Adventures in olive oil selection

“It’s hard to decide which one to pick, isn’t it?”

I was standing in front of the olive oil display at my grocery store, reading labels as usual.  My fellow shopper was similarly engaged in choosing a bottle of olive oil.  I smiled and nodded, but thought better of explaining my criteria for picking olive oil: made with olives from a single source.  Most of the popular/less expensive oils are blends, made from olives from different countries.  The usual suspects are Tunisia, Italy, Greece and Spain.  Olives from Argentina are sometimes used.  Olive oils from California or Australia are typically made from olives grown only in those places.  I can usually find olive oil made just from Italian olives, possibly from a single grower.  Sometimes I find oils made from Greek olives.  But I always check, squinting at the tiny print on the label that lists the source of the olives.  I generally avoid oils made from Tunisian olives.

ConsumerLabs recently (subscription required) conducted an evaluation of extra virgin olive oils, rating several popular brands on taste and aroma, and also on chemical analysis of acidity, purity, rancidity and UV absorbency.  Three brands failed the taste test, in that they were not considered to be extra virgin, even though they were labeled as such.  In one case, the oil was rated as a very low grade.  In all cases, the oils listed Tunisia as a possible source of olives.  The taste test description included words like “fusty”*, “rancid”, “bitter” and “burnt”.  ConsumerLabs did point out that chemical analysis of these oils were within normal limits.  They weren’t dangerous.  The problem was the flavor.  But flavor is important.

On possible explanation for these particular results: a crop failure in Tunisia this past season.  Olive production was down by over half.  A drought was blamed, but there’s also evidence that mismanagement of the water supply contributed to the problem.  There are claims that water was diverted away from agricultural uses to affluent neighborhoods.

Several years ago I read an account of olive oil fraud in Mediterranean countries.  In one instance, a boatload of inexpensive low grade olive oil left the port, sailed around for a bit and, when it docked at its destination, the oil had undergone a magical transformation and was now labeled as expensive extra virgin olive oil.  In some cases, green coloring was added to make the cheap oils look authentic.  And apparently olive oil fraud is still going on.  So one way to increase the odds of buying quality oil is to stick to single-origin oils.

One other potential problem with inexpensive oil blends: dilution with pomace oil.  Pomace is oil that is extracted from the pulp that’s left over after olives are pressed.  The pulp is treated with chemical solvents and high heat to extract the oil, and the result is low grade olive oil.  While countries and olive oil trade groups attempt to regulate its use, pomace oil still creeps into the supply, and may not be labeled as such.  Some pomace oil is actually labeled  “Pomace Olive Oil”, but if you don’t understand what that means, you might think “Great!  Olive oil at 1/2 the price”.

I haven’t seen that at my grocery store.  But it’s still annoying to have to review the tiny print on so many labels to find oils that are made from single-origin olives.  There are 2-3 brands I stick with, occasionally trying new products that show up.  California olive oil is pretty reliable,, and the California Olive Oil Council certifies quality standards for participating producers.  Keep in mind, not all California-based producers choose to participate, which doesn’t mean their oils are in any way inferior.

But as with all things food, your choice of olive oil eventually is all about flavor.  And the flavor of olive oil varies widely, depending on what olives were used, where they were grown, what the weather was like during a particular season, and how the olives were stored and pressed.  You may decide you prefer a particular brand of Italian or Spanish or Australian oil, only to find that a year later it tastes different.  That wouldn’t be unusual.  Olive oil is somewhat like wine.  Small boutique vineyards produce wine that varies from year to year.  Large mass-production wineries produce varieties that taste exactly the same from year to year.  In the first case, you get novelty and experimentation; in the other you get complete predictability.

My recommendation: try boutique extra virgin olive oils.  They’re more expensive, yes.  But you might discover new flavor experiences.  If you find one or two you prefer, and you stick with those, fine.  If you’re more adventuresome, try new ones when you see them.  Just be sure to check the label for country of origin.  Maybe bring a magnifying glass.

*Fusty refers to a flavor associated with olives that were stored improperly and subject to bacterial overgrowth.

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