Choosing a very high quality olive oil is essential for both health and taste. But, how do you choose with so many olive oils on the market from Greece and many other countries?
There are many imposters. In his book, Extra Virginity, journalist Tom Mueller reveals the large-scale fraud in the global olive oil industry, where low-grade oils (sometimes not even olive oil) are passed off as high quality, extra-virgin olive oil.
It is harrowing reading. So how can we be sure we are selecting an olive oil that will give us all the health benefits? What should you look for when selecting a quality olive oil?
This means that olives are not exposed to heat when extracting the oil. Instead they are ground to a paste and pressed. Really, this is the equivalent of freshly-pressed fruit juice. EU regulations state that cold-pressed olive oil is produced from paste that does not exceed a temperature of 27 C (81 F).
Heat and centrifuges are used to extract more oil from olives and that reduces the aromatic smell and increases oxidization, ultimately creating lower quality oil. That’s why you want to make sure that your olive oil is cold-pressed.
This is the oil extracted in the first pressing. This is the best quality oil, and is usually cold-pressed. However, you should never assume that extra-virgin oil is cold pressed. Olives can undertake many stages of pressing, each extracting more oil, of a lesser quality. So cold-pressed extra-virgin olive oil (EEVO) is what you should look for.
Organic is important, too. Fortunately, most olive production requires very little by way of pesticides, and olive trees are hardy and don’t provide a happy home for pests.
Taste is the key
Tasting olive oil before you buy is very helpful wherever possible. Sadly, we are not given the opportunity to develop our palates for tasting olive oil. Most people are not accustomed to the naturally strong taste of many types of olive oil. Some of the categories of olive oils include robust, medium and delicate. It’s usually the milder varieties that have made it to supermarket shelves.
It may seem counterintuitive, but bitterness and pungency are indicators of great oil – including higher levels of healthy anti-oxidants. Maybe it’s an acquired taste, but it’s a treat when you encounter the bitter, peppery, flavor of fresh olive oil.
Medium and robust olive oils are very important for our raw savory Greek recipes here at Artemis Raw.
Know your source
In the cases of fraud that Tom Mueller catalogues in his terrific book, it is often the biggest suppliers and chains that are implicated. Buying direct from groves or producers that are known, trusted and certified is a way to ensure great quality oil. But beware – some certification marks lack integrity. Tom suggests the Australian Olive Association and the Californian Olive Oil Council, amongst others, and while standards could be improved, they are a good starting point. Also, the many gold and silver award winners at the 2013 New York International Olive Oil Competition will give you plenty of choice.
Harvesting olives in Artemida, Greece, the traditional way. Dad is in the center of this photo we took back in the 1980s.
Date, price and packaging
Old olive oil is bad oil. As soon as it is pressed, olive oil begins its slow decline. The fresher the oil the more wonderful it is going to taste. Use-by or best-by dates are somewhat useful – look for a best-by date of two years or less. However even better is the date of harvest or pressing – the more recent the better.
Oil should be purchased in a dark glass or container. Only buy in the quantities that you will use quickly. Avoid oil decanters or pourers where oil sits exposed to air on the bench top. Only pour what you need to use, and store in a cool, dark place in an airtight bottle.
Quality olive oil is expensive to produce. Cheap oil (less than US$10 per liter, according to Tom) usually indicates lower quality oil. Talented and passionate olive oil producers, to whom integrity is paramount, do something wonderful to bring quality olive oil to our table and should be paid fairly.
Where to buy
Fresh-pressed olive oil is more easily accessed than ever before with increases in both worldwide production and global micro-trade.
We have tasted a few of the wonderful oils that Tom recommended in his book. The award-winning Kritsa olive oil from Crete can be bought on Amazon and is delivered internationally at a fair price.
Tom also featured the Australian Cobram Estate as a source of truly excellent oil. We’ve just ordered the medium intensity Hojiblanca and Picual oils and are running around in circles waiting for them to arrive – both received ‘Best in Class’ awards at the 2013 New York International Olive Oil Competition.
We can’t recommend Tom Mueller’s Extra Virginity highly enough. It will open your eyes and your senses to the real world of olive oil. The associated website has great resources and a database of where you can source great quality olive oil.