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Don’t Be Misled. Quality Imported Olive Oil Not A Myth.

A drizzle of fresh Tuscan olive oil. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

A drizzle of fresh Tuscan olive oil. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

I hardly think it needs saying, but I will say it anyway: Olive oil is the foundation of the Mediterranean diet, without which this vaunted eating style is simply a “sort of” — sort of vegetarian, sort of seafood-happy, sort of low in consumption of red meat, sort of devoted to whole grains and legumes.

Aolives

But olive oil —  extra virgin olive oil — is what truly sets it apart, and extra virgin olive oil, with its combination of monounsaturated fats and a big component of antioxidants and other phytochemicals (plant-based, naturally occurring chemicals), is a vital part of the good health message we hear over and over about why we should eat the Mediterranean way.

So it was shocking to see the prominent headline displayed on a full page, suggestively tinted olive green, in the New York Times Sunday Week in Review section on Jan. 26, 2014:

“Extra Virgin Suicide”

And in slightly smaller type just below:

“The Adulteration of Italian Olive Oil”

Tuscan olives in early October. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Tuscan olives in early October. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

“Why are you shocked?” asked my friend Beatrice Ughi, who imports, through her company gustiamo.com, excellent oils from Italy. “You know it’s true.”

Yes, I know that some (a lot!) of Italian olive oil is not what it says it is on the bottle. And so is a lot of Spanish oil and a lot of oils from North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean. But I know, too, that some of the best extra virgin oils in the world come from Italy, and it is painful to see all Italian oils tarred, as it were, with the same brush. How could a superior oil such as Badia a Coltibuono or Cappezzana from Tuscany, or Titone from Sicily, or Francesco Travaglini’s Il Tratturello from Molise, survive in a market in which they are universally condemned as fraudulent, probably not even Italian, possibly not even oil produced by the olive fruit? To my eyes (and to my palate), such a statement is seriously misleading, enough so as to question the wisdom of The Times’ editors in allowing it to be published.

Beyond that, the “article” (or however you describe a series of graphic images, like a comic strip, in the opinion pages) was rife with error and misinterpretation, so much so that I was not surprised to hear later that Tom Mueller, author of “Extra Virginity” (2011), to whom the designer of the graphic attributed all the information he purveyed, had divorced himself in no uncertain terms from the article. Later, The Times, too, published an elongated correction at the end of the graphic acknowledging that an earlier version “contained several errors” and that “several of [Mueller’s] findings were misinterpreted.”

One of the most startling misinterpretations is that “69% of imported olive oil labeled extra virgin” for sale in the U.S. fails to “meet the standard” for that designation. This refers to an oft-cited report compiled at the University of California at Davis in 2010. (A second, somewhat more detailed report, was published in 2011.) The report was funded by Corto Olive and California Olive Ranch, two prominent California producers, and by the California Olive Oil Council, which exists to promote California oil.

Not surprisingly, the report raised eyebrows, given the uncomfortable sponsorship. But its statistical significance was also questioned, given the fact that only 14 “popular import brands” were sampled in three separate California locations. That makes a total of 42 oils sampled — hardly a significant number given the vast number of imported oils sold in this U.S.

I would be the last person to deny there is a lot of scam in imported olive oil, just as there is a lot in many other imported products, especially those that purport to be from Italy, which equates in many folks’ minds to quality. The food industry is, and always has been, a prime area for fraud, at least in part because most food is ephemeral in nature and the fraud will have disappeared by the time the good-food cops are on the case.

Do your research when buying olive oil

That said, with extra virgin olive oil, as with fine wine, as with Spanish jamón de bellota, as with English Stilton, the bottom line will tell you a good part of the story. You wouldn’t expect a $10 bottle of bubbly to contain Champagne, would you? If you’re spending $7.50 on a liter of oil, don’t expect it to be a fine, estate-bottled, Tuscan oil. The bottle alone, not including shipping costs, will not be covered by that price. Fine, hand-harvested, estate-bottled oils are not cheap, any more than fine Champagne, and that, it seems to me, goes to the heart of the problem. We too often treat olive oil as if it were mere kitchen grease — and in that sense, we get what we deserve and what we’re willing to pay for.

