What the heck is “Extra Virgin Olive Oil?” I’ve often wondered that. Every time a TV cook used that phrase, I would chuckle. How can any oil (or person, for that matter) be an “extra” virgin? Last I checked, you’re either a virgin or you’re not. Anybody who claims they’re extra-virgin must be a saint in shining armor.
The other day, curiosity led me to my computer where I spent some time researching the subject of olive oil. I learned a lot of interesting facts I’d like to share with readers. I even learned what extra-virgin olive oil is – or is supposed to be.
I say “supposed to be” because fully 70 percent of olive oils sold in the United States and in many other countries as “extra virgin” are anything but. So, as they say, caveat emptor – let the buyer beware.
Genuine extra-virgin olive oil is derived from the first cold pressing of fresh olives right off the trees. It must contain no more than 0.8 percent acidity and must past the taste test, with no “sensory defects,” which are described as the oil tasting musty, fusty, winey (vinegary) or with muddy sediments. A “first cold press” means the olives were crushed just one time using no high heat or chemicals. Only about 10 percent of all olive oils sold are genuine extra-virgin.
Just plain old “virgin olive oil,” if it’s the real thing, can have acidity levels of up to 1.5 percent and must be deemed to taste “good.”
Then there are lower grades of olive oil, which are OK, but they are derived from many processes usually resulting in inferior grades of olive oil, blended before bottling, from many sources in many countries. I used to think if a bottle was stamped with “Product of Italy,” it must be the real thing. Not necessarily so. I learned oil may be bottled in Italy, but its contents are often a mongrel melange of inferior oils from far and wide.
In 2008, 400 Italian police raided 85 farms and arrested 23 people in what was known as “Operation Golden Oil.” These so-called olive-oil producers had been adding chlorophyll to sunflower oil and soybean oil and passing it off as “extra-virgin olive oil.” Years ago in Spain, an estimated 700 people may have died after consuming an extra-virgin olive oil that was, in fact, rapeseed oil adulterated with aniline (an industrial lubricant). Another example of olive-oil fraud is Swedish turnip oil, flavored and colored, posing as the real thing.
I don’t mean to alarm people. I’m sure all olive oils, including inferior ones on market shelves in the United States, are likely safe. I’ve purchased almost all brands of oil available at local markets and found most to be at least decent-tasting. But then again, I’ve probably never tasted the genuine article – the extra-virgin.
Sales of olive oil amount to about $1.5 billion in the United States, because in recent years, heart-healthy olive oil, like fine wines, has gained a wider consumer base. So it comes as a disappointment to learn we’ve been paying inflated prices for inferior oils labeled as “extra-virgin.”
According to olive-oil experts, known as oleologists, there are ways to read bottle labels that can give strong indications if extra-virgin is, in fact, extra-virgin.
1. Look for a harvest date. High-quality olive oils should be used within 60 days of that date.
2. The region of a country the oil is from.
3. The “cultivar” (type of olive used). Fake olive oils don’t have this on their labels.
If a bottle does not have that information, it’s probably not extra-virgin or even virgin.
Like good wines, the best oils impart unique tastes due to climate and soils. The tastes can have hints of green-apple skin, fresh-cut grass aroma, banana, pine nut, almonds or other, depending on where they’re from. They can also have peppery or floral “finish.” But unlike wines, olive oils do not age well. Not at all. The fresher the olive oil the better. Store the bottle in a cool, dark place.
According to experts, here are the brands to avoid if you are seeking the finest oils: Bertolli, Carapelli, Colavita, Pompeiian, Newman’s Own. Those are, unfortunately, the most common brands in local markets.
Here are some of the finest, whose prices range from very reasonable to costly: Omaggio, Ottavio, Corto Olive, Trader Joes, Oleostepa, Lucini, Kirkland Organic, Cobram Estate, Lucero, McEvoy Ranch Organic, California Olive Ranch. Today, I ordered two bottles of the latter from amazon.com. It cost $11.39 for a 25.4 fluid-ounce bottle. Not a bad price. Shipping was $4.95. I’m eager to try a genuine extra-virgin olive oil, probably for the first time in my life.