Everything you need to know about buying… Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Extra Virgin Olive Oil is the fresh juice of olives. Many of the great estates have trees that are well over 50 years old and ranging to 200 years. Geographic aspects give their EVOO specific terroir. In order to produce great olive oil the producer/grower must have a sense of urgency much like that of great wine makers. Oxidation begins the second the fruit is harvested and so any wasted time between the actual harvesting of the olives and the time it reaches the mill diminishes the quality. Modern milling technology has supplanted the olive press making producers much more efficient, In the end the most important factors for consumers to evaluate in any purchase of EVOO is terroir and freshness!
The Very Best EVOO
Today Olive Oil falls into 4 categories. The best of all sources are the Estate Bottled EVOOs which include the 100 or so best grower/producers in the world according to the Flos Olei Guide which is the bible for many EVOO aficionados. These “Super Premium” EVOOs which are very hard to find are vibrant and totally alive with flavor ranging from nuts and fruit to an herbaceous flavors like tomato leaves, artichoke even chicory. Oils described as delicate and light fruit have plenty of flavor and spice but are lighter on the palate. Those described as medium to intense fruit are more of a mouth full and have more weight. We also stock EVOO form some of the best wine makers in Italy. These winemakers are more proud of their olive groves and the oil that comes from them than even their wine and we highly recommend you try them as they are rarities. The wine maker’s EVOOs are totally boutique productions and are the equal of any of the other EVOOs we offer.
Why We Like The Estate Producers
I sampled and consumed at least 25 bottles on the guide each of the last 4 years. There is a big difference in the EVOO from the best estates and what most people consume or that you find in Olive Oil specialty stores. The best producers are more concerned with quality than quantity. A pretty label doesn’t necessarily mean you are buying a good bottle of EVOO. There are lots of pretty bottles on the market today that are filled with poor to mediocre oils and many don’t even have a harvest date on the label.
The biggest reason the oils from the top producers are so much better is the age of the trees and where the estates are located. Like grape vines, olive trees seem to prosper when they struggle in poor soil and somewhat rocky terrain which provides a minerality you just can’t get out of rich soils and the trees get better with age. It is a fact that in recent decades industrial producers have planted many new groves of olive trees in bottom lands where the trees don’t prosper and it has caused issues with soil erosion. In a nut shell not all olives are equal.
Before I move on, for the most part a great bottle of EVOO costs at least $20-25+ purchased one at a time in your regular retail outlets. Our 3 bottle offer is impossible to beat. It’s the best best deal in N. America especially considering all the other great regional foods from Italy and Spain and of course our Geek approved Beans To Bars Chocolate. If you are on a budget try Oleoestepa “Selection”. It is the best 1/2 liter bottle of EVOO in the world at $15.99.
How Best To Use EVOO
The lighter oils are good for salads, dressings, drizzle on seafood, grilled vegetables and even vanilla ice cream with a little sea salt. They are also great to cook with. Saute at lower temperatures less than 425 degrees. The bigger olive oils are finishing sauces for meats, soups and stews, If you are searing stakes on a really hot grill or skillet use the oil as a finishing sauce rather than cook with it. The spice and pepper flavors in the oils enhance the flavor of foods. So even if some of these olive oils taste a bit strong to you on their own when you combine it with food it is sensational. A good example are these dry packed U-10 scallops, seasoned w/ a little coarse sea salt, sautéed in a light fruit EVOO and finished with a light drizzle of Oro Bailen Reserva and a few drops of lemon juice.
EVOO Is Essential… It’s Good For Your Long Term Health
Unless otherwise directed by a physician you should consume about 3-4 Tbs. a day because EVOO is really good for your health. Be aware that any articles you have read to the contrary are total nonsense. Yes Olive Oil has fat in it but they are the good fats that combine with the foods you eat to put them to better use in your body. When you taste EVOO on its own the bitter taste is the polyphenol content. The lower the bitterness, the lower the health benefits are. The polyphenols in olive oil help your body process the polyphenols in the other healthy foods you eat like salad greens other vegetables meats and seafood. It is a synergistic effect that cannot be replicated by other oils. There are beneficial polyphenols in EVOO that are found in few other places in the food chain.
EVOO From The USA
Next on the list are the American grower/producers. There are all sorts of good producers in the USA and not just in California. Olive oil is being produced in states like Georgia, Texas, Arizona and Oregon. We going to offer the EVOO and Wine from Chacewater which is based out of Lake County CA. They have won numerous international awards for excellence and are less than $20. There will be a 3 bottle minimum with free shipping. It is a fantastic deal on fresh organic and sustainably produced EVOO from Caalifornia.
