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.
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:
And in slightly smaller type just below:
“The Adulteration of Italian Olive Oil”
“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
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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):
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:
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
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