Eternal question: reliable olive oil???

Tom Mueller, author of Extra-Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, was on Terry Gross’s Fresh Air radio show a few days ago—interesting in itself because the rumor among food writers is that Fresh Air “isn’t interested in food.” Still Tom’s book isn’t really about olive oil as food but olive oil as a source of fraud and scandal. But you wouldn’t know that from most of the comments posted on the NPR website (http://www.npr.org/2011/12/12/143154180/losing-virginity-olive-oils-scandalous-industry)—and they were legion, the great number of them complaining that neither Tom Mueller nor Terry Gross had revealed to consumers what brands to buy and what to avoid.

There’s a simple reason for that though it’s a little difficult for American consumers–used to having everything when they want it, where they want it,and at a price they can afford–to understand. The reason? Most of the good, honest,well-made, worth the price olive oil available in this country is made by very small producers with limited distribution. Thus, if I suggest to readers that they purchase, for instance, Olio Verde from Sicily or Biolea from the island of Crete—well, good luck finding them. Even a fairly large producer like Spain’s Castillo de Canena is actually not easy to find, simply because there is not enough of it to go around for everyone who claims to want a high-quality oil (whether they’re willing to pay for it is another question).

If you live in or near a city with a reputation for great food, you may find a retailer with one or more of those oils. If you’re willing to spend some time researching on line you can surely find them. But don—or of the many, many similar high-quality olive oils. Supermarket brands, especially house brands, are one of the most notorious suspects for fraudulent olive oil, i.e., oil masquerading as extra-virgin that has actually been deodorized (against regulations but widely practiced), or even oil masquerading as olive oil that is actually made up of other kinds of oil (completely illegal but also disregarded by unscrupulous bottlers).

And please don’t come back at me complaining about the price of true high-quality extra-virgin olive oil. You don’t complain about the price of Chassagne-Montrachet, do you? Making, storing, bottling, and shipping high-quality olive oil is just as expensive as making fine wine and deserves the price that is asked for it. If you don’t want to pay that price—well, I’m sorry, but that’s life. If you don’t have the money for a BMW, you’ll drive, like me, an ancient Subaru.

There’s another problem with olive oil, however, that Mueller’s book only touches on, and that goes to the heart of the distribution network. Once the oil has left the producer’s hands it becomes a potential victim of the time and stress involved in getting it eventually into the consumer’s kitchen. No one—and I emphasize that: no one—along the chain from producer to consumer has any interest at all in seeing that olive oil is treated properly. Light and heat are the two enemies of high-quality extra-virgin—that cannot be emphasized sufficiently. And yet, I have seen, even in classy gourmet stores, clear glass bottles of what I know to be well-made extra-virgin displayed under shelf lights or even, perish forbid, in sunny windows, many of the oils  well past any “use by” date. And the abuse begins even earlier in the life of the bottle. The most carefully produced oil, bottled in dark glass to keep the light out, will not benefit from sitting on a dock in New York or Boston for weeks on end in the August sun. Alexandra de Varenne, who works with the University of California’s Olive Center, tells of a container of olive oil that arrived at the warehouse proudly stamped with an official document stating that it had been exposed to 90ºF. for up to an hour—this in order to fumigate the container. One can only imagine what that olive oil tasted like when it arrive in some poor soul’s kitchen.

So what then is a consumer to do? This was the question that drove the obvious anxiety behind most of the comments on the NPR website. I can only repeat the advice Marcella Hazan gave me many years ago (she was talking about salt but it holds for just about anything in the kitchen): “You must taste, taste, taste.” You must educate yourself by tasting. You must cultivate shops where clerks and owners appear to know what they’re talking about. And once you’ve absorbed what they have to say, move on to another shop where you may get a very different opinion, and soon enough you will be able to evaluate which of many opinions come closer to your own. You must go to tastings whether in shops, in cooking schools, in local community colleges, or similar venues. You must read—not just Mueller’s book but any one of several good recent books about olive oil that are available.

You could (this is the department of shameless self-promotion) also sign on to a course such as the one I lead at Villa Campestri in Tuscany (see my web site, nancyharmonjenkins.com) where we spend a number of days studying and tasting extra-virgin olive oil, learning how it is made, how changes have made it possible to produce more extra-virgin, why the flavors are so different one from another, and how those flavors can be put to work in the kitchen and at the table. We’ll be doing two more of these courses in October and November of this coming year, right around the time of the olive harvest, and I highly recommend them to anyone who wants to deepen his or her knowledge about this key ingredient.

