“This buzz that is happening is real,” said Mike Bradley, an Oakland-based importer of high quality olive oils from around the world.
Mike was talking about a growing consumer interest in olive oil, and a growing public awareness of the difference between the stale oils that line the supermarket shelves and the fresh, flavorful oils that you can buy directly from a producer or small specialty retailer.
But as appreciation of quality olive oil has grown, so too has concern about the lesser-quality stuff that’s out there — oil made from subpar olives, oil that has been refined, oil that is old and rancid, or oil that is downright fraudulent, and made from something other than olives (nuts? seeds?).
“What we really have is a shortage of quality olive oil, and a glut of junk,” Bradley said.
Bradley spoke at a recent conference at the Napa Valley campus of the Culinary Institute of America, about a mile up the road from our store in downtown St. Helena. The conference attracted some of the top names in the field of olive oil — growers, millers, tasters, writers, chefs — all of whom share an interest in helping people differentiate good olive oil from bad.
So how can you tell the difference? We see many customers at our store who are curious about what makes a quality extra virgin olive oil, and we enjoy sharing our local, organic, small production oils with them. These are oils that, to varying degrees, will exhibit all of the positive characteristics of fresh extra virgins: fruitiness, bitterness and a peppery finish or “pungency” that might make you cough.
While extra virgin olive oils must hew to certain technical standards (low levels of free acidity and guidelines governing how they are made), traditionally they must also pass a taste test showing that they have no defects before they can be called “extra virgin.” Olive oils are one of the few foods in the world (along with balsamic vinegar) whose quality designation depends on how they taste, not just where or how they are made.
“The good stuff is truly luminous,” said Tom Mueller, another speaker at the CIA and author of a book called “Extra Virginity” that has helped to expose fraud within the olive oil industry. “The bad stuff is dumbed-down industrial food of the worst kind.”
Freshness is critical when shopping for extra virgin olive oil. Unlike wine or vinegar, olive oil does not age and even high-quality oils will start to taste stale after several months. Mueller recommends thinking of olive oil as “fresh fruit juice” — if it doesn’t taste fresh, then it’s probably not worth buying.
It is true that top-notch olive oil will be more expensive. As with most artisanal products (from food to clothes to furniture), you are paying for the hard work and talent of the producer, as well as quality. Industrially-made oil is less expensive, sure, but there are no guarantees that corners aren’t being cut.
“Making second-rate olive oil is a lot cheaper… than making world class oil,” Bradley said.
In the end, we support knowing the producers you’re buying from, and being able to ask them questions about their practices. Without transparency, there will never be trust.
“Consumer-producer connection is so so important,” said Alexandra Devarenne, a Sonoma-based olive oil consultant. “You want to know these people.”