How do you tell if an extra virgin olive oil is good?
A recent report by the International Olive Council reveals that in 2020 an unprecedented record was set in olive oil consumption in the world, increased by 86%, consumption basically doubled in the last thirty years reaching 3.1 billion kilos.
The reasons for this surge are due partly to the fact that an increasing share of consumers are focusing on quality olive oils in relation both to their origins and to organic production methods. Also, the success of the Mediterranean diet, declared UNESCO heritage in 2010, contributed to the rising popularity of EVOO. The many scientific studies that explain how the consumption of olive oil has tangible positive effects on human health, has attracted a big share of those consumers who pay more and more attention to the quality of their diet.
Trade data shows an increase in olive oil import by nations such as Japan, Brazil, the United States, Russia, Great Britain and Germany, thus revealing a change in the eating habits of populations with deeply different dietary traditions and culture.
However, the world olive oil production is not sufficient to cover its growing demand and for this reason – especially with regard to the highly prized extra virgin olive oil, the type with the highest commercial value, Olive Oil is one of the most tampered and counterfeit food products. It so happens that lots of people in various parts of the world buy – or rather believe to buy – extra virgin olive oil, while they are actually buying something completely different.
That’s why the purchase of quality extra virgin olive oil is a complex deal. In fact, relying just on the wording “extra virgin olive oil” on the label is not enough. This product classification has often been devalued by those deceptive industrial productions that have merely exploited it without guaranteeing the necessary parameters.
There are two kinds of parameter that reveal whether an oil has been tampered: chemical and organoleptic. The first are detectable through laboratory analysis, the latter thanks to a panel of tasters who by tasting the oil determine its product classification: extra virgin, virgin or lampante.
However, not all the olive oils on the market are assessed by a panel of tasters and, at the same time, the fraud repression system fails to verify whether the wording on the label corresponds to the real quality of all that’s on the market.
Therefore, in order to orient yourself in the purchase it is essential to discover and familiarise with some fundamental features of this precious product.
First of all, it helps to have basic knowledge of how quality olive oil is produced. To this end it is enough to think that olive is a fruit, exactly like an orange or a lemon, and that consequently its juice must be extracted from fruits in perfect conditions and at the right degree of ripening.: An attentive producer harvests his olives and takes them to the oil mill immediately because the fruit, straight after being harvested, starts to oxidize and thus deteriorates, gradually losing all its precious properties while releasing bad smells and flavours into the oil.
Getting to know the producers will also help us to become familiar with this product, to understand the production processes hidden behind a bottle. A farm tour can be really fun and instructive as well as useful.
Most of the world oil production is made with very ripe olives. This is because they part from the tree more easily. Before being pressed they are often piled up in huge heaps outside the mills even for days while they wait to be processed. This careless practice brings about, increases in the temperature of the mass of olives that obviously begin to ferment. This process is the culprit of large lots of very poor-quality oil. This smelly oil is therefore defected, and it is then blended with a percentage of quality oil that brings its quality back to the minimum standards required by food regulations, this kind of product contains in itself an incipient degenerative process that will impact its shelf life.
Nothing to do, therefore, with oil made with healthy olives, whose production timing has been entirely respected and therefore results in excellent and extremely fragrant olive juice, with nuances and scents reminiscent of fresh vegetables plants and fruits. These fragrances range from freshly cut grass to artichoke, from almond to tomato, the whole range of aromatic and wild herbs, all tasting pleasantly bitter and pungent.
The main method to assess the quality of an oil is therefore easy free and within everyone’s reach. It is a matter of involving our senses in the choice: taste and the sense of smell. discovering the many scents and fragrances that a well-made extra virgin oils can release will be fun and rewarding for our senses.
But where is it possible to buy these so precious oils? You’ll have to search for them in the best delicatessen, in the shops specializing in the sale of gourmet foods, at culinary fairs or online where nowadays almost all producers sell directly. Exceptionally, it is also sometimes possible to find them in supermarkets, but most of the production that ends up on their shelves is industrial oil, made by assembling together oils from the widest range of geographical origins, even from countries whose labelling parameters are loose and offer few guarantees to consumers.
Just as is the case with any other product Price should also be a parameter that helps to assess quality, but this is not always the case. While it is certain that an oil that costs around 6 euros per litre is not good, it is not certain that an oil that costs even over 20.00 euros per litre is a good one.
Italian extra virgin olive oil is among the most appreciated worldwide, with a special preference going to Tuscan oil that evokes the renowned hilly landscapes and the characteristic flavour of almond and cut grass. The olive tree is however cultivated in all Italian regions, from Trentino to Sicily, and one can choose from the over 40 DOP and IGP denominations of origin and geographical indication that meet specific requirements, relating to environmental and human factors that guarantee their uniqueness.
The DOP mark – Protected Denomination of Origin – is awarded by the European Union and its purpose is to provide legal protection to the products closely linked to a territory. In order to obtain the trade mark, it is necessary that all the stages of production and processing take place within the indicated geographical area, and according to the rules included in strict specifications. The IGP mark – Protected Geographical Indication – is also awarded by the European Union through strict parameters and product specifications.
Certifications are therefore an additional tool to rely on to choose a product that probably guarantees the properties and origins declared on its label. But our taste and our preferences cannot be delegated to a label or to a brand: it is up to us to train our sense of smell to work together with our brain, just like a muscle, the more it is exercised the more it will be able to recognize the many perceivable nuances that constitute quality in a truly exceptional EVOO.
Quality extra virgin olive oil is not just a condiment but a fantastic ingredient, a food in its own kind that should be used because it is extremely healthy and for the pleasures it can give!
Text by Caterina Mazzocolin