But don’t expect all this knowledge simply to be handed to you by an interviewer on an NPR radio program. You have to put a little work into this, and you have to understand, as I have come to, that it is an ongoing, never-ending subject. I think I know a lot about extra-virgin olive oil, and I probably do know a lot more than you do. But every year, every season, I discover something new, something I hadn’t thought of or experienced, and every time that happens it wakens my eyes and my palate yet again to the magnificence of this humble product.


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    20 Comments

    1. Posted December 14, 2011 at 6:22 am | Permalink

      Great article Nancy! The only thing I can add are two specific sources for trustworthy, delicious and authentic olive oil
      Zingermans, where Ari Weinzweig carefully searches out the best olive oils:
      http://www.zingermans.com/
      And Gustiamo, where Beatrice Ughi does the same
      http://gustiamo.com/
      Neither are cheap, but worth every penny for the quality.

    2. Posted December 14, 2011 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

      Of course having a good basis is crucial but the problem is that oilive oil is a fragile product and no matter how good the olive oil was to start with, if it hasn’t been stored properly – in particular during the transport, it can be quite unpalatable by the time it gets to the table.

    3. Posted December 14, 2011 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

      So true, Nathalie, which is why it’s important to find a retail outlet that you can trust to know what they’re doing.
      The two mentioned by Elizabeth above are first-rate. Other excellent resources are Market Hall Foods in Oakland, Di Palo’s on Grand Street in Manhattan, and Fairway Markets in several New York City locations. I don’t mean to limit suggestions to just those–there are surely many others–but those are retail sources that I know and trust.

    4. Posted December 14, 2011 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

      Nancy, my warmest congratulations for your article. “Most of the good, honest, well made, worth the price olive oil ….is made by very small producers…..” How very true.
      We are small producers in Chianti and when I present our extra virgin olive oil to our many visitors I always start from Tony Mueller’s great article (The New Yorker, August 13, 2007) “Slippery business” , a milestone. Mueller’s “Extra Virginity” is already on my book shelf and I have printed your article that is for me an enlightening complement.

    5. Posted December 14, 2011 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

      Thank you, Mimma. I hope to try your oil when I get back to Italy in the spring. We need to work very hard to educate the public about these quality questions which are so important–and unacknowledged by most consumers, in Italy as well as in America.

    6. Nick
      Posted December 14, 2011 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

      Why go to Italy to taste great oils and compare when you can do that with California oils. The University of California @ Davis, California presents Sensory Evaluation courses for just that purpose. You might even venture out of the house for one of the many California olive festivals. Come to Paso Robles, California in August for the festival and sign up for the UC Davis led oil evaluation course. Aside from learning about tasting oils, you get to meet the growers/producers and taste their products.

    7. Posted December 14, 2011 at 6:25 pm | Permalink

      Interesting proposal. I will actually be speaking at the UCDavis/Culinary Institute of America joint program in St. Helena on January 12th and expect to taste many Californian oils at that time. I think I may have been the first journalist to write about California olive oil for a national publication (Food & Wine, 1998), and I’ve tasted a lot of Cal olive oil, talked with producers, picked olives in Cal, et cetera–just to show you that I’m not speaking out of turn if I’m prejudiced in favor of the Mediterranean. Cal oil is good, and great fun for Californians, and possibly a new source of profit for California farmers. But when all is said and done (and tasted), the great oils (not just good, but truly great) are mostly elsewhere. Not just in Italy–Spain, Greece, Lebanon, Tunisia: I’ve tasted wonderful oils from each of those places. I even had an excellent Moroccan oil recently, which was a first for me (it’s called CaracTerre). And there are some fantastic oils from both Chile and South Africa.

    8. Nick
      Posted December 14, 2011 at 6:46 pm | Permalink

      I couldn’t agree less with you on the point you make that great oils are mostly elsewhere. That’s the same comparison that was used for California wines until 1976. Great oils are produced everywhere, the trick is finding “your” great oil wherever it is produced.

