It’s New Olive Oil Season, Here’s How to Find the Best

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in: Cooking

New olive oil.

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.

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.

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Comments

Rodney North
on: 2/6/13
In addition to the all the good points Nancy makes there are also various environmental and social factors to consider (as with all foods). Plus, there are unusual/harder-to-find origins that you might want to try like north Africa or Australia. One social/political issue are the substantial difficulties faced by olive oil growers in the West Bank. Even though olive & olive oil production is an ancient tradition, and key economic driver, for these communities they have to overcome many hurdles and – literally – roadblocks if they are to continue to cultivate their orchards, harvest their crops and export their oil. Their challenges and their potential are well described in this 2010 study by Oxfam UK http://tinyurl.com/a3jkd46 At Equal Exchange we’re glad to partner with a number of co-ops of organic olive growers in the West Bank. If any journalists or food reviewers would like to sample some of our Fair Trade olive oil please see http://www.equalexchange.coop/organic-extra-virgin-olive-oil & feel free to contact me at Rodney@equalexchange.coop .
Nancy Harmon Jenkins
on: 2/6/13
Thanks for this, Rodney--a useful reminder to seek out these lesser known (in the U.S. market, that is) oils. I had a personal experience of olives and oil on the West Bank a couple of years ago when I was there during the harvest. It's a remarkable story, the endurance and vitality of Palestinian communities that are so rooted traditionally in olive culture--at the same time that they have been quick to adopt modern technologies for making oil in a cleaner, more efficient way than the ancient ways. I'm glad to see more and more of this oil available here in the U.S.
Danielle Aquino Roithmayr
on: 2/12/13
The excellent point that Nancy makes about the oil producer's identity is key. Having worked for a producer of EVOO in Sicily, I know that a lot of pride goes into the production of a good oil. Unfortunately reading a label is never 100%. It is important to remember that behind every bottle of foreign EVOO in the USA, there is an importer. It is important to ask questions, encourage importer transparency and demand truthfulness about where oils are from and when/ by whom they were labeled.
Nancy Harmon Jenkins
on: 2/12/13
Thanks, Danielle. That's indeed good advice. And equally important, pay attention to your retailer--which is where most of us will buy olive oil. Note the condition the oil is in, the way the bottles or cans are displayed, the care with which they are handled, and the knowledge of the retailer's staff when questioned about the oils. I had the unfortunate experience in a well-known New York City shop recently of finding almost no information available about the oils, which were mostly displayed in clear glass bottles, and no one in attendance who knew anything at all about them. Caveat emptor!
Pierino
on: 2/12/13
Nancy, please why no mention of California olive oils? Right now we are slamming down awards for oils which are superior to those imports. California olive oils now, are about where California wines were back in the '70's. And the COOC standards are even stricter than those of the IOC. Lab tested for no more than .5% acidity and unlike European oils the provenance is much more transparent.
Nancy Harmon Jenkins
on: 2/12/13
Pierino, if you go to the second part of this, just posted this morning, you will see that I do indeed mention two California oils, one from COR (Limited Reserve) and one from Seka Hills. There are others, of course, but in this post I am only interested in oils that are guaranteed to be new harvest. And frankly, while California oils can be well made, most do not have very exciting flavor profiles. I do think California producers have quite a long way to go before their oils will match the finest from the Mediterranean (not just "Europe"). I don't think most of these are superior to anything but commodity industrial Mediterranean oils--which is what they are most frequently compared to (as in the famous UC Davis study of a few years ago).
Nancy Harmon Jenkins
on: 2/12/13
I should add that the Flos Olei guide, mentioned herein, also includes California representatives, along with those from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and South America.
Sandra Folzenlogen
on: 2/13/13
My husband and I like olive oil from Liguria. Would it be possible for you to tell me anything about it? Thank you, Sandra
Barbara lauterbach
on: 2/14/13
Thank you Nancy, for a most informative article on an often misunderstood subject.
Nancy Harmon Jenkins
on: 2/14/13
Sandra, what can I tell you about olive oil from Liguria. Many people love it for its smooth, almost buttery flavors. It is similar to well-made Provencal oils in that the olives are harvested later in the year--even in January--which gives them a much less aggressive flavor than olives harvested in November. But the taggiasca cultivar from which Ligurian oil is mostly made is also a factor as it is not notably high in polyphenols. It's just one more example of the incredible variety of flavors, aromas, and even textures that makes extra-virgin olive oil such a fascinating product to use in the kitchen.

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