By: Hillary Lyons
All olive oil is not created equal. As harvest approaches, CCA dives into the complicated
history of olive oil, and how to tell the good from the bad.
When we think of olive oil, our minds typically travel to Italy. But the history of this ‘liquid gold’ dates back much further to ancient Israel, where the trees were first cultivated around 5000 BC. Hardy and drought resistant, the olive tree quickly spread throughout the Mediterranean and the uses of olive oil ranged just as much as the cultures that produced it, from cosmetics to medicine to (of course) cuisine.
For millennia the olive tree has been a symbol of peace, youth and health (remember all that hype about the Mediterranean diet?). But it was the Romans who first milled olive oil on a large scale and transformed it into an international commodity, with groves spanning across its empire covering North Africa and the Iberian peninsula. The planting of these groves was strategic: the colonies paid their taxes in oil and other foodstuffs to feed the sprawling expanse of conquered land. And then, as now, the grades of olive oil varied: oxidized oil from the colonies for the plebeians and rich, pungent oil for the patricians (even if they mostly used it for massages).
Unfortunately today, America is on the plebeian side of the bargain. Most of the olive oil we’re exposed to in the U.S. mass market is low grade and Italy’s reputation for olive oil is a few shades darker than its Roman past. Fraudulence, adulteration and mislabeling run rampant, in no small part due to the ‘agromafia’ and their capitalization on high quality products (which includes Italian wine and pricey cheeses like mozzarella di bufala, as well as olive oil). Many of the bottles that claim to be imported from Italy, those that display Italian flags and bucolic scenes of peasants in the countryside on the labels, actually contain oils sourced from Greece, Spain (the world’s largest producer) or Tunisia, and are merely processed in Italy if they ever make it that far. Sometimes the oil in the bottle isn’t derived from olives at all but from seeds or other, cheaper sources.
What compounds the problem is that most Americans have never been educated as to how to distinguish quality, and have become accustomed to the bland and inexpensive brands. To the uninitiated, the bottles of olive oil on supermarket shelves differ in nothing more than price. However, like wine, the flavor and nuance of various olive oils are dependent upon the cultivar (of which there are over 1000). From the pungent, peppery, cough-inducing olive oils of Sicily to the milder, saline characteristics of Ligurian olive oil, this kitchen staple is much more complex and varied than it’s given credit for.
Each olive varietal has specific characteristics, but to complicate things further, growing practices, harvest date, weather, and how the oil is extracted all affect the volatile compounds present in the ripe olive. While we’re beginning to understand the chemical basis for different flavors and aromas, the science is a bit cloudy. Then there’s always that inscrutable factor of terroir. It was long presumed that Italy’s idyllic climate made for the best olive oil, but as California producers have proven, New World can match, dare we say supercede? the Old.
In the vein of California’s artisanal spirit, small scale producers are rising to the fore to provide quality olive oil right here at home. Though the first olive trees arrived in California in the 1700s along with the Spanish missionaries, the olive oil renaissance only truly began in the last couple decades. The rise of food culture and celebrity chefs, coupled with a broadening of the American palate, has led olive oil consumption in the US to triple since 1990, and independent producers are stepping in to meet that demand.
Take for example Temecula Olive Oil, headquartered in southern California in a terrain that could easily be a movie set for the hills of Sardinia. The region’s legacy goes all the way back to the 1800s, and since then its olive oil has rivaled that of the Mediterranean. The family run company prides itself on quality, cold pressing their olives by hand to extract the exceptional flavors and aromas unique to their terroir.
So how do you tell if your olive oil is up to snuff? (We suggest using an all purpose white wine glass).
Swirl – Cover the glass to trap all the volatile compounds swirling. If you’re a real pro, you’ll use a blue glass so the color of the oil doesn’t affect your judgment (good oil comes in all shades).
Sniff – Remove your hand and quickly inhale to catch the aroma, and take note of the intensity. You may even feel a slight tingly sensation.
Slurp – Take a small sip and inhale a bit of air to fully coat the inside of your mouth and release those volatile compounds. Besides aroma, look for bitterness. When it comes to olive oil, bitter is better because it is a sign of freshness and marks a high volume of phenolic compounds (those antioxidants responsible for many of olive oil’s health benefits).
Swallow – Throw it back and note if the oil almost burns the back of your throat as a sign of pungency.
- Whenever possible, go for ‘cold press’ or ‘cold extraction.’ As the name implies, this means that the oil is not exposed to heat therefore it doesn’t lose any of its volatile flavor molecules (esters).
- Check the label for the date the olives were pressed. Typically, olive oil goes rancid after a year, so anything older than that isn’t worth.
- Begin to taste different varieties and experiment. Like various salts, some oils are better for certain cooking purposes (like poaching or making a confit for example) while others are better for finishing.
- Unlike wine, olive oil does not get better with age. Check the date and consume as soon as possible.
Some of our favorite California producers: