What Do You Know About Your Extra-virgin?

Difficult as it may be for Americans to believe, even in Italy—even in Italy!—experts bemoan the ignorance consumers display about olive oil. Only those involved directly in the production and distribution of high-quality olive oil really understand what it is all about.

Alfredo Marasciulo is a recognized expert not just in Italy but also in Spain, France and Greece. An authority on sensory analysis, he is an editor-compiler of the annual Guide to the World’s Best Organic Olive Oils. Writing in a recent edition of the online newsletter of Florence’s prestigious Accademia dei Georgofili, Marasciulo complained that not only do Italian consumers on the whole not understand the difference between extra-virgin and just plain olive oil, very often they are totally confused about the characteristics of high quality extra-virgins. Ideally,  well-made extra-virgin olive oil has a distinctive balance of three qualities—fruitiness and bitterness which are sensed directly on the palate, and piquancy or pungency, the back-of-the-throat catch that typifies high quality and is an important indicator that the olives have been harvested at the right degree of ripeness, i.e., more green than black. (This is the stage that Italian olive growers call “invaiata,” a word that charms me even as I seek in vain for a translation into English. The closest I can come is “invaded,” as in “the green fruit has been invaded by purple-brown streaks,” indicating the approach of maturity.)

Charming the word may be, but the quality of pungency it produces is all too often interpreted by consumers as a defect, an indication, they say, of undesirable high acidity in the oil. In this, says Marasciulo (and he is echoed by every other olive oil expert I can think of), they are completely mistaken. And this, he says, is true of almost as many Italian would-be connoisseurs, as it is among their counterparts in the U.S. As Marasciulo pointed out, with exquisite patience, in his Georgofili article (published on-line in Italian: www.georgofili.info/detail.aspx?id=526), olive oil is nothing more than the simple juice of a fruit and as in every fruit juice, quality depends on the quality of the fruit to start with and on how it is expressed. To make superior olive oil, you have to 1) begin with sound ripe olives, 2) harvest them at the right stage of maturity and 3) press them in the shortest time possible after harvest to avoid fermenting and oxidation that damages the product. If even one of these conditions is not met, the olive oil will have a disagreeable flavor and aroma that will prevent it from qualifying as extra-virgin.

Simple, eh?

Marasciulo is not alone in his concerns. Earlier this year, the Olive Center at the University of California, Davis, published a study of 110 consumers in northern California and found that almost three-fourths of them disliked oils that had been identified as high-quality by experts. Not only: nearly half of those surveyed actually preferred flavors of rancidity and fustiness in what were clearly, to the experts, defective oils. French olive oil consultant Jean-Marie Baldassari told me that fustiness, which is produced by olives that start to ferment when they are piled up at the mill after harvest, is actually desirable in some markets. And one first-rate producer told me he is now making a small quantity of deliberately fusty oil for his local market—“I think the true taste of a Provençal aioli,” he said, “can only come from using fusty oil.”

What do we make of this as lovers of high-quality olive oil? Should we argue that producers have a right, perhaps even an obligation, to make defective oil if that’s what the market requests? I stand with the other side: Producers: Please continue to make the very finest olive oil that is within your power to produce and let’s educate consumers to a higher standard–especially chefs, cooks and connoisseurs who think they know what quality is but haven’t quite got there yet.

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  • Reply Louis Coluccio August 10, 2011 at 8:53 pm

    Nancy, what a great article. We sometimes get lost in all of the ‘noise’ that surrounds these foods, but I cannot help but agree with your plea to producers. Producing a product for a market, instead of making the best product possible, is never the answer. I to often hear “we made it like this for the American market…” with so many Italian products. I believe if you make the best product possible, the oil that only you and your family will use for instance, the general public will come around.

    Never comprise quality for acceptance.

  • Reply nancyharmonjenkins August 10, 2011 at 9:57 pm

    Thank you, Lou! I compare it to Gresham’s Law (bad money drives out good)–bad olive oil, if we don’t stay on top of things, will eventually drive out the good stuff.

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