The best time of year for lovers of great olive oil is the harvest season, from October to December, when new stocks pour fresh from the mills. But I would argue that the second best time is right now, late winter to early spring, when fresh oils arrive in our markets from great producers throughout the Northern Hemisphere. (Southern Hemisphere oils, primarily from South Africa, South America, New Zealand and Australia, arrive in U.S. markets beginning in July, after the May harvest.) This is the finest time to taste and understand what a great oil can be.
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This year the arrival coincides with the annual Flos Olei guide, published in English and Italian by Marco Oreggia and Laura Marinelli. The book recognizes the world’s top olive farms and producers in 45 countries, an amazing number. It’s heartening to see that recognition goes well beyond the usual candidates in Italy, Spain and Greece. Croatia, for instance, whose oils are almost unknown to U.S. consumers, has 60 entries in the guide and one of them, Tonin, won top marks. Beyond that, Flos Olei provides interesting background to many lesser-known territories. If I’m traveling anywhere in the Mediterranean — nay, anywhere in the world! — I want my current Flos Olei in my suitcase. Who knows what I might run into? (Copies of the 2013 guide, in English and Italian, can be ordered on-line at marco-oreggia.com.)
Much talk in recent years has dealt with olive oil scams, frauds and deceptions. But there is still an abundance of beautiful, well-made, honest and delicious oils. Yes, they can be expensive; it takes time, care and energy to produce a great olive oil, which is the result of picking by hand at the right degree of ripeness, of pressing within 24 hours of harvest, and of extremely tender treatment thereafter, including shipping at controlled temperatures and protecting it from light, the twin enemies of the finest oil.
Six tips for buying olive oil
1. Never buy oil in clear glass bottles — as noted above, light is the nemesis of olive oil, and even the finest will suffer from display in clear glass under shop lights. Dark green bottles or, better yet, tins are what to look for.
2. Examine labels for harvest and/or bottling information. Current European Union regulations require oil to carry a use-by date that is 18 months from bottling, but new regulations may require a harvest date, which is more important. Olive oil does not get better with age. It’s conventional to say a good oil will last two years — but that depends on how it’s handled in the interim.
3. With European oils (from Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, Greece), look for a symbol of either Protected Denomination of Origin (aka DO, DOP or AOC in France) or Protected Geographical Indication (IGP). These are not invariable guarantees of high quality but are a step in the right direction.
4. Most high-quality olive oil is made by individual producers who cultivate their own olives and closely supervise the production of oil, often on the estate itself. (This is the equivalent of estate-bottled wine.) Look for telling details on the label: the producer’s actual name, information about the method of harvesting and production. Even if you don’t understand the particulars, it is a good indication that someone is sufficiently proud of what he or she is doing to make a public statement about it. And almost all producers have websites where more of this information will be offered. But read astutely: If the label claims the olives are stomped by the clean feet of Tuscan peasants, or aged in oak casks, don’t believe it — and don’t buy it.
5. Taste and taste and taste — use every opportunity to sample olive oils and do so judiciously. Most consumers — and not just in the U.S. — say they like the flavor of fusty oil, and fustiness is a serious defect. Only by tasting over and over again will you be able to confirm the difference between freshness and fustiness. (What does fusty taste like? A bit like old hay left in a corner of the barn until it grows moldy. The taste actually comes from olives that have been left too long before pressing.)
6. Best of all, travel to oil-producing regions at the time new oil is being produced. It is unquestionably the best possible introduction to the nature of this most prestigious ingredient. I think I can guarantee that once you’ve traveled and tasted, you will become a convert and, who knows, maybe even a fanatic like me.