Beyond that, to assure you are buying high-quality olive oil, read the labels. I cannot say this often enough: Read the fine print. If an olive oil comes in a can or a dark glass bottle, if it has both harvest date and information about where it was processed and it is clearly written on the label, you can pretty much be certain it’s what it says it is. Not all oil will have that information and often, alas, the information will be in Italian or Spanish or Greek. But don’t let that throw you off: Learn what the important terms are in those languages (honestly, it’s easy), and read the labels.

In addition, find a merchant you can trust, either in a specialty shop or online. My most-trusted sources for great olive oil are the following (I am always eager to learn of others; please let me know of any you think are particularly reliable):

Gustiamo.com

Markethallfoods.com

Zingermansdeli.com

Olio2go.com

Manicaretti in Oakland, Calif., imports oil but distributes only to retail outlets and restaurants. If you see a particular oil on its website that interests you, however, you can find out from them where you might be able to acquire it.

As I write, I’m looking at a bottle of Marfuga extra virgin from Perugia in Umbria, available at olio2go.com. It’s in a dark green bottle, and it has a “use by” date of February 2015, from which I can judge that it was probably produced in fall 2013 (and I also can get that from other information on the bottle). It’s a monocultivar, or monovarietal, oil made from moraiolo olives, one of the most characteristic Umbrian varieties. It’s also excellent olive oil, rich with complex flavors yet smooth on the palate. I used it to make the following simplest and best salad dressing:

Ingredients

½ a small clove of garlic, minced

½ teaspoon of sea salt or Maldon salt

1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice or good wine vinegar (not balsamic)

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Directions

1. In the bottom of a salad bowl, combine the garlic and salt and, using the back of a spoon, crush the two together to make a paste. Stir in the lemon juice or vinegar. When it is fully incorporated, whisk in the olive oil. Taste and adjust the seasoning, adding a little more salt, a drop or two more of acid, or another spoonful of oil.

2. When ready to serve, pile washed and dried salad greens on top and mix at table.

Top photo: A drizzle of fresh Tuscan olive oil. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins



Zester Daily contributor Nancy Harmon Jenkins is the author of many books about Italy and the Mediterranean. Her most recent books are "Virgin Territory: Exploring the World of Olive Oil," published by Houghton Mifflin in February 2015, and "The Four Seasons of Pasta," published by Avery in October 2015.

19 COMMENTS
  • stuart itter 2·25·14

    Important piece by NHJ, who I have followed for years. Some key issues are understated. Date is not mentioned and it is the most important factor, after authenticity. Over a year from harvest gets edgy and after two years forget it. I have had a big question about that U of California study since hearing about it. They claimed reliability by sampling specific brands at three different stores, finding differences between them. But, they never mentioned date to the little lay knowledge I have. I thought OMG, suppose it was just the age, the dates, varied-would explain inconsistencies immediately, along with storage conditions and light, not the oil. Nancy also mentions Badia a Coltibouno, an oil I purchased before finding my ultimate source. I think I remember they may have been named in some report or serious article as having some issue-not sure and if there was such a thing, it was probably rectified. Lastly, Nancy names sources, but leaves off Lou DiPalo at Dipalo Fine Foods in Little Italy, NYC. Lou knows his growers-superior growers-goes to their farms in Italy, watches the oil made sometimes, and brings home a variety of utterly perfect oils every year. Right after harvest. Calls it the nouveau oil and it is available as early as November into January. His pricing is reasonable-never inflated rip-offs, despite the quality of his oil. The best of it sells out by late spring. Lou is totally honest, rejects shipments of anything that he does not consider perfect, and rarely has oil over a year old-if so, he tells you.

  • Terra 2·25·14

    Thanks, Nancy, for reminding us that there’s a lot of genuine olive oil out there, and that as with cars, shoes, cookware, and more — you get what you pay for.

