I’m pretty sure I have more olive oil than blood running through my veins. I cook with it and consume it every day; in fact, it is in the biscotto on which I am munching at this very moment.
And yet I find the whole subject of olive oil confusing, not to mention disheartening these days. Thanks to recent reporting in books and articles and on the web, not only do we know that all olive oil is NOT created equal, but that a large percentage of it is created poorly, on purpose. Up to half of the olive oil that arrives in the U.S. is in some way adulterated, reports Tom Mueller in his book Extra Virginity—mislabeled, cut with inferior vegetable oil or doctored with artificial coloring. The words “extra-virgin” or “cold-pressed” on a bottle don’t guarantee a good product, and the words “product of Italy” mean only that the oil contained therein was bottled in Italy, not necessarily made there.
How do you make sense of the labels on the dozens and dozens of bottles lined up on grocery store shelves like this one:
I wanted clarity on this cloudy subject, so I contacted Luanne Savino O’Loughlin, manager of Olio2go, an online (and bricks and mortar) retailer of Italian olive oil based in Fairfax, VA. Luanne and I “met” via social media, and she agreed to answer some questions. She also invited me to do a tasting and a Glorious Pasta of Italy book signing this Thursday (9/20) at Olio2go’s new store in Fairfax (scroll down to the bottom of this post for more info).
DM: I’ve heard that the term “extra-virgin” doesn’t necessarily mean the olive oil is good. How can you tell if what you’re buying is good olive oil? What should you look for on the label?
LO: In a nutshell, the more detail the better. Ideally, one will see the harvest date, best by date (less than 2 years from the harvest date), and properly used certifications if DOP (a translated abbreviation for Protected Designation of Origin) and/or Organic. The best will have the address of the estate in Italy. Product of Italy means only that the olive oil was bottled in Italy. It is not a guarantee that it contains olives grown in Italy. It’s good to have a skeptical eye!
DM: Not many people can afford to spend $30, $40 or more on a 500 ml (17 fl. oz) bottle of extra-virgin olive oil. What can shoppers expect to pay for a bottle of good-quality, everyday extra-virgin olive oil?
LO: When you hold a bottle of olive oil in your hand, it might be a top quality artisanal production from a small family farm, or it might be a mass produced oil composed olives from any number of farms. The small producer’s trees may yield only 1 liter per tree because he harvests early, as the olives just begin to ripen, producing a flavorful fruit “juice” full of character and pungency. If the other bottle is a mass produced olive oil, it is likely from olives harvested later, yielding three liters per tree or more, of lower quality oil. The later harvested, riper olives will give off a greater amount of oil.
It may be tedious to mention acidity levels, but the lower the acidity level the better. The top quality oils typically have acidity levels ranging from 0.15% to 0.30%. The “threshold” standard for extra virgin olive oil is that the acidity level must be less than 0.8% — that’s the European standard (IOC). Oils that are closer to the 0.8% threshold will generally not keep as well, nor exhibit the characteristics of a good extra virgin olive oil.
It’s not unreasonable to expect to pay $18-$25 for a 500 ml bottle of quality extra virgin olive oil. (We do have a nice selection of bottles in that price range!)
DM: How should I store my olive oil? Once I open it how long will it keep?
LO: Always remember that extra virgin olive oil is the opposite of wine. Use it sooner, rather than later. It does not improve with age. Extra virgin olive oil should be stored in a cool, dark place, and typically that’s not in a cupboard next to the stove. In this region, many of us have basements. I keep my extra bottles in the basement, and only my current oils in the kitchen. In my house a bottle is consumed within three weeks of opening. (We usually have 2-3 bottles open at a time). We recommend that you purchase an amount you can use within three months.
The 2012 harvest is about to commence in Italy, and the harvest will continue through the early months of 2013. We will call all of these oils “2012 harvest”. So, right now, the current oils are the 2011s. Depending on the olive cultivars and traditions, the 2011s should be consumed by early–to-mid 2013. The more vibrant an oil is upon pressing, the longer it retains its flavor characteristics. An unopened Tuscan is likely to still taste very good well after the best-by date.
DM: What contributes to olive oil’s flavor? Some have that smooth “buttery” quality while others taste “grassy” or “bitter” or “green”. What accounts for these different flavor profiles?
LO: We could spend hours discussing the qualities and flavors of various olive oils. There are several influences, with the first being the cultivar. Just as apples have varieties (Granny Smith, Red Delicious, Cortland, etc.), there are many olive cultivars. In the region of Liguria, the Taggiasca olive is the dominant cultivar, while in Tuscany, the Frantoio is the most common. Umbria is famous for the Moraiolo, and you’ll find Nocellara del Belice and Tonda Iblea throughout Sicily.
The microclimate, soil composition, elevation, and even nearby plantings, can affect the noted flavor characteristics. In general, the Taggiasca produces an olive oil that is delicate and perfect for lighter preparations, such as seafood and risotto. The producers in the area of Lucca (west of Florence) press olive oils with Leccino olives and those oils are often regarded as sweet and buttery. The olive oils of the Chianti Classico and the area of Siena, are more likely to be astoundingly dramatic with bitter and peppery characteristics. Similar characteristics have been noted in the oils of Umbria, most often pressed from Moraiolo olives. The oils from Lazio bring forth essence of “green” with heady, leafy aromas. Stunningly, the oils from Sicily often hold forth with elements of grass, herbs, and tomato leaf.
DM: Are there reasons to keep “light” olive oil or “pure” olive oil on hand ~ for frying, for example? Or are these oils generally of questionable quality?
LO: The best olives and optimum pressing yield the best oil, extra virgin olive oil. Extra Virgin Olive Oil, by definition, meets lab values for acidity (and other components) and is defect free (as evaluated by a sensory panel).
From top to bottom olive oil grades include Extra Virgin, Virgin (oil with acidity of less than 2%), Pure (usually a blend of refined and virgin), and even lower grades such as Pomace, Lampante (industrial) and Refined (chemically treated). If you think about it, Pure isn’t.
Light and Pure olive oils are not pressed from the best olives at the optimum time. They are produced from lesser grades of olives and readers should be aware that their processing can even involve solvents to remove the oils from the “mash” or to mask aromas. Some budgets may require their use. I’d rather recommend that the last inch of the bottle [of extra virgin oil] be used for higher heat preparations so a new bottle can be opened for drizzling and salads. We have a bit of a bias and admittedly have a hard time recommending lower grades.
DM: Can you tell us about some of your favorite olive oils?
LO: Is that like asking which child is my favorite?
The stronger flavor characteristics appeal to me. A full-bodied, full-flavored, intense oil from Tuscany, Umbria, or Lazio will always be in my cupboard. The rustic peppery selections for Puglia are there on a regular basis as well. But nothing makes my heart sing like a Sicilian olive oil, each layer is like an instrument in a symphony.
Right now I have Principe di Mascio DOP Colli Assisi-Spoleto (Umbria), Crudo (Puglia), and Rosso from Villa Zottopera (Sicily):
DM: Beyond the usual uses for olive oil ~ sautéing vegetables, salads, bruschetta and such, what are some other ways in which you like to use or feature olive oil as an ingredient?
LO: Most notably at ESCA in New York, my husband and I enjoyed a fabulous gelato made with extra virgin olive oil. That was a treat! Just today my lightly dressed potato salad needed something more – achieved with a drizzle of Frescobaldi. As a finishing oil, a good Tuscan goes well drizzled on a steak or swirled over soup, particularly a tomato-based soup. We use it for grilled and roasted vegetables. Southern Italian oils are very appealing with grain salads, such as a salad made with farro or couscous. A can of drained ceci beans, a clove of garlic, and a pour of good olive oil combine well in a food processor for a bean spread or dip – and an after-school snack.
DM: Thanks so much, Luanne, for talking to us about olive oil.
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BOOK SIGNING: I’ll be signing copies of The Glorious Pasta of Italy ~ and offering a pasta tasting ~ at Olio2go on Thursday, September 20 from 5-8 p.m. If you can make it I’d love to meet you ~ and feed you! No doubt there will be some tasty olive oils to sample as well. Address: 8400 Hilltop Road Fairfax, VA. www.olio2go.com; 703-876-4666.