Another great EVOO from California is from screen writer (Karate Kid, 5th Element, Gladiator, Taken 1, 2 & 3…) Robert Kamen’s magnificent organic vineyard and olive grove on the peak of Mt Sonoma. This guy has a green thumb. He is one of our favorite California wine makers and I highly recommend visiting his tasting room on your next tour of wine country where you can also pick up a bottle of his EVOO.
Lucero one of California’s bigger grower producers always offers beautiful oils. A couple of years ago a bottle of Lucero’s larger productions of light and fruity oils were $15. Now they are $25. In the past they have always had a high price to quality ratio but at $25 it is a better deal to shop Italy and Spain.
The biggest favor you can do yourself is to pay attention to the “harvest dates”. Most bottles don’t have them. In the northern hemisphere the year you should most desire is the previous fall. Today you should be searching for EVOO harvested in 2015 . “Best BY Dates” are the single most manipulated lie on any bottle labeled EVOO. The “Best By Date” means nothing unless it is accompanied by an actual “Harvest Date”.
If it has a “harvest date” it will generally be good for about 18 months after that date. If it is a really good EVOO with a polyphenol count of over 400, EVOO harvested in 2014 is good maybe till September 2016. Any label that tells you their oil is good for 24 to 48 months from harvest just assume it is a scam and don’t buy it out of principle. The oxidation clock starts ticking on EVOO the second the olives are harvested. You can store in in stainless steel tanks topped off with inert gas but the clock is still ticking.
California Olive Oil Producers Redefine The Harvest Date.
(I recently read that the California Olive Council is allowing producers to use the “harvest date” from the end of the season which runs into the following year i.e. 2014/15 harvest reads 2015 Harvest. So if you see a bottle from California labeled 2014 in the grocery form California and the date you are shopping is past June of 2015 don’t buy it because it’s real harvest date was 2013. This is really disappointing news and it reflects poorly on the biggest producers.)
“I wrote this paragraph last year and I think the better producers complained to the council…. The majority of CA producers may be back to a real date on their bottles. The biggest producer which lobbied the Council to change the harvest date rules still labels its bottles with an inordinate number of months as a best buy date. I will do some more research and revise this sometime soon!”
Olive Oil Shops
Next on the list retail sources are olive oil shops which have popped up everywhere. There have been a few I thought were OK. Most are not much better resources than typical grocers. I find most offer low to medium grade bulk oils even oils that do not qualify as EVOO that are totally overpriced. I am always amazed when I taste through selections at how unremarkable the oils are. Ii have been in many shops particularly in the SW where the oils have obviously been cut with seed oils and many are rancid to the nose. My favorites are those that specialize in California EVOO from really good producers,
Food handling… I also believe these stores have the bad habit of topping off their stainless steel fustis and do not clean them regularly. The reason I say this is that when I was traveling throughout California in January I visited quite a few shops including those that specialized in California EVOO. After tasting a number of samples from excellent California producers that had off putting flavors and flaws I surmised that it had to be the way the retailer was handling the product. The fustis look nice and you feel like you are getting a great deal like buying out of the bulk section in your grocery store (by the way grocers don’t clean these bins very often either) but this is not a good way to store olive oil! Better to buy in the producers own bottle!
Real EVOO is literally liquid gold. So from my perspective if their olive oil was so precious they would not adulterate the majority of it with flavors. Flavored oil is 25% of their business where as the mono-varietals and blends are only 5% of the business in these shops. They should really cal themselves flavored balsamic vinegar shops because that’s their biggest sellers in the store. Sad to tell you quality issues also abound with Balsamic Vinegar… the Italians have 3 grades for Balsamic Vinegar and the lowest grade states that producers may concoct the vinegar with food coloring, artificial flavors and other chemical additives. In addition you can call it what ever you want on the label.
Ironically the bitter and spicy attributes of EVOO which provide the health benefits are what get in the way of the American consumer incorporating EVOO into their diet. It is harder to sell to Americans on something that tastes bitter when they sample it. As a culture we do not appreciate bitter flavors. Notably Americans and the Swiss prefer sweet and creamy flavors. This is why 90% of the oils and vinegar in these shops are flavored with god knows what. We have been allowing the food industry to poison us with sugar since we were kids when dad handed us our first bottle of Coke. Sad to say it is hard to break old habits!
