by Kim Sayid
Almost as important as the fact that it tastes good, olive oil may improve your sex life. In conjunction with Omega 3s, it has been shown to improve circulation and hence sexual arousal… and we can all drink to that.
My friends tell me that I have the best job ever – they’d do anything for my position… Working for Academia Barilla, I travel all over Italy to discover hidden gems of places and foods, then come back to the U.S. and promote these luxurious “tasty itineraries” around the country.
But it’s not that easy. In fact, sometimes I look in the mirror and think, what am I doing? How can I preach finishing dishes off with the perfect single-varietal, limited production, regional extra virgin olive oils to everyday people, when the majority of our fine dining restaurant idols are putting rancid, chlorophyll-filled imitation stuff on their tables for us to hungrily dunk bread into? They might call it olive oil, but they unashamedly mask its taste with smashed garlic, grated cheese, balsamic vinegar and rosemary, thinking we will never know the difference. How can I talk about flavors and aromas in extra virgin olive oils when people are afraid to put it to their lips after being disenchanted by the stale, musty flavors that dominate our supermarket shelves? So many times I have heard people say that they were convinced not to like the taste of olives because of the bad flavors they’ve experienced in olive oils. It’s a sad reality, but I believe we can make a huge difference with just some education and exposure to good products. In the face of my uneasy job, what keeps me going is seeing that astounded ear-to-ear smile, hearing that flabbergasted “wow,” and knowing I’ve altered someone’s taste buds forever. Once people are exposed to the real deal, there is no going back! These are the personal little satisfactions of my workday!
Often people don’t realize how many factors affect the quality of olive oil. Just like wine, it starts in the field. Weather, land and mother nature play a key role, as well as how the trees are nurtured and pruned, timing and method of the harvest, speed to pressing, storage, blending, bottling and age. The scary thing is that most of the leading oil brands on the market today don’t own a single tree or crush a single olive. They are merely bottlers. They buy mass quantities of oil on the open market, with no knowledge of its origin or quality, and blend it to a certain price (not taste) profile they think we Americans will appreciate. Many of the products are poorly processed, full of defects and potentially even carcinogenic. But don’t be insulted – it’s pretty much the same story on Italian supermarket shelves as well! It’s unfortunate, but these large players are globally dominant and their negative effects often overshadow the delicious healthy benefits of good quality extra virgin olive oils.
So what can we do to protect ourselves and spend our money wisely on quality, healthy products? First, we should understand the difference between extra virgin olive oil, virgin olive oil, (pure) olive oil and pomace oil. In its simplest explanation, extra virgin olive oil is, by law, the first oil extracted from crushed, macerated, fresh olives. It has no laboratory defects and meets certain legal parameters, including an acidity level equal to or below 0.8%. It does not have the addition of chemicals or any chemical processing. Since nothing is added or altered, this makes the end result heavily dependent on the quality of the olives used. The brilliant marketing terms “cold pressed” and “first pressed” are pretty irrelevant since today almost all extra virgin olive oils are extracted using appropriate air-tight machinery, which operates at room temperature. Virgin olive oil, which is less commonly found, is slightly less expensive because the quality parameters are slightly lower. The product is allowed to have a few defects and a slightly higher acidity level in laboratory testing. However, like extra virgin olive oil, it is still not allowed to be chemically treated or altered. Next we have olive oil, misleadingly also known as Pure Olive Oil. This is very poor quality oil with no healthy or appealing qualities. In addition, it is treated to strip away any color or flavor it might have only to have those elements artificially added back in, making this the most “impure” of them all! Saving the worst for last, we have pomace oil. This is the absolute last pressing of the fruit, when the final remnants of liquid are squeezed out of the pit and any other remaining muck. It is completely void of flavor, color, aroma or health benefit, and is chemically enhanced to become plausible for cooking. Oddly enough, pomace oil used to be illegal for human consumption in Italy, as it was considered only for lamp fuel. Today this is the “golden green liquid” poured in front of us on most of our restaurant tables!
When trying to select the right oil for you, standing in front of those overwhelming supermarket shelves can be daunting. Now that you’re past the first step of understanding the differences between the products, you can look for a few other key indicators of quality. First, start with the bottle. Oil is damaged by light and heat and should therefore be sold and stored in dark bottles at cool or room temperatures only. Any products packed in clear bottles are an immediate no-no. Unlike wine, olive oil does NOT get better with age. You want to purchase the youngest, freshest product possible, so be sure your extra virgin olive oil has a harvest year and/or expiration date on it. The product should be used within 18 months of packing. Once the bottle is opened however, you should consume the oil within 30 days to fully enjoy its maximum potential and flavors. Next, check where the oil comes from. If you are looking for an Italian extra virgin olive oil for example, be sure that the olives are Italian. You don’t want to pay for something you are not getting. Actually, many of the biggest “Italian” brands in stores are not Italian at all! They may have Italian sounding names with images of gondolas or the Tuscan countryside on the label, but they are anything but Italian. The majority are low-quality blends from high production countries like Spain, Turkey, Greece and Morocco. Don’t be afraid to experiment and, most importantly, don’t be afraid to spend. A 17-ounce good quality bottle of extra virgin olive oil can range from $15-$30 in the store. Considering it will last you up to a month, that’s less than a dollar a day to dramatically enhance your meals and give you wonderful flavor and health benefits in every bite. I’d say those are pennies well spent!
When you feel confident in selecting a good base oil for cooking and dressings, you may be ready to progress to finding the perfect pairings for your favorite dishes. For example, you may want to consider a DOP (Protected Denomination of Origin) extra virgin olive oil. Marked with a seal from the European Union, this is the highest level of guaranteed origin for an extra virgin olive oil. It guarantees that the olives in the bottle were cultivated, picked, pressed and bottled in a particular area – and we all know how important terrain is to food products! Varietal oils have more individual character and expression, often boasting aromas and flavors of pine nuts, almonds, tomatoes, arugula, artichokes, pepper, white flowers and green leaves, to name a few. A bitter, Tuscan extra virgin olive oil can be the most important element on a simple dish of beans or arugula salad. A flavorful, Sicilian extra virgin olive oil can transform vegetables, swordfish or tuna dishes to another level! A drizzle of a delicate extra virgin olive oil from the Ligurian coast can bring those ethereal flavors of the Cinque Terre right to your table!
The familiar concept of what grows together goes together comes into play here, but I’m certainly not suggesting we have to eat Italian food every day. The more important message is to marry your flavors properly. Just as most people probably would not pair a large oaky cabernet sauvignon with a light white fish, or a young pinot grigio with a grilled porterhouse, your goal is to properly match the intensity of the extra virgin olive oil with the dish. Delicate, medium and strong intensities of bitterness are what we are measuring. The delicately bitter oils go with delicate foods like fish, seafood, pesto, soft cheeses, etc. The medium intensities pair well with a variety of dishes like pasta, rice, poultry, vegetables and salads. The strong intensities marry best with heartier fare like red meat, game, bitter greens, bruschetta, soups and beans. Extra virgin olive oils are even appropriate for desserts and cocktails. Have you ever tried olive oil cake or donuts with a delicate oil tasting of pine nuts and sweet almonds? How about vanilla ice cream with a sprinkle of coarse sea salt and a drizzle of strong herbaceous extra virgin olive oil? And why not consider a bloody mary of perfectly ripened sweet cherry tomatoes with freshly ground green peppercorns and a drizzle of aged balsamic and tomato scented extra virgin olive oil?
My hope is that this article has been successful in giving you some guidance and outlining a few rules for your future extra virgin olive oil purchases. If you have an ear-to-ear smile, scream “wow,” and feel like your taste buds have been altered forever when you buy your next bottle of extra virgin olive oil, then yes, I’ll admit, I do have the best job ever!