olive you very much
New York and I have a little affair. It’s passionate and wild. The kind you can’t get enough of.
I was there last week, enamored and enveloped in it. Staying right near the Flatiron District, a stones throw from Eataly.
Tangent: when I was in southern Italy a couple years back, I was introduced to amaro. The best amaro I’ve ever had in my life is only sold at one place in the entire great US of A (trust me, I’ve tried to order it every way possible) at - you guessed it - Eataly. So, low and behold, I found myself walking the aisles of Eataly this trip, bottle in hand.
Enter; the olive oil section. “Learning how to taste olive oil is a lot like learning about wine..” begins the wise Italian man surrounded by green bottles.
Let’s start with the romance, because it’s where my headspace is at these days. Olives and olive oil are well-known for their array of health benefits. From keeping our appetites satisfied - to - helping us live longer lives.
But is olive oil something we take for granted? It’s always been around, doused extravagantly with almost every whirl around the kitchen. Come to find out, the industry is plagued with forgery and mislabeling. With such a staple, you’d assume that you can walk into a market and buy what is both safe and properly labeled. But the assumption is far from the truth. Anywhere from 60 to 90 percent of the olive oils sold in American grocery stores and restaurants are adulterated.
Upon collapsing onto my hotel bed that evening, I did a quick google search and found a book by Tom Mueller called “Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil.” And I knew what the next Cedro feature needed to be. I am only a little obsessed with conspiracy theories so excuse the “DUN DUN DUN” tone, but the scandal is too much for me to handle.
Let’s start with the 30,000 ft view:
Generally speaking, olive oil is simply the oil that’s obtained from olives. There are different varieties of olive oil whether from Italy, Spain, France, Greece, Morocco, Tunisia, or California. They are set apart not by the type of olive, but the process used to extract. I am willing to bet, no matter what your cooking skill level is, it’s likely your kitchen cabinet is stocked with at least one bottle of olive oil — and there’s a good chance it’s "extra-virgin." Emphasis on the quotation marks.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil:
This, the highest grade of olive oil, contains less than 1 percent oleic acid and must pass muster in terms of flavor, aroma, and mouthfeel by a professional taste panel. It must also be produced entirely by the mechanical crushing of the whole olive (including the pit) without the use of any chemical solvents and under temperatures that will not degrade the oil (less than 86°F/30°C).
This is top grade, with the freshest flavors and most antioxidants. It is made by grinding olives into a paste, then pressing to extract the oils. In order to meet International Olive Council standards, an extra virgin olive oil must be made from fresh olives processed quickly after harvest. There is no heat involved so we call it “cold pressed.” The result is a forest-green color with a grassy, peppery flavor and fruity aroma. While effective, this method takes a substantial amount of time.
Virgin Olive Oil:
This is intermediate quality oil, generally found in Europe. It often has some defects that prevent it from being designated “extra virgin” including less fruity flavor, musty, muddy, or vinegary.
Pure Olive Oil:
This is defective olive oil that has been refined to remove the defects. This is refined oil—it’s been treated with heat or solvents. Although it’s an economical choice for frying or sautéing, to my mind, it’s in the same category as so-called cooking wine. It’s inferior stuff, and life is too short—supercentenarian or not.
First Cold Pressed:
Whether or not it says so on the label, all extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO) is first cold pressed, which means that the olives were crushed just one time, rendering the freshest, fruitiest flavor. The word cold refers to the temperature of the fruits at the time they’re crushed; it can’t exceed 86°F/30°C. Lower-quality oils are made from olives that are crushed numerous times and at higher temperatures in order to extract more oil from the fruit. First Cold Press doesn’t necessarily signify good quality, and, for the most part, modern centrifuges have rendered the term obsolete.
Light or Extra Light:
Olive oils labeled “light” or “extra-light,” which are pale and very mild, have been refined to remove much of the flavor and color. The terms have nothing to do with fat or calories. All olive oils have 14 grams of fat and 120 calories (all of them from fat) per tablespoon. Because they’re refined, light or extra-light olive oils have a higher smoke point than extra-virgin oil does.