    9. Nick
      Posted December 14, 2011 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

      I couldn’t agree less with you on the point you make, that great oils are mostly found elsewhere. Interesting to note your exclusion of North American and Australian oils in your “great” selections. Is this because these countries seek greater testing parameters than the European countries or IOC want? Your comparison is the same that was used for California wines until 1976. Great oils are produced everywhere, the trick is finding “your” great oil wherever it is produced.

    10. Posted December 14, 2011 at 8:00 pm | Permalink

      Well, Nick, chacun a son gout. My own gout is for a classic Mediterranean well structured and balanced oil with equal parts fruity, bitter, piquant. Your taste obviously is in a different direction. It’s not really a question of agree or disagree but rather of individual preferences. Olive oil, wine, chocolate, cilantro (loathsome to some, delightful to me), you name it. What is not acceptable is defective oil, whether deliberately made or the result of careless handling, and there the matter should rest.

    11. Robin Ann Barron
      Posted December 14, 2011 at 9:34 pm | Permalink

      Am I to correctly understand that there are NO quality extra virgin olive oils available to those of us who live far from an excellent purveyor of oils from reputable producers? I use olive oil daily in much of my cooking. I can’t and even if I could, wouldn’t, use a $20 a bottle oil for everyday cooking. I fail to believe that everyone in Italy uses a $20 oil for everyday cooking, or squeezes their own oil? Surely there are decent, affordable oils? The fact that no one seems to be naming any acceptable, affordable oils is both frustrating and a little bit suspect.

    12. Posted December 15, 2011 at 12:38 am | Permalink

      Robin, no one suggests using an expensive oil for everyday cooking, although I must say $20 for a quart/liter (you didn’t indicate how much so I’m guessing) doesn’t strike me as very expensive at all. If you don’t want to use an expensive oil for cooking, by all means don’t. In this post I’m talking about superior oils, excellent oils, impeccably made and handled oils. I feel a little like a wine writer talking about Gevrey Chambertin and along comes someone who says: You don’t mean I should make beef stew with that, do you? Well no, obviously not. But it’s good to know about excellence in olive oil, just as it’s good to know an excellent peach or apple or chicken or bottle of wine. Don’t make do with everyday every day. As I explained in my post, there are a number of reasons why it’s difficult to suggest a brand name with any assurance that the brand will be acceptable by the time it reaches the consumer. It very well may be. But it very well may not be too. It’s up to you, the consumer, to learn how to distinguish.

    13. Posted December 16, 2011 at 9:08 pm | Permalink

      Our carefully researched and sourced olive oil and vinegar alcove used to be the pride of our store, and we held tastings and seminars often.. That part of my business is almost non-existant now due to the opening nearby of one of those stores that sells flavored olive oils and vinegars from the metal tubs with spigots that have proliferated recently. It seems to be what the people want.

    14. Posted December 18, 2011 at 11:31 am | Permalink

      Robin: extra virgin olive oil does not have to be expensive to be good! Most people think that if it is expensive, for sure it has to be good….but unfortunately I have tasted many very expensive olive oil, even in places nearby where they are produced…..and they were not better than other extra virgin olive oils sold at cheaper price.
      On the contrary I have tried so many not too expensive olive oils bottled in super simple bottles (and so much cheaper) and they were of excellent quality.
      This is to say that price does not tell anything about quality!
      The only most important thing is that consumers learn the basics of how to taste olive oil. Once you know how to recognize whether it is good or not, you should buy a little bottle, try it and go back and buy a bigger bottle if it is good quality.
      In Puglia we only use olive oil for both the table and for cooking. We are lucky enough because Puglia is a big producer of olive oil…..but even so not many people know how to distinguish a good olive oil. So I go to restaurants or stores and I find very bad olive oil.
      People know a lot about wines….but dont know much about olive oil.
      Only when people start knowing a bit more, the overall quality will increase and hopefully also the price will be based on the real quality more than on other things.

    15. Posted December 18, 2011 at 11:58 am | Permalink

      Thanks for that comment, Cinzia. Too often we Americans assume that Italians have easy and automatic access to great olive oil. But you know as well as I do that very bad oil is all too available all around the world. What I’m trying to do, in a small way, is educate consumers about what good oil is and why it’s different–and much better for you–than bad oil.
      And Kathy, I’m in full sympathy with your predicament. I sometimes think we will do to extra-virgin olive oil what we did to coffee and croissants, i.e., load up the unfamiliar with other flavors (chocolate, vanilla, hazelnut liqueurs, essence of blood oranges!) in order to make it palatable. Rather than getting to know and understand and appreciate and value those unfamiliar flavors. Imagine what would happen if someone made lemon-flavored wine? Oh, I know, people who don’t really like wine would flock to it, wouldn’t they?

