Italian Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO) is considered to be the gold standard by which all other oils are judged. Sadly, the Italian government has worked hard to destroy the value of its own brand by allowing any oil, no matter where it is actually produced, to be labeled as Italian oil simply by being bottled in Italy. Much of it, including the big brands you see in the supermarket, are actually produced in Spain, Greece, and Tunisia; shipped in bulk to Italy; bottled in Italy; labelled as Italian; and shipped around the world.
Further, there is no readily available proof that an oil is actually extra virgin – made from the first pressing without chemical extraction methods. Nor is there proof that what you’re actually getting is olive oil, rather than some cheap imitation.
While the Italian government has finally begun to ramp up its certification, regulation, and enforcement efforts, it will be awhile before you’ll see an impact in the marketplace. What can you do to ensure that what you buy is what you think you’re buying? Here are some tips from our days importing high quality olive oil from small Tuscan producers*:
- Check for official certifications. “Extra virgin” is only the first step. A quality Italian oil should either be designated as IGP (Protected Geographical Indication, such as for a region like Tuscany), or carry the even finer DOP designation (Protected Designation of Origin) for a sub-region, such as Chianti Classico within Tuscany. Look for IGP and DOP markings on the bottle, as well as on lid seals.
- Check for the specific harvest, or Raccolto. It should be marked right on the box or bottle. For example, the latest harvest is Raccolto 2016, meaning that the oil was harvested and pressed beginning in November, 2016. Always buy the most recent harvest, as oil degrades as it ages.
The olive fly returned in a big way to Tuscany during late summer of 2016, due to mild temperatures and humidity. The olive trees most affected are located on the coast, but parasites have caused damage to the fruit all throughout the region. Because of this, the olive harvest decreased by 40- 50% versus 2015. Prices have registered a 14% increase on a national level here in the U.S. (Throw in the newly stronger Euro, and actual prices are up about 20%.)
For reference, 2015 oils are still abundant. Quality was very good and prices were reasonable, thanks to a declining euro vs. dollar. (2016 oil quality is also considered to be good, btw.) To get the most from these and all olive oils, store in a cool, dark place. Use for finishing, not frying.
- Do not pay full retail price for oil that is over two years old. While the oil will be acceptable, it will be past its prime. Most American consumers, and retailers for that matter, don’t have a clue about olive oil freshness. Now you know.
- In fact, do not even buy Raccolto 2104 if you can avoid doing so. It’s old, and was a terrible harvest. Yields were extremely small. Flavor was weak. And prices for the few good oils tended to be high.
If you’d like to learn more about how to buy, taste, and experience olive oil, you’re in luck: We’ve put together a brief, easy-to-follow presentation. Enjoy!
*Note: We used to own a business called Ah! Toscana! which imported high quality goods from Tuscany. One of our favorite imports was olive oil. Thanks to our producers, who treated us like friends and family, we learned a great deal about their oils, and have a great deal of respect for what they do, and the care and attention they put into their products. (That’s Noah helping out with the harvest. It was a bit early for picking, but our hosts were very understanding.)
Feel free to ask for help or recommendations when choosing oils.
Masthead Photo: Olive Groves of Fonterutoli (Bob)