Extra Virgin Olive Oil
(Photo”Italian olive oil 2007″ courtesy of Alex Ex.)
For anyone not living in olive tree territory, looking at the last couple of posts on pruning etc, you may well wonder what all the fuss is about. Why worry about keeping trees healthy and why panic when the crop is affected by disease? Can’t you just pop to the supermarket and get a cheap bottle of extra virgin off the shelves? Going by the reaction of the locals here who (until it ran out) were buying the only oil to have been produced this year (the ten per cent that didn’t fail) and paying twelve euros a litre I guess it’s not the same thing at all. The oil that you pay through the nose for at the supermarkets is what people here would use for lighting the lamps (OK this is 2015 but you know what I mean.) People are born here knowing the difference between good oil and bad. They know that there is no substitute. In Italy there is a very definite sense of prestige to go with recognising a good olive oil and people will pay a lot of money to join the ranks of experts. There are professional ‘olive oil taster’s courses advertised which take five days and cost just under a thousand euros for the pleasure! If you take the importance of good quality olive oils up to competition standard you will find people who can explain to you in minute detail the chemical compounds involved and their effects on our bodies. I looked up some information on the magical polyphenols that are so highly sought after in a variety foods including olive oil to try to explain some of these effects but there were far too many words with more than ten letters and I decided to leave that to the experts. In layman’s terms research has found that replacing other oils/fats in the diet with extra virgin olive oil had significantly reduced incidences within their subject group of certain cancers, heart disease, strokes, diabetes, osteoporosis and rheumatoid arthritis to name just a few. If you want to look at it purely from a foodie point of view, the taste of good quality extra virgin olive oil in your recipes is unrivalled. At the most basic level we as consumers are becoming more concerned about what it is that we are putting into our bodies and what it consists of.
So just how do you avoid the lamp oil and procure some of the decent stuff? One of the biggest issues here is the lack of proper controls over how truthful the labelling is. Extra virgin olive oil sold by some of the top names has been outed recently by Tom Mueller, an American in Italy as really only a small percentage of extra virgin oil which has been mixed with a lower grade olive oil, often not from the same country or sometimes another vegetable oil completely. The resulting blend is then chemically coloured, flavoured and deodorised, and sold as extra-virgin to the producers. The other main issue is quality testing; the chemical tests that should by law be performed by exporters of extra virgin oil before it can be labelled and sold as such can often fail to detect adulterated oil, particularly when it has been mixed with products such as deodorised, lower-grade olive oil. National food authorities don’t appear to be particularly bothered as long as the oil isn’t actively harmful, which is rarely the case. If taste tests were done by the people on their thousand euro courses I’m sure that they would soon pick up on the adulteration though!
If you live in a country where olive oil is produced you have a lot more chance of being able to follow it’s tracks and check that the product that you are buying has come from where it says it has. If it has been imported then the footprints are more difficult to follow and unless you are importing directly yourselves then the safest method (although not foolproof) is to buy from specialist food shops and if possible from single producers. A PDO (protected designation of origin) and PGI (protected geographical indication) status on the containers should be more of a guarantee of a genuine product and one more thing to look out for is the date of production. A common trick amongst the fake oils is to put previous years’ oils in with the mix because these are worth a lot less money. Olive oil is at it’s best for a year really. Two years is its maximum and then it starts to become inedible.
As a note to this, remember to keep your lovely genuine oil, when you find it, in a dark cool place. Ideally it wants to stay in stainless steel or dark glass containers, away from direct sunlight and at a constant temperature of 14/15 degrees centigrade. Much higher or lower than that and your oil will be spoiled and will never regain it’s flavour or qualities. So at the end of the day it’s not just the trees that are pampered…right down to the final product the olive needs to be treated like royalty to give you it’s best.