Extra Virgin Olive Oil: What’s all the fuss about?

If you are reading this, you probably have some Extra Virgin Olive Oil in your home: well, at least you think you do.

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve become something of an expert in labelling requirements for olive oil, which, as you can see by clicking this link, has caused me more than a few sleepless nights.https://olivehillsabina.com/2021/10/05/farming-and-bureaucracy-in-the-organic-style/

Here in Italy, we sell our new season’s oil fresh from the farm gate, with people buying upwards of 20 litres of the stuff in order to sustain them for the year ahead.

Olio Nuovo

In autumn, we pour fresh, green, “olio nuovo” onto our bread, and guzzle it down daily. It’s our post harvest treat. The flavour of our organic, unfiltered EVOO changes as it ages, but it remains DEElicious, In winter we use it as a condiment on top of hearty, warming soups. Once spring arrives we start to add it to our salad leaves (no need for any balsamic vinegar when the oil tastes this good), and then, when we finally reach the warm days of summer, we pour lashings of our oil over chopped tomatoes and basil.

Extra virgin olive oil is an essential part of the Mediterranean Diet, consumed in huge quantities with gusto. Its health giving properties are hailed as one of the reasons people here live so well for so long. We have friends locally (a family of four) who reckon they get through around three litres of EVOO every week.

Extra Virgin Olive Oil is, in effect, olive juice. Olives, being fruit, spoil just like any fruit does, so you want to know that your olives were as fresh as possible when they reached the olive mill. The longer an olive takes to reach an olive mill, the poorer the quality of the fruit, and therefore the oil. And just because it says Italian on the bottle, it doesn’t mean that the contents are Italian. Olives harvested and processed in one EU country, but bottled here, can legally be described as Italian. This is one of the reasons that Italy exports more olive oil than Italian olive trees produce every year; other reasons are explored in this New Yorker Magazine exposee from 2007: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2007/08/13/slippery-business

There are, in fact, several grades of olive oil on the market:

Extra Virgin Olive Oil is the highest quality available: the purest, the healthiest and, of course, the tastiest. Olives are crushed, and then the oil is extracted by means of pressing or centrifuging, at low temperatures. The oil is “unrefined”, i.e. obtained without the use of heat or chemicals. To be classed as Extra Virgin, the oil must also be free from taste defects. All the “good bits” are still there, such as the health giving polyphenols, the antioxidants, and, of course, that delicious, peppery, fruity flavour.

Virgin Olive Oil is still obtained from the crushing of olives, without the use of heat or chemical extraction, but the oil is of a lower quality than EVOO, and may also have taste defects.

Next comes Olive Oil – often marketed as “pure” or “light” olive oil. This consists at least partially of refined oil: that is to say oil that has been extracted from olives using heat and / or chemicals such as hexane, caustic soda or bleach. Clearly, the best olives are saved from this fate. The process removes the flavour and colour from the oil, as well as its health giving properties. In order to reintroduce some flavour and aroma, it can be blended with some higher quality oil. “Light” olive oil is a fantastic marketing trick, referring as it does to its light colour, rather than the lack of fat. It is important to note that this product, despite not having any of the taste credentials or health giving properties of EVOO, is still sold at a considerable price premium when compared to regular vegetable and seed oils.

Finally, there is Pomace Oil. Just don’t. That’s all you need to know.

You may, of course, be happy to fry in “pure olive oil”. Then again, you may prefer to spend less money and fry in any old oil. But do please watch out for oils with names such as “Olivio Oil”, with that pretty “Tuscan” hill town on its label, which are not even “pure olive oil”, but still relieve you of several pounds per litre thanks to those clever marketing folk …

So …

How to choose quality olive oil …

Olive Hill olives

Really good quality EVOO is freshly squeezed olive juice: the better the olive, the better the olive oil.

The flavour of EVOO degrades with time.

So buy oil with a recent harvest date on its label. That way, you know your oil is as tasty as it can be.

EVOO hates light. It will at best lose its flavour, and quite likely go rancid when exposed to light. So please don’t buy olive oil in a clear glass (or plastic) bottle.

And I’m sorry, but quality EVOO is expensive. Each litre of oil that we produce here at Olive Hill takes around six to ten man (or indeed woman) hours of labour.

Organic olives take more input and produce lower yields than their non organic counterparts. But they are so much better for the planet.

Our olives are harvested early, to maximise flavour and polyphenols. They are raked from the trees by hand (to prevent them from bruising) onto olive nets. We then sort the olives, discarding any spoilt or grubby ones, and take them to our olive mill, which is a five minute drive from the farm. The olives are milled in small batches that same day, and so the olive juice is as freshly squeezed as it can possibly be. This care, and attention to detail takes time.

What I’m trying to say is that you probably wouldn’t choose to knowingly eat a bruised, days old windfall apple, or a rotten strawberry. Therefore, you might prefer not to pay a large premium in order to ingest “Italian” olive oil made from bruised olives that have been milled several weeks after they were harvested.

So now,

Please do me a favour.

Go to your cupboard, and see what type of oil you have been buying.

Is it “olivio oil”, “pure olive oil”, or “extra virgin olive oil”? Perhaps you have a mixture …

Now, smell your oils. If they smell ok, please taste them.

Now I’m going to ask you to seek out and taste some really genuine, artisan EVOO

(preferably ours, but the quality is the important bit)

Now …

Which oil would you pour on your ice cream???

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s