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What’s The Root Of Great Olive Oil? Don’t Be Deceived.

Bottles of olive oil. Credit: iStockPhoto

Bottles of olive oil. Credit: iStockPhoto

I brought a jug of dark green Sicilian olive oil, freshly pressed from a friend’s farm, back to my home in the hills along the border between Tuscany and Umbria. “È buono,” said my neighbor, Arnaldo, when he tasted it. “It’s good but … non ė genuino.”

Non ė genuino — it’s about the worst thing an Italian can say about another Italian’s food, whether oil, cheese, wine or pork ragù. It translates as “it’s not the real thing,” but what it really means is, “This is not the way we do it here, not the way our forebears have been doing it since Etruscan times, and not, in fact, the right way.”

In this case, caro Arnaldo, I beg to differ. What I had offered was a fresh-tasting oil made from Nocellara del Belice olives, picked green and pressed immediately, radiant with the almond-to-artichoke flavors characteristic of that varietal, which is grown mostly in and around western Sicily’s Belice valley. Moreover, it was lush, verdant and fresh from the press — I knew because I was there when it happened.

This encounter led me to think about the astonishing variety of foods that proliferate throughout the long, skinny, undulating boot that is Italy, and about the intense pride each region, each province, each little mountain village or coastal fishing port takes in its own traditions.

Italians, it almost goes without saying, invented the locavore phenomenon — and invented it a long time ago. It’s what makes a culinary tour of this remarkable country so seductive and astonishing.

What makes olive oils great?

But it’s also a trap of deception. A New York Times reporter — who happens to be a friend of mine — fell into that trap recently when writing about Umbrian olive oil. “Our oil,” her informants told her (I’m extrapolating), “is not like that sweet Tuscan oil. Our oil has character!”

Sweet oil? Tuscan? Really? Peppery, fruity, bitter, complex — these are the characteristics I taste in a well-made Tuscan oil. But not sweet.

Umbrian olive oil can be, and often is, excellent. The main local cultivar is Moraiolo, which is high in antioxidants that give it an overwhelming intensity, so much so that producers blend Moraiolo olives with others to calm that muscular quality. But Umbrian olive oil is also hard to distinguish from Tuscan oil. In fact, I would argue almost all high-quality central Italian oils — made from a mix of olives (Frantoio, Leccino, Pendolino and Moraiolo are the usual blend); often grown at high altitudes; usually harvested when still immature and pressed immediately thereafter — typically share certain acerbic flavors and peppery aromas that are redolent of freshly cut grass, artichoke or tomato leaves. I doubt most North American consumers, even well-educated ones, confronted with a selection of oils from Umbria and Tuscany, could tell them apart.

There are, I’m told, more than 500 olive cultivars grown in Italy, some of them widely known and grown such as Leccino, universally valued for its resistance to low temperatures, and some of them only from very specific regions, like Dritto, an olive that appears to be exclusive to the Abruzzi, or Perenzana olives from northern Puglia. With the spread of olive culture to other regions of the world — California, Chile, South Africa, New Zealand — some of these cultivars are being grown far from their native soil, and the oil made from them often suffers as a result — non ė genuino!

Or at least that’s what Italians believe, and my heart — and my palate — agrees. The best oils taste of that elusive characteristic called terroir — a combination of environment (soil structure, altitude, climate, weather), variety and technology, both traditional and modern, adjusted to match time-honored local tastes. In Provence, for instance, local taste demands a fusty flavor, the result of anaerobic fermentation in the olives, producing an oil considered defective elsewhere.

But I also believe North Americans are fortunate not to be trapped in the locavore delusion. We have access to olive oils from all over Italy, indeed from all over the world. How to deal with that abundance can be a problem, but it’s a problem we should welcome. Unlike those Umbrian producers, we can buy an Umbrian oil and a Tuscan one and taste them side by side, along with one, perhaps, from Puglia, or Sicily, or even from Verona in northern Italy. Or indeed Tunisia or Spain or New Zealand.