    There’s now an extremely well-curated selection of olive oils at the new Eataly in Chicago. For people in rural areas (like me), I’ve found that some mainstream stores, and even my UNFI coop buying club, carry Lucini, which looks and tastes genuine.

  • Jane Lear 2·25·14

    Terrific piece, Nancy….One of my go-to specialty shops is Formaggio Kitchen. Based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, they have a carefully curated outpost at the Essex Market, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan …. http://www.formaggiokitchen.com

  • W.F. "Pierino" Tierney 2·25·14

    I’m afraid I must disagree with Nancy Harmon Jenkins on a few issues (even though I admire her work). For the past year I’ve been deep in my own research into the olive oil business in California. The UC Davis study was independently backed up by institutes in Australia and in Germany. The COOC has more significance than just that it “…exists to promote California oil.” :It also tests and certifies that oils meet standards for extra virginity that are stricter than the IOC’s (international olive council). The IOC’s standard is .08% acidity. The USDA has adopted it also. The problem is that neither body enforces it. The COOC standard is .05% and they won’t provide their seal to producers who don’t meet it. I’ve tasted some California olive oils that have come in at .03%. The only rule that the USDA enforces with any enthusiasm is the harvest date on the bottle. And yes, here I agree, that does matter.

    And yes again, you do get what you pay for. I’ve been spending a lot of time with small producers. I just paid $45 for a 375ml bottle of extra virgin—the same size as a split of wine. Why did I spend that much? The grower could only produce ninety bottles. But it is exquisite. And I had to buy it directly from him, not a retail store.

    Unfortunately for those who want to taste really good California olive oils this won’t be the best year for it. A cyclical decline in yield from the trees combined with olive fly infestation has led to severely limited supply—at least with small growers who may have only 3,000 trees.

    I’ve published two articles on this subject here at Zester. A third will be coming in March.

  • Julia della Croce 2·25·14

    Good to have you weigh in about the article, Nancy. The bottom line is that people need to have some basic knowledge about olive oil before buying it and most consumers, including food professionals and chefs, do not. At the most basic level, there is no olive oil in the supermarket that is worth buying. Most of it is adulterated, just as the New York Times piece exposed (Italian food experts here, including you and I, have known that for a very long time).

    Part of the trouble is that because Americans are not familiar with olive oil from the ground level like the Mediterranean peoples are, they have become inured to rancidity–much olive oil that is sold is already rancid whether because the olives were left on the trees to ripen for too long (more profitable–late harvest olives produce volume than early harvest olives) or because a bottle of good oil has been on a shop shelf for too long and the merchant hasn’t wanted to dump it after its expiration date. Not only does oxidized olive oil taste bad, it is bad for your health.

    Another basic is to understand that good, early harvest oil is necessarily bitter–an indication of high polyphenol level (antioxidants). The bitterness is a positive indicator not only for nutrition, but also because that bitterness brings out the flavors in other ingredients that are cooked in that oil. Olive oils that are bland, not bitter, are most likely adulterated olive oils.

    About California olive oil, does anyone remember what the American dairy lobby did to convince us that raw milk Italian cheese should be banned in the U.S.? U.S. producers would like nothing more than to prevent foreign oils from being sold in this country, and the FDA is their attack dog.

    One last point. There is only one kind of genuine olive oil: early harvest and extra-virgin. Anything else–“pure,” and dare I mention “lite” are not olive oil. Apologies to ZD readers if this seems too elementary to mention, but I’m continually astonished at how many good cooks and professional chefs don’t know that.

    About olive oil purveyors, no one mentioned all the Fairway stores in NY and NJ, which have an astonishing selection of great olive oils. Their buyers know olive oil and and source them on site, have relationships with the producers just as do Lou Di Palo, Ari Weinzweig, and the others mentioned here. There’s also Corti Brothers in Sacramento and Gustiamo (of course), for mail order. Wholesalers should also make themselves familiar with Viola Imports in Chicago, which has impeccable olive oil.

