Pick me! Pick me!
or: How To Choose a Good Quality Extra Virgin Olive Oil.
This week at my local market I stood in front of the Olive Oil section for what seemed like hours. So many labels. So many terms. So many different price points. So so confusing. How can you be sure you are getting your money’s worth? And for that matter, how can you be sure you are getting what you want when you don’t know exactly what you should be looking for!
I thought I would share a few tips that might be helpful the next time you find yourself considering an Extra Virgin purchase for yourself or as a gift!
First off look at the bottle:
If it is packaged in a clear container, give it a pass. Like with any fresh juice, light speeds up the breakdown process of olive oil. Make sure your oil is in a dark glass bottle or tin.
Now look at the label:
If you are looking for Olive Oil because you have read about all the health benefits linked to it and the Mediterranean diet, make sure it is EXTRA Virgin. All extra virgin oils are cold-pressed and first-pressed so those terms are redundant, marketing blah blah blah. Virgin Olive Oil while fine for frying or baking has a higher acidity level and because is not from a cold press lacks the polyphenols and therefore the health benefits found in Extra Virgin.
Now look for a best-before date. If it is not there, give it a pass. European Union regulations insist that a best-before date is prominent on the bottle. That date is 18 months from when the oil was bottled. Unfortunately Canada does not enforce those regulations so only reputable importers and retailers will insist on it. Olive Oil is not like wine, it does NOT improve with age.
Does the label indicate what region the olives were grown and harvested in? If it does not indicate the location of the olive grove, you are looking at a commercial grade olive oil, not artisan. Artisan oils will tell you not just that they are “Packaged in Italy” but that they are grown in Orvieto, Umbria, Italy. The more information you can find about origin, the better.
Is the name and contact information of the importer somewhere on the bottle? If it’s not, give it a pass. Canadian law require this info be present on the bottle for the consumer’s protection.
Look at where you are buying it:
Are the oils sitting in a window where they are exposed to the sun’s heat? The ideal conditions for storing extra virgin olive oil is in a dark cool environment. Storage at temperatures over 21ºC speeds up the breakdown process. Obviously retailers can’t keep their products in the dark but if the product looks like it has been on the shelf for a while… give it a pass.
Look at the price:
Like with all products, the most expensive isn’t always the best, but price is a good indicator. No matter what the label says, quality extra virgin cannot be found in Canada at $4 per liter. There are other factors at play regarding price (expensive packaging, marketing, currency fluctuations etc.) but when you need at least 5 kilos of healthy ripe olives to make 1 liter of extra virgin… cheap price means low quality.
Making an excellent Extra Virgin is a mix of art and science much the same way creating a wonderful wine is. Mother Nature, with her weather, soil conditions and pests, plays a huge role but all of those things are managed and balanced by the farmer. Harvested too early, too late, attacked by the olive fly and the entire crop could be worthless or at the very least, not at its full potential.
Approaching harvest, an artisan farmer will be in the grove checking the ripeness of the olives several times a day deciding on the perfect moment to pick the olives. Then once harvested, the olives must be pressed within 24 hours. In artisan production, the entire process takes place on the farmer’s land. Olives are not transported long distances as they are in commercial production. Blending two or more different olive types to achieve a different balance of fruitiness, pepperiness, aroma or flavour is when the science becomes an art. And with several hundred different olive cultivars in Italy alone, the possibilities are vast.
In commercial production, olives are bought from several producers sight unseen and olive type plays little importance. The production scale is enormous and as a result quality control suffers. The result is a bland product with little to no distinct characteristics.
Imagine how boring the world would be if there were only one or two different kinds of wine! You can’t, can you? Someone living in the Mediterranean would have the same difficulty imagining a world with just one kind of olive oil. Yet most in Canada believe Extra Virgin to be a one-size-fits-all kind of product. Artisan Extra Virgin is generally divided into three categories based on the intensity of fruitiness: delicate, medium and robust. In general, the more flavourful the dish, the more intense the oil should be. Think delicate for salads, white fish, medium for soups, aged cheeses and robust for grilled meats and poultry.
When you open a bottle of quality artisan olive oil for the first time, take a few minutes to discover its wonders. Pour about 2 tablespoons (30 ml) of olive oil into a glass. Warm the glass by cupping it and keep the bottom of your hand around the oil to slightly warm it up, bringing out the fragrance of the oil. Cover the glass while swirling to keep in the aroma. Smell the oil about three times, looking for some of these notes: apple, almond, artichoke, banana, bitter, buttery, fresh, fruity, grass, green, green leaf, hay, melon, perfumy, nutty, woody, peppery and pungent. Uncover the cup, bring it close to your nose and inhale deeply. Take a small sip, rolling it in your mouth. While the oil is still in your mouth, suck in a bit of air through your teeth to discover the flavors. Keeping the oil in your mouth for at least 10 seconds, make note of how it tastes to you. You’re looking for a fruitiness, “green” or “sweet” and a “green grass” or “leafy” and also possibly some bitterness. In olive oil, bitterness is good. Ideally, you should get a balanced sensation of fruitiness, bitterness, and pungency, which tells you it’s a good oil.
If you have any questions about this or any other post, I am always happy to hear from you.