference to "Imported from Italy," should no way reflect poorly on the Italian estate growers. These passionate folks produce outstanding olive oil. For your holiday gift giving consider the 2008 harvest in Tuscany was the best in a decade. Other regions in Italy produce fabulous olive oils. For ten years, my desert island oil (should I ever be stranded on one) is Ravidá from Sicily. Spain is now pouring out a flood of extraordinary oils. My good friend Rosa Vañó produces a steller portfolio at Castillo de Canena. Italy's historic bulk supplier, Tunisia, now has an expanding group of estate growers producing and bottling quality olive oil. France has Jean-Benôit Hugues' Castelas in Le Baux,Provence.

California has entered a oil boom and not with rigs. Chris Banthien's Le Colline in Santa Cruz and Apollo's Mistral have been my favorites for years. Australia (Rylstone), New Zealand, South Africa, and Chile (Olavé) are storming on to the scene with quality product that is worthy of a place in your pantry. So explore and have fun. Yet, always remember that Fresh is Best.


Robert said...

Thanks Bill and Page for educating on these continued olive oil scams (pressings, blendings, labelings, pricings etc.). For me?--- I use "inferior" oils when combining with butter to raise the smoke point (is this the correct phrase?). More polished olive oils are used with finishings.

Bill Sanders said...

Thanks for your comment Robert. Adding some butter is perfectly fine. I will do that with certain dishes if I want to thicken the sauce. I would not be too concerned about smoke point. I heard researchers from Greece, Spain and Australia this summer who debunked this smoke point idea. This got started with celebrity chefs who know little about olive oil. Culinary Institute of America-Greystone is on a crusade to educate chefs about the positives of cooking with olive oil. Darrell Corti, a renowned expert on all things food, olive oil and wine says, "If you are concerned about smoke point you better get out of the house." Having said that I keep grapeseed oil around for extremely high heat cooking. For most home cooks, they don't use enough high heat to merit the concern. Adding the food lowers the temperature. You are so right to save a premium oil for drizzling after cooking. Most folks fail to realize olive oil is a lubricant and a condiment. By drizzling you add flavor, freshness and health benefits.

Nadia said...

Your posts are excellent and you mention many countries that produce olive oil. But where is Greece? After all, the Ancient Greeks were the first to produce it 3000 years ago and they still continue (although they are not ancient anymore). They have fabulous oils worth discovering, even in "remote" USA.
All my best wishes for 2010

Bill Sanders said...

Nadia, thank you for pointing out my obvious, but inadvertent omission. The Koroneiki olive from which top quality Greek oils are produced has been a favorite of mine for years. Cretan oils have been particularly enjoyable. The mellow to medium Koroneiki based olive oils are particularly suited to America palates. I will correct this error in future postings.

I appreciate your taking the time to comment and hold me accountable. My goal is to educate, inform and promote, but never a critic.

JJ said...


I am new in this blog (I am here through a LinkedIn post) and I am from Spain, one of best olive oil origin of the world.

I would like to post about to issues:
a) Olive countries.- There are just a dozen of countries where olive trees can give good fruits. In Spain, the country with more olive trees by far, there are thousands of little (and some great) producers with a best quality but with a lack in marketing issues. At the end, Italy has become the cradle of olive oil for a lot of markets (like the USA) just about this issue. And even some spanish producers uses italian style brand names to market their oil abroad.
b) In Spain we use to change the oil once a year. That depends on the harvest (quality and quantity) but arround january or february all the last year oil is used to make "coupage" with new oil. And some weeks later all the oil is only from the last harvest. No label indicate the year of the harvest, but as the oil is bottled just when it is sold, there is no problem about that. Different thing is the export market, where sellers and buyers can do almost anything.

LuPapa said...

well, if you'd be interested, I could submit the chance to buy an exceptional extra virgin (really!) olive oil from Abruzzo, Italy.
let's talk?
this is my email:


Amber @ Native Food and Wine said...

Excellent post. I've been learning about olive oil for about 4 years now and there are such vast differences in quality in the states. It's appalling that consumers are being sold an inferior proudct that they have been mislead about.

I'm currently in Tuscany and am lucky to live in an area where I can have my choice of the freshest, purest product. This time of year is especially nice because the oils are only 4-5 months old and very peppery. They'll mellow as they age of course but I like them fresh and green.

I'd also like to find out what type of chemicals are used in refinement.

I'm happy to have found you through Linked In. I'll check back for more posts in the future. Please keep in touch!