a tale of olive oil

The rolling, verdant hills of Tuscany.  Sunflowers as far as the eye can see. Pasta, parmigiana and pizza a’plenty. The snow-capped mountainous regions of Italy have given us more than the usual fare. Olive oil, in particular extra virgin olive oil, has become one of the calling cards of the Mediterranean. With landscape and climate in some areas similar to the Caribbean region, olive oil production doesn’t happen in far off lands. Rather, in neighbouring Argentina, olive groves are cultivated and some of the best extra virgin olive oil in the world comes from our side of the hemisphere.

As health fads come and go, and people jump on and off the coconut/grape seed/avocado oil bandwagon (more on this in future issues), one thing remains true: high quality extra virgin olive oil is not only a super emollient, but it also bursting with flavour, beauty and health benefits. If you’re wondering why the foray into European territory, the reason is simple: extra virgin olive oil is now a global commodity. Having realised the gargantuan array of companies that produce olive oil, there is still some mystery surrounding the theories of good extra olive oil versus the oils that have been adulterated.

To help decipher the vagaries of the world of olive oil, Trinidad-born Chef Kashia Diaz Cave, who runs a café and city of Meriden charity in Connecticut, USA, expounded after we struck up a conversation about the olive oil she uses. “Telling the difference between superior olive oil and low quality oil is something I cannot describe to you. I can only encourage you to taste commercially produced oil and then taste high quality olive oil to tell the difference.” Therein lies the problem: to understand the importance of knowing pure extra virgin olive oil, one has to understand the entire process – from the olives on top the tree to the olive oil drizzled on top your dishes.

Luckily, MACO enlisted the help of Chef Kashia and Trinidad-born and based Reuters photographer Andrea de Silva, who journeyed to Calabria, Italy to harvest olives with Enotre Olive Oil, a brand owned by the Pollizzi family since 1975. MACO was able to catch a rare glimpse into the entire process, from harvest to the finished product. Both women were also accompanied by Marco Veranda, Enotre’s resident expert, known for his deep scientific knowledge of olive oil. He parlayed, in a lilting Italian accent, his take on how to differentiate olive oils in general. “Extra virgin olive oil is, from a technical point of view, an oil with no flaws and fruity. It must not contain oleic acid over a threshold of 0.8 (a good extra virgin olive oil should be under 0.3). It must have a correct content of peroxides (indicating the degree of conservation of the olive oil).

The options you usually find in supermarkets are typically a mixture of cheaper virgin olive oil, as extra virgin has more oleic acid; or chemically extracted olive oils as opposed to extra virgin olive oil, which can only be extracted mechanically. The supermarket options are typically not fruity and have flaws, some of them very clear at the tasting, others that can be perceived only by a more expert olive oil taster.”

Another authority known for his work on demystifying olive oil is author Tom Mueller, whose seminal work Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, also helped shed light into the world of olive oil.

The author noted during his own research, “Oil talk sounds like effete nonsense, until you put good oil in your mouth.” To add a balanced perspective, Chef Stephen Drezga, a culinary consultant who travels the world tasting cheese, wine and other yummy gourmet things (the poor love) in order to import the finest goods for his New Jersey based business, echoes this sentiment, “Part of the problem {of noting the difference in olive oil} is the only way to know what good oil tastes like is to try one; and most people haven’t.”

Meanwhile, over in Calabria, Italy, Chef Kashia and de Silva were elbow deep in olives back in October last year. Tasked with surveying the land and olives, both Chef Kashia and de Silva also tasted and ate what they could with the oil from the Enotre Olive Oil brand Chef Kashia distributes in the US. As de Silva, who, like many people are used to grocery store bought extra olive oil discovered, the proof was in the smelling and tasting indeed.

When asked to describe the experience of tasting good olive oil, de Silva said, “The smell itself is what tells me the difference from good oil versus the oil you would buy. Also, when I first saw the olive oil in Calabria, it was very green and smelled of actual olives. The oil from Enotre tasted like you took an olive and squeezed the oil out of it yourself. It was so pure!”

Back in the fields, as both Chef Kashia and de Silva toiled, Veranda detailed the picking process in detail: “The process of producing extra virgin olive oil begins with the harvest, where the traditional method of olive-picking involves shaking the ripe fruit from the tree into nets, or hand-picking into baskets tied around the waist. The olives are then collected in nets, which have to be spread underneath the trees by hand. The next essential step to get pure and fragrant oil is the method of storage of the olives: right after the harvest, olives are placed in special ventilated boxes away from the heat.

Finally, olive crushing must occur within 18 to 24 hours after the harvest. The quick time frame ensures the olives do not ferment. Olive crushing is performed by big machines that first separate the remnant leaves from olives, and then the olive oil from the water. The result is extra-virgin olive oil, ready to be used. This first press has been produced by the Pollizzi family since 1975 and it is what is bottled and sold today.”

Since drizzling the fragrant oil on fresh bread is the most preferred way to consume the oil (handsome Italian farmer and Calabrian countryside optional), the question comes down to who is going to take the time to educate themselves?  As Chef Stephen explained from a practical culinary perspective, “Extra virgin olive oil has a lower burn point, around 400 F, than other popular cooking oils. For high heat applications it is a waste of money, but you can fry French fries at 375 F (yay!).

Olive oil will last longer than cheaper vegetable oils and yields a better flavour, though it’s more expensive, and you’ve really got to monitor the temperature of the oil.” It bodes well to add that Chef Stephen also believes drizzling the oil directly onto dishes is the best way to enjoy. “The extra virgin olive oil for raw food as a dressing or as a finishing oil on top of your fish or steak before serving can add a lot of flavour.”

The crux of the olive oil debate is simple: you have to taste the various oils offered by the numerous brands out there. It seems like a natural thing to grab the most Italian-looking bottle on the shelf, but as more people become aware of the ingredients they put on their bodies, there is more interest in more natural products than ever before. As Chefs Stephen and Kashia reminded, cost is not a good indicator of quality either.

Now, if only we knew any Italians who would take us on a Calabrian countryside picnic next year…