  • Janell Pekkain 2·25·14

    I appreciate this discussion and your expertise and insights. As a ‘supplier’ and owner of an independent retail shop specializing in extra virgin olive oil in San Francisco, I’m hyper concerned and aware of oils oxidizing in my shop (or having other defects) and do my utmost to make sure the oils are well cared for, regularly tasted, bottled and labeled correctly. We do our best to educate our customers about taste, labeling, and myths. Even though I’m in California and mostly carry California produced oils right now, I also carry olive oils from other countries – of course including Italy – but have a more challenging time making direct connections with my international growers/producers. Until I have confidence in an international source (and opportunity to visit orchards, etc), I’m hesitant. Having said that, I know there is amazing olive oil in Italy and elsewhere but also know that there is fraud. Tom Mueller did write a whole book on that issue and believe he is partly responsible for the media’s focus and not entirely unbiased himself. He raised awareness which is a good thing. Unfortunately, a lot of small Italian producers are lumped in with the big distributors. I think what most of us are trying to do (at least what I’m trying to do) is educate the general public about the many choices and as you said, ephemeral nature of olive oil. I’m attending an olive oil sensory development training with the ONAOO in NY next month and am very excited about learning from this organization as well as my continuing education from UC Davis and COOC. Thank you for your insightful work.

  • Rick Charnes 2·25·14

    Nancy, thanks much for this article.

    I’m curious: In your recipe for a simple salad dressing why is your suggestion to not use a balsamic vinegar?

  • Jim Dixon 2·26·14

    Thanks for this. I’ve been answering questions from my customers about the NYT infographic for the last month. The small producers in Italy I buy from struggle to compete with the firms that send refined olive oil blends labeled “extra virgin” to the US. While my small business mostly supplies folks here in Portland, I do ship. Ordering information is on my web site (along with lots of recipes).

    http://realgoodfood.com/buying-olive-oil/real-good-food-store/

  • mart 3·2·14

    Guys, just taste some good stuff and you will know the difference for live. I live in Italy and I have been ‘making’ my own oil which is (very) good. I saw some prices in the shops mentioned above and while I think it is a free world and everyone should do as they think most prices are ridiculous. It is like wine, there is no way that one can spend more than 15 maybe 20$ making a bottle of wine and that is already a silly amount. You will have to have one of those uber designed gold plated cantina’s and vineyards in very expensive areas where you spend your money on. I for the love of god have no idea how on earth one can spend up to 90$ for making a litre of olive oil, it doesn’t exist, basta. In Italy you can find olive groves which they almost give you for free. Yes there might be producers who create a name because some famous person uses his/her oil but mostly it hasn’t got nothing to do with quality. It is not the more you pay the more you get, at a certain price point things become a brand and the price is no reflection of quality. I’m sorry but if you pay 45$ for a bottle of oil (third of a liter!) well….. and while to american standards 3000 trees might sound silly in Italy that is quite some. That is also why a lot of imported oils are from the bigger producers who blend and have therefore ok but not superb products. Do yourselves a favour get some friends together order a pallet of oil and import it yourself, if you need help just send me a mail will pile on some wine and other stuff as well.

  • Don Harris 3·3·14

    Thanks so much for demythologizing that NYT article.I also strongly agree that the only way to know what you are getting is if you know the producer, or can trust the purveyor. The the popular book Extra Virginity certainly made this point. I have been traveling to Spain for 45 years and in the early days of the internet, 1996, founded with my family a small online source of fine products from Spain line named La Tienda (www.latienda.com) .Virtually all are from artisan produces..My wife Ruth and I know our primary olive oil providers intimately.and buyers can trust us. We are proud that our friend Han de Roos’ Can Solivera Wild Olive Oil is the choice of Can Roca in Girona. We have a lively picual, picudo, hojiblanca coupage from Priego de Córdoba which is our personal favorite for everyday use. Our Gutierrez Colosia sherry vinegar from a boutique bodega in El Puerto de Santa Maria is .remarkable.

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