OK that was relatively boring, but context is necessary here.
The standards for “extra-virgin,” “virgin,” and “pure,” by the way, were established by the International Olive Oil Council, a Madrid-based organization backed by the United Nations. That said, olive oil production is labor-intensive and expensive, and the end result is inherently delicate and different from year to year.
So it’s no surprise that the industry has handled this by mislabeling, mishandling (age and exposure to heat and light hastens oxidation), and outright fraud—“extra-virgin” oil that’s made with damaged or overripe olives, or adulterated with an inferior grade or a seed or nut oil.
Two studies by the University of California at Davis, in 2010 and 2011 indicate that “the quality level of the largest imported brand names is inconsistent at best, and that most of the top-selling olive oils we examined regularly failed to meet international standards for extra-virgin olive oil.”
There was also a 60 Minutes episode that shed some primetime light on the issue, that largely accredited the fraud to organized crime groups in Italy, labeled the “agromafia.”
Mafia? Italian kitchen gangsters? My interest was piqued.
After copious amounts of googling, I found a little test for the bottle in your pantry.
+ In a small bowl, pout a bit of your “extra virgin” olive oil.
+ Cover it.
+ Pop it into the refrigerator for 24-48 hours.
+ When you take it out, if it has crystalized, it’s probably extra virgin. If it has hardened into a solid lump, no sir.
… For those of us with lives, who can’t perform experiments on every $15 bottle of potentially mafia plagued olive oil - who can we trust? There’s redemption here, if you’re patient. Let’s start with the brands that made the fraud list, that we will no longer be buying. No more Colavita. No more Bertolli. No more Whole Foods. No to Berio. No to Filippo. When it comes to examining the labels, keep an eye out for oil that contains 100% California or Italian olives and has the most recent production dates, as the product begins to go bad about 12 to 14 months after being pressed. It's also worth noting that bottles that claim to be "packed in Italy" or "made in Italy" aren't always guaranteed to be the real deal unless the source of the olives is specifically noted.
Fear not, I found the most wonderful brand. #notsponsored, (I have 20 followers).
Brightland Olive Oil is the conscious brainchild of Aishwarya Iyer, a tech start up specialist - turned - olive oil enthusiast. I learned about Brightland from my favorite publication, Cherry Bombe magazine on the plane ride home from New York. Within the first ten pages I found a very applicable feature on the EVOO made from heirloom Arbequina and Arbosana olives harvested from a single family farm on California’s central coast and hand crafted on site. “Iyer’s intention is to create something beautiful for connoisseurs while challenging an industry plagued by fraud, mislabeling and rancid product.” She’s focused on creating an awareness about the state of the industry, while providing a fundamentally honest solution as well.
They offer two options - Awake & Alive.
AWAKE is lovingly made with hand-picked heirloom Arbequina olives and harvested early by a master miller onsite in a certified organic mill.
Tasting notes: Herbaceous, green, grassy, artichoke, complex. Our rigorous standards mean tastier, healthier oils; we aim for each bite to leave you shining a little brighter.
ALIVE is lovingly made with hand-picked heirloom Arbosana and Arbequina olives and harvested early by a master miller onsite in a certified organic mill.
Tasting Notes: Nutty, green tomato, green almond, smooth. Our rigorous standards mean tastier, healthier oils; we aim for each bite to leave you shining a little brighter.
If you’re not into supporting small business - (wink) - the one olive oil that passed the test was the Kirkland brand from Costco.
Now that we’re all aware of all that mafaia nonsense, I’d like to go back to the regularly scheduled programming of enjoying that (real) green goodness.
It’s important to note that olive oil has three enemies - oxygen, light, and heat. When it comes to storing olive oil, there are two things to consider: where and how you store it.
WHERE: cool, dry, dark cupboard away from light and heat.
HOW: store it in a dark colored glass bottle, ceramic, or stainless steel container.