What extra virgin olive oil should I buy? That’s a question I’m constantly asked, by readers, by Facebook followers, by people who come to my talks and olive oil tastings. In the words of a recent Facebook message from an unknown “friend”: “My problem is how to buy a good [oil] at a reasonable price here in Maryland.” But it could as well be in Mississippi or Oregon or West Virginia or anywhere in between.
Confusion is certainly understandable. With all the press about fraudulent practices, from crankcase rotgut masquerading as fine extra virgin to certified extra virgins that turn out to be not so virginal after all, it’s no wonder consumers feel intimidated by the prospect of choice. I would love to be able to say: Buy this oil and you’ll never go wrong.
But I can’t do that.
I don’t like to recommend specific oils for a number of reasons, one being that I prefer extra virgin olive oil from small producers who tend to be much more careful and conscientious about what they’re doing than the big guys. And most of these small producers just don’t have the capacity to be in all places at once. So if I recommend Oil A from the island of Crete, or Oil B from the southern Salento region of Puglia, whichever the suggestion, it’s probably only available in half a dozen very selective shops around the U.S.
But there’s another reason too for not recommending specific oils. That’s because even the finest oil from the most careful producer in the Mediterranean (or South America, Australia or California) can be badly mishandled in transit or at its destination and won’t be what the producer thought he or she was sending out. Oils exposed to light or heat, oils that sit on a dock in New York in August, oils displayed under the bright lights of a shopkeeper’s window will develop rancidity and no longer qualify as extra virgin. If last year’s controversial University of California, Davis researchshowed nothing else, it clearly indicated that the way oils are handled post-production, in transit as well as at their destination, is a huge part of the problem.
So instead of specific recommendations, I’d like to offer a few simple rules to follow when confronting a bafflingly large selection of extra virgins.
First, avoid oil in transparent glass bottles, a clear indication that the producer doesn’t care if light affects the oil. Some highly reputed oils come in clear glass containers, but I can’t recommend them. Dark green glass is much better, opaque containers are better yet and metal tins best of all. I think we will be seeing more and more of these used in the future, even for small quantities of olive oil.
Then, as with any food product, read the label. There should be a date stamp — either date of harvest or use-by date (generally two years from harvest, so “use by December 2012” means the oil was harvested in the 2010-11 season). Of course this is a little different with oils produced south of the equator where seasons are reversed and olives are harvested usually in May or June. Smart importers can use this fact to great advantage, making very fresh oils available almost year-round.
The label should also indicate the origin of the olives and of the oil. To carry “made in Italy,” the oil must indeed have been made in Italy from Italian olives. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good oil but you can reckon it’s better than oils made in Italy from Tunisian or Turkish olives simply because the time gap between harvest in one country and pressing in another would be way, way too long. Unless of course someone paid to fly the olives to Italy, a most unlikely prospect.
If there’s a story on the label, it may add more information or it may contribute to confusion. We Americans relish the romance of the Mediterranean, and especially of Italy. (I’m as guilty of that as the next person.) But be skeptical and remember that nostalgia is a major selling point. I have seen beautiful labels adorned with chorales of flowery adjectives designed to evoke dreamy Tuscan landscapes — but when I Googled the address, it turned out to be an industrial suburb of Livorno. So if the label says “made in December 2010 from hand-harvested Arbequina and Picual olives grown at 400 meters (about 1,312 feet) above sea level on our estate in central Kalamata” (I’m making this all up of course), take such clear, straightforward information at face value. If, on the other hand, it says “made from monocultivars of heirloom varietals grown at sea level and hand-harvested to the sound of music by gnarly old peasants on a landscape that looks like Tuscany — take it with a very large grain of salt.
Keep in mind that not all great olive oil is produced in Tuscany. Tuscans were the first to leap on the international premium extra virgin bandwagon, and they still are among the vanguard of fine oil production. But that doesn’t mean there’s not excellent extra virgin olive oil coming from other parts of Italy, as well as from Spain, Greece and, in much smaller quantities, France. California, which currently accounts for only about 1 percent of the U.S. market in extra virgin, is moving ahead, step by step, as farmers begin to understand that there’s a market for high quality oil.
The best advice I can give is the hardest for most consumers to follow: Sample as much as possible. Buy in small quantities and taste, taste, taste, until you find what you like, then invest in a large tin if it’s available. Keep that tin tucked away in a cool, dark cupboard, decanting just enough for a few days to keep in the kitchen.
Some shops offer samples as a matter of course. The growing crop of olive oil specialty stores around the country offer great opportunities to taste and learn more. Beyond that, fine food shops often set out samples of a selection of oils each day. Here are a few that I know of, though I’m sure there are many more: Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor, Mich.; Market Hall Foods in Oakland; Fairway, which has several markets in New York City, and Di Palo on Grand Street in the Lower East Side.
Of course, if you can’t get to one of these locations, you won’t be able to sample. That’s when you turn to the Internet and bless the technological revolution that has brought us all sorts of good things along with all its hassles. With the exception of Fairway, all of the above do mail order through their own websites, which also offer an exceptional amount of information about the products. Another great resource for fine extra virgin olive oil is the website market Gustiamo.com, which only deals in Italian food products — the oils on offer are extraordinarily well selected.
But keep away from those clear glass bottles in the grocer’s display!
Nancy Harmon Jenkins is the author of several books, the latest of which is her newly revised “The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook.” Her other food books include, “Cucina del Sole: A Celebration of the Cuisines of Southern Italy” and “The Essential Mediterranean,” which looks at a dozen foods key to understanding Mediterranean cuisines. She also wrote “Flavors of Tuscany,” “Flavors of Puglia” and “The Mediterranean Diet Cookbook.” She is working on a book on Atlantic salmon. A former staff writer with The New York Times, Nancy continues to contribute to the Times in addition to writing for The Washington Post, Saveur, Food & Wine and other national publications. She currently divides her time between a Tuscan farmhouse and a home on the coast of Maine where she was born and raised. She has lived and worked throughout the countries of the Mediterranean, at various times making a home in Spain, France, Italy, Lebanon, and Cyprus as well as in Hong Kong and England. You can read more of her food writing on her site, NancyHarmonJenkins.com.
Photo: Extra virgin olive oil from a tasting at Villa Campestri in Tuscany. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins