A friend of mine read my previous posting and proceeded to ask questions. Amongst the questions she asked was the immortal……whats the best extra virgin olive oil? I’m happy to answer that question to the best of my knowledge and share with you what I know from my experience. I’ll try to answer from the viewpoint of a cook, in other words knowing and understanding your ingredients. At this point, it is probably fair to say that if you have not already read my previous posting, now is a good time. In synopsis, I referenced comparisons with wine….”in vino veritas” or “in wine, truth’. The comparisons and contrasts continue.
I am most familiar with Italian extra virgin olive oil because that is the style of cooking I like. This is what I cook with, and I have to be certain of my ingredients especially that nowadays there is a question mark that overshadows quality olive oil.
For example, is the oil “packed in Italy” or “product of Italy”. Curiously, Italy exports more olive oil than it produces. “Packed in Italy” is not what you want. Look for “product of Italy”. Like a wine, the label will tell you what the country of origin is. A good wine label will tell you what region it comes from in that country. So will a good olive oil. From here on in, a little geography goes a long way. But first things first.
Everything has it’s season. So do olives. And it’s usually in October or November. As a prequel, look for dates on the label. And also that if you have ever eaten an olive straight off the tree, that’s something you’ll never do again. And so when you press that olive to become oil, the oil tastes so overwhelmingly raw, pungent and in your face, literally. It needs to settle itself for a couple of months. Quality producers, at this point, may tap a small quantity of the new harvest, bottle it and release it as “olio novella” or “olio nuovo”. On the label, this translates as…….new olive oil. Most often, they appear cloudy and green because they are unfiltered. The label will happily tell you the year of vintage, just like wine. As an aside, look at the olive oil above in the first photo labelled 274th. The 274th day of the year is October 1st and that’s what they are celebrating. The first day of their harvest. It is very important to note here that the life-span of extra virgin olive oil is eighteen months and that the clock starts ticking against you once the olives have been crushed and made into olive oil. The clock does not begin ticking once you have purchased and later opened the bottle of olive oil.
Fast forward six months. All of the remaining olive oil is released to the market. After you buy it, the correct way to store the oil is to keep it in a cool, dark area. That’s not the kitchen window where sunlight will kill your olive oil nor the ledge adjacent to your stove. Light and heat are olive oil’s worst conditions. Add the refrigerator to this list also. The fridge changes the composition of the oil and every time you open the bottle to use it, you introduce moisture, which will expedite rancidity.
Just like there are grape varietals like Cannoneau or Trebbiano or Aglianico , there are olive varietals too…..such as Leccino, Frantoia or Nocellara. There are hundreds of varieties of olives and they all taste different….again like grape varietals.
By law, extra virgin olive oil is the first cold pressing by mechanical means and must have an acidity level of less than 1%. To clarify, it is not the second or third pressing. First means number one. That’s where all the good stuff for you is. Cold pressing means just that ..no heat or chemicals were applied. Mechanical means a donkey or some other low impact means
There are two types of extra virgin olive entering the United States, filtered and non-filtered. Filtered olive oils have all the sediment and olive particles removed. I cheerfully cook with unfiltered olive oil. And drink it also. You have to be cautious on how you use unfiltered olive oils. I use two. My everyday cooking oil I use for breads, focaccias and pizza doughs, for cold sauces like pesto, tapenade or hummus, for marinades and salad dressings, soft sautee like Sofritto or a Brunoise in the French kitchen, for a soup, stew or braise. My everyday cooking olive oil is also used for roasting or grilling . I like vegetables and fish for this technique. My second olive oil is used for finishing or completing a plate, as well as salad dressings
Looking at the label again, you might see the words “Denominazione d’Origine Protetta” or D.O.P , as well as the red and yellow colored circular symbol as shown in this photo. This is good.This is the Italian governments guarantee or it’s truth in advertising campaign. In other words, those DOP ingredients are really what they are supposed to be. You’ll see D.O.P. on everything from tomatoes to Tallegio. The DOP appellation costs money for a small producer. There are plenty of good oils out there without classification, mostly artisanal. It is similar to the wine classification, DOC or DOCG in Italy
And just like a wine label, which may list the grape varietal and its characteristics, southern Italian wine grapes include such varieties as Inzolia, Nero d’Avola or Negramara. Southern Italian olive oil producers might use different olive varietals like Nocellara, Frantoia or Cerasuolo. They are all different. Taste as many as you can. Extra virgin olive oil can also be blends of different olives. Hopefully, they list the names of the olive varietals. This is all good similar to the way one would enjoy a fine wine composed of different grapes.
Almost one year later from our last pressing in last October, time is creeping up. All of the major olive oil distributors are sitting on soon to be one year old olive oil with the new harvest looming ahead. A scenario like this unfolds next. All the major supermarkets, buying clubs, etc all fly in to olive oil central and make deals…a la we’ll buy all your olive on condition….Usually, one of the conditions is no dates at all anywhere on the bottles that are soon to hit a supermarket near you. What happens next is that the general populace ends up buying rancid extra virgin olive oil.
Over the course of a year and a half, the olive oil changes in appearance, color and flavor. Over time, gravity plays a role and all the olive particles held in suspension fall to the bottom of the bottle as sediment. The color will change from a vivid green hue to one along the more yellowy-golden lines. The flavor changes from being raw and bright new to a flavor profile that is softer and more mellow.
What’s better? a clear bottle or a dark one. It’s better to be in a dark bottle. Though, with a clear bottle, the producer wants you to be able to see that is not a filtered olive oil. I use both. My everyday cooking extra virgin olive oil comes in a can. I buy a litre at a go and it takes me around a month to six weeks to use it. So I’m always buying fresh.
To cut it short, buy your olive oil from someone or somewhere that you like or trust. Buy it from someone who is knowledgeable. Check for dates, now you know that if the olive oil was pressed in October of 2011, you can do the simple math…..18 months…..the expiration date should read something like 4-20-13. No dates, no buy! I’ll try to answer any questions you might have.
As a cook, one other tip. Flavored oils are not referenced or mentioned anywhere here. Why would I buy them? Press me on that. And one last thing, do not be lulled by any packaging or marketing images of cute, rustic,pastoral scenes of sheep grazing in the Tuscan countryside or whatever. Ask to taste the oil before you buy. A good vendor will let you taste it and tell you about it. And, really, that’s how you learn. Buy a different bottle every time also, while you are at it.
I hope that this posting clears up some of the issues and questions surrounding extra virgin olive oil. But the best olive oil is the one you are enjoying in that moment. Now you know how to check for the right stuff. Thanks for reading. Eat like a peasant.