    16. James
      Posted December 31, 2011 at 3:21 am | Permalink

      I think many people would just like a decent quality olive oil free from defects. I searched in the local supermarkets, and found no oils that weren’t clearly rancid. I finally tried the “packed in italy” oil at Trader Joes, and it is the only non-defective oil I’ve found. It is also very boring, tasting only of olives and no green or fruity notes. It’s a cooking oil, and costs $5/L. It isn’t even “extra virgin,” which is probably why it’s not defective.

      I’d like to find a non-defective oil with some green notes for around $20/L, for salads and whatnot. I just got a bottle of California oil, and if it’s rancid it is low rancidity, but I’m concerned about fustiness, which I haven’t been trained to recognize. I.e., is this “fresh cut grass” or “compost”? Either way, I don’t really care for this one.

      The only oil with a pressing date at my local organic store (as opposed to the worthless bottling date) was made in 2010. This lack of quality control is ridiculous, and I’m just about ready to stop trying to find a decent midrange olive oil altogether. Frankly, it’s boycott time.

    17. Posted December 31, 2011 at 3:48 am | Permalink

      I appreciate your dilemma and it’s one you share with so many consumers–you want to do the right thing, or to have the right thing done to you, but you just can’t find the way. I suggest you just keep tasting and tasting, in restaurants, in shops that offer tastings, and, when possible, in regions where olives grow and oil is made. (Many California growers welcome obviously interested visitors like you.) That way you can develop a palate that recognizes, for instance, the (to me) very clear difference between fustiness and grassiness.
      You’re right that the Trader Joe’s oil, if it’s not marked extra-virgin, is an average cooking oil that, like most vegetable oils, is produced year after year to the same standard of blandness–and it’s boring! Moreover, if it’s not extra-virgin, it doesn’t have, and will never have had, any of the valuable polyphenols that extra-virgins ought to have.
      One correction: the bottling date can actually be more significant than the pressing date since the best producers keep their oil in temperature controlled vats until they receive orders and only bottle at that time. Oils made in 2010 are what you will find in most U.S. markets, unless they come from spring production in the southern hemisphere (e.g., Chile, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa); in general we won’t start to see 2011 oils on our shelves until probably March (except for special orders which can be very expensive). Oils made in 2009 are two years old by now and will lack all sense of freshness and liveliness–although they can still be good, even very good, for all-purpose cooking.
      But instead of boycotting this valuable ingredient, why not keep exploring? Try some of the Greek oils, which can be very well-produced and full of flavor–and often a lot less expensive than Italian or Spanish oils. Also, check out some of the on-line resources for good olive oil. Three in particular I recommend: gustiamo.com, zingermans.com, and markethallfoods.com. The last two also have retail operations, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Oakland, California.

    18. James
      Posted December 31, 2011 at 9:08 pm | Permalink

      Thanks!

    19. Jay Freis
      Posted February 20, 2012 at 10:47 pm | Permalink

      “I suggest to readers that they purchase, for instance, Olio Verde from Sicily or Biolea from the island of Crete—well, good luck finding them”…you must be kidding…try Amazon to begin with for the best price and convenience and next go to olio2go.com…happy shopping!

    20. Jay Freis
      Posted February 20, 2012 at 10:58 pm | Permalink

      …Our market in Ketchum, Idaho has Olio Verde 500ml for around $37us….spendy…a good bottle of wine cost $20us and is gone in a sitting…500ml of Olio Verde in a sitting will have your eye balls loose in there sockets…spend the money and enjoy life…it is sorely short…

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    1. [...] And the best article on the question, to date, by Nancy H. Jenkins, on the state of olive oil today, from a commercial point of view: http://nancyharmonjenkins.com/posts/eternal-question-reliable-olive-oil/ [...]

    2. [...] date, by Nancy H. Jenkins, on the state of olive oil today, from a commercial point of view: click here to read [...]

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