The tree said to be the oldest olive tree in Umbria, Italy. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

The tree said to be the oldest olive tree in Umbria, Italy. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

The revolution starts here

Now I’m going to tell you something radical: I have tried to love olive oils from retail outlets across the entire U.S., but with few exceptions, I have almost always been disappointed. Many retailers simply don’t recognize the importance of harvest dates or the critical significance of maintaining oils in dark, cool environments. They display bottles under shop lights in order to entice customers, and they’ve paid top dollar for oil when it first arrives on the market, so even if it stays around a while, the price still has to reflect their costs.

So more and more, my advice is to go to online distributors, many of whom get their oil directly from the producer and most of whom keep their precious bottles warehoused in a dark, cool environment. Here are a few I recommend; I’ve also noted where there are retail stores. Note that the first three sell only Italian olive oils; the rest carry a variety from many other areas, including California:

Main photo: Bottles of olive oil. Credit: iStockPhoto

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.

  • Julia della Croce 10·21·14

    Nancy, this is such an important article. Yes, the recent article in the NYT about Umbrian olive oil make a huge splash, but it wasn’t well informed, like you are.

  • martin 10·21·14

    You made me laugh, it is very true that most Italians know only the stuff they grow up with and that is always the best, punto basta. One who travels and tastes a bit around knows it is not in the least true. By the way not a lot of olives in Umbria this year so stock up on last years for cooking purposes. Oh and if anything is looking for a nice vineyard and olive grove semi work vacation send me a mail, got a 1000 trees in need of attention, located near an old monks house (where one can sleep) on a hill with the best views on spello.

  • Luanne 10·21·14

    Thank you for your insightful comments on comparing Tuscan and Umbrian olive oils! Spot on.

  • Bob 10·21·14

    Thanks! How did I miss the “sweetness” of olio toscano…..? In any event, there are many superb oil templates in Italy (and Spain and Portugal)–from the grassy paradise of tonda d’iblea in Ragusa to the strength of coratina in Bari or the complex green warmth of ottobratico in Reggio Calabria. Made as well as they can be, these oils are at least as memorable and valuable and “genuino” (uffa!) as anything dear Arnaldo can make.

  • Phyllis @ Oracibo 10·21·14

    Thanks for this very informative piece Nancy! I certainly agree with you about not purchasing your oil from shops if at all possible. We have found a difference between Tuscan and Umbrian but you really need to do a side-by-side tasting as you suggest, to see if you taste any difference and then as you say, it depends on where they olives are grown in each region too. We have been very fortunate, indeed to have a supplier who brings in the new oil every January from Umbria and we pick some up from farms when in Italy. And what the heck is it about the lack of dating re the harvest? We absolutely want to know when our olives were harvested, not just the best by date!!!

  • Elizabeth Minchilli 10·21·14

    Great article, as always, Nancy. I was very disappointed by the nytimes article. Aside from the mistakes (one of which you corrected here) she got the information about the mill wrong. This is the mill where we take our olives, and is pretty amazing. They also produce their own olive oil, which is excellent. But for some reason neither the mill, nor the olive oil, is mentioned. Just one of the investors who she obviously met and interviewed.

  • Adri Barr Crocetti 10·29·14

    Nancy, insightful and illuminating as always. Again, you have managed to filter through all the noise to highlight the proverbial essence. Over the years I have been absolutely astounded at the lack of regard that many brick and mortar stores display for their oils. One ought to be wary when the bottles on the shelf are dusty. More than once have I looked at the label on a bottle only to see that the oil was woefully out of date. I would not buy a rotten apple. Why would I buy a rotten oil? I heartily agree with your advice to purchase oil from one of the online purveyors your list. In fact, I would suggest that people get to know these sellers. They are always more than happy to speak to buyers and help them make selections. I have purchased oils from all of them, and I have found the products to be worth every penny.