I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately on olive oil quality. And I’ve been talking first-hand with producers, marketers and those that make oil for their own consumption. It’s a lot of information to absorb.
It’s so big that you could spend your life studying olive oil quality (I have friends that are doing just that). It’s such a massive subject in fact that I had problems keeping this newsletter under seven pages, just the text. Then last night I deleted it all and decided to go in a different direction, fixating rather on what I would have liked to know if I were not a food-person living in olive land.
I decided to ask: What’s the skinny? What does it mean to you? How can you be assured you’re not getting ripped off? How can we use our buying power to improve the culinary world rather than further eroding it? What’s the real take away? These came to the forefront last night at 3 a.m. as I rewrote the newsletter, the wind howling through the green Persian shutters of my school’s library.
I sat in the dark, laptop on my legs, creating a few files. I then cut and pasted it all into a few basic factoid-like nuggets, leaving behind the magazine, newspaper and blog rants, the lectures notes (both my own, and Chris Butler’s) and the pages and pages of European legal journals. Those interested in further can find it all though, most it even online.
But for those that want the shorter version, here is what I know:
1) Few industries are as corrupt, virtually all of it on the top-end. Massive, massive tankers are routinely filled with low quality olive or non-olive oils and sold to the large corporations that we all know (I’d tell you the names but they’d sue me out of existence and besides, you already know them, they live on your supermarket shelves). Adulterating olive oil is as big as the narcotics trade. The incoming olive and other various oils are blended by the large firms, bottled and shipped to your grocery store. To buy a bottle of these oils, we as consumers are playing a significant role. It’s no less significant a role than buying canned tuna that was harvested in a way that kills dolphins. Or coffee or tea in a way that destroys rural farms and villages. Consumer awareness is everything.
2) Like bananas, coffee, chocolate and tea, the vast majority of what we spend on olive oil goes towards blending a ‘house-style’, marketing, selling and shipping, rather than to the grower, who often lives at the poverty level, or worse yet, has to be subsidized by the government. Even with my limited understanding of economics, it’s clear that this is not only immoral but just bad consumerism on our part. Especially when we remember that olive oil is an agricultural product, and there is nothing that anyone can do it to improve it once it’s pressed. Or put into other words, there is no ‘value’ to ‘add’.
3) These large multinationals (the ones with the pretty labels of those same 30 tiny trees lining the walls of Lucca), buy up all sorts of oil from various parts of the Mediterranean, providing that the locals never label it as oil from that place, effectively squashing the development of local, quality-minded producers. Take a moment and think about how wine works, the more specific the person or place, the higher the quality. What propels Chateau Snooty-Pants is reputation. On the other end, jug wines announce only a state or country, and few of us are eager to drink a lot of jug wine when better is on offer. Everyone loses on such a concept, EXCEPT the multi-nationals: growers can’t feed their families, you’ll never be able to taste what high-quality Turkish, Tunisian or Croatian oil tastes like, and those that grow high quality oil in Italy can’t compete with cheap, low-quality imports. I’m not about protecting Italian jobs. But I am against the bait and switch at the consumer’s expense. For the record, buying oil labeled as Italian and buying Italian oil is not the same thing.
4) Judging the over-all quality of real, unadulterated olive oil is partially subjective, but mostly… not. ‘Extra virgin’ is an archaic term, when oil was decanted naturally. It no longer really applies and many serious producers now prefer ‘Premium’ in it’s stead. Today, both refer to oil with less than 0.8% oleic acid. This is qualifiable. It’s a simple test that in ten minutes you could train a monkey to do (I mastered it in just under an hour). The lower the acid, the more a producer can expect to charge. No one argues this. As my friend Chris Butler points out though, don’t confuse ‘quality’ with ‘standard’, which is really just another way to say ‘the minimal level of acceptance’. The second part of ‘Extra virgin’ or ‘Premium’ is ‘free of defects’, which means free of extra flavours not normally thought of as good qualities, such as mold, soap, wet cardboard, etc. As with all tastes, this part is more subjective, the way some believe that proper Sauvignon Blanc should smell of cat pee or that parts of Spain prefer their tripe to smell a bit like you-know-what. Yesterday I asked a olive farmer friend of mine about this: he did away with any thoughts of subjectivity regarding judging quality olive oil, saying only, ‘In farming, things only stink when something isn’t right’.
What to do about it?
Easy. You’re already doing it with other foods. You just need to treat olive oil the same way you would as something from a farmer’s market. In short, you need to cut out all the middle men. Here’s how.
1) Most of the scandals involve large multinational companies, the kind that live on your olive oil shelf in your local supermarket. Scan the shelves and these are the ones to avoid. No little producer that puts his or her name and address on the label would adulterate their oil, as their reputation is all they have. Be skeptical of anyone big enough to have a marketing department. Ideally, you’d visit an olive producing region, taste their oils and choose one you like. Make a human contact. Arrange for the producer to ship to you directly. Yes, the shipping will cost more because of the small order, but the savings on the back end will be so significant as to be worth it. Other tips include buying a bottle from the producer and taking it home with you but then ordering oil in five liter cans, lighter and more break-resistant that bottles (and you’ll already have one to refill left over from the trip anyway). Send a thank you card upon acceptance of the oil and tell them you’d like to order again next year. And if you’re happy, then do. The fact that you’re subscribed to the newsletter probably means that you’re already aware of the beauty of meeting the folks that produce your food. If you won’t be traveling in an olive region anytime soon, talk to a friend that will be. But that’s about as far away as you want to go, two generations.
2) Learn to hear ‘Ware’ ‘House’ ‘Club’ as three words that virtually guarantee the scams will continue (as long as there is an enormous, price-driven, under-informed buying pool, this is not going away anytime soon). Be willing to pay more, but only if that money goes directly to the producer.
3) Host an olive oil party, where folks bring a bottle (ask some to bring some hand-made oil and others to bring supermarket oil). Taste blind, preferably in small glasses, coloured blue if at all possible (the greenness forms opinions but is not a good indicator of freshness, fruitiness, etc., and blue masks the colour). You can find tasting notes online. We do this at the school a lot and it’s shocking how a favourite quickly stops being so when tasted against others. Don’t be intimated or slow down conversation by talking about how little you know. Taste. Really, really taste. You’re ahead of the game more than you think. Southern Europeans tend to be horrible comparative tasters as they tend more towards place-based chauvinism and social inertia (‘I don’t have to taste others, I know ours is best’). New Worlders tend to be remarkably good at not only noting differences but stating preferences.
And that is more or less it. I buy my oil from the same people that make it, and occasionally I make it myself. It’s always one of the proudest things on my table and it enriches my life considerably, that I’m that close to the source. In the end, it’s up to each of us.