Olive oil shops couldn’t make a living without selling flavored oils. I suspect the oils they use could be older or just lower grades of flavorless EVOO. Hell lets just be straight forward a lot of these may not even be real olive oil. In addition who knows what it is flavored with! I mean really, if you need to cook with something that tastes like butter without the milk fats do yourself a favor and use Ghee. The “all natural flavor of butter” claim really gets me. They probably use something like diacetyl which may come from a plant but it’s likely the same byproduct used in butter flavored micro wave popcorn that I believe is considered a carcinogen when heated up.
Super premium extra virgin olive oils are not meant be infused. You may not have a taste for it on its own but when you add really good EVOO to other foods something magical takes place and it makes those foods taste better. You should try it on ice cream with sea salt. Try adding EVOO that strikes you as bitter when you taste it on its own to food and see what happens.
Oh and keep sure you know what the bottle size is. A lot of these olive oil shops don’t tell you what size bottle you are buying especially online. To add insult to injury you could be spending $20 on a 375 Ml bottle of some sort of oil rather than a 500 ML bottle. I am sure there are some good EVOO specialty stores but they are far and few between.
People have grown so used to the taste of rancid EVOO they think it is what olive oil is supposed to taste like. You can thank your local grocer for training you to consume so poorly. I have been in EVOO specialty shops and nosed oil that was rancid and the owners deny it, It is kind of like a corked bottle of wine not a lot of people can pick one out even so called wine experts miss it quite often.
One Doctor I know has family in the Middle East that produces olive oil on their farm. I was catering a Single Malt Scotch dinner at her house and she asked if I would like to try her family’s olive oil that she had brought back from her last visit. Well it was rancid to the nose and I told her so. She proceeded to open 3 more bottles and they were all rancid. I handed her a fresh bottle of Lucero’s Arbequina to sample and she thought it would be too rich and spicy for her yogurt. To this day she insists that her family’s rancid olive oil is how olive oil should smell and taste. isn’t is terrible when even your family will send you off with a bottle of rancid olive oil just because they know you don’t know any better!
The higher the polyphenol count of an olive oil the more vitality it has not only in terms of health but in terms of how long it will last on the shelf. Your average Arbequina with a polyphenol count in the low 300s will not last as long on the shelf as say De Carlo’s Felice Garibaldi that has a count of something in excess of 700. There are beautiful EVOOs that have polyphenol counts around 350 but they do have a shorter shelf life and should definitely be consumed within 18 months of harvest. Polyphenols account for bitterness in EVOO specifically “oleocanthal” which makes up a third of the content and provides much of the health benefits. Embrace the bitter flavors it is a good sign that you are buying better olive oil.
Shopping In Grocery Stores…It Looks Italian
Now their oils, that often appear to be Italian are actually made up of the lowest quality oils from all over Europe, North Africa and even S. America and then bottled in Italy. Year in and year out they are found to have been combined with seed oils. These oils could be treated with heat, chemicals, artificial flavors and coloring then bottled in Italy with one of those beautiful labels that clearly states EVOO. Yes most of these oils are not 100% Olive Oil to begin with. Even if they are not rancid from age they don’t even come close to the standards of EVOO. Italian tasting panels label these fakes as “lampante” not fit for human consumption.
Olive Pomace Oil is also not fit for consumption and I am always surprised to see it in stores as if it is something special. It is what they extract from the left over pulp then process with heat, add chemical and other ingredients….yuk. If a bottle says light or pure olive oil it isn’t olive oil either and is just another processed oil. These are just more lies your average grocer tells its customers.
Basically there is no government agency in the USA that inspects the product to see that it is what it says it is on the label. They inspect chocolate but they hardly ever even look at EVOO or seafood believe it or not. They are developing better tests to determine genetic content so perhaps the FDA will actually hold producers accountable. Furthermore European regulators will tell you that chemical tests can’t tell you if an olive oil has defects in taste. That evaluation can only be done by a human being which is why tasting panels evaluate EVOO in Europe. The USDA doesn’t utilize tasting panels or regulate bottling in this country. I have been told by really great producers that they ship some of their EVOO to the states in bulk where it is then cut with other ingredients then bottled. Following in the footsteps of giants like the Agromafia in Italy these bottlers may start off with perfectly good oil but by the time they are done it is just another scam.