By Analiese Paik
Some of us have never tasted real extra virgin olive oil. That’s the shocking realization I came to after reading Tom Mueller’s riveting new book, Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil. Mueller, story by incredible story, reveals the ugly truth behind a surprisingly large number of supermarket olive oils carrying the extra virgin grade and why they fail quality tests. The saddest part is that olive oil fraud, in some cases impossible to detect with even sophisticated laboratory equipment, is nothing new. Adulteration of good oil with cheap and tasteless seed and nut oils and deodorization of low quality olive oils is a fraud that has been perpetrated on consumers worldwide for millennia according to Mueller.
In Extra Virginity Mueller describes the olive oil trade in Roman times and how at Monte Testaccio “you knew from the label exactly what you were getting” in each amphora of oil. He explains how an enormous pile of ancient fragments at the site reveals that each amphora was carefully labeled with the producer, point of origin, importer, weight and quality, then sealed to prevent fraud. It’s incredible that the olive oil industry remains plagued today with the same problems that existed in Roman times. If your olive oil’s label doesn’t conform to the Monte Testaccio standards, you have a lot of questions to ask.
In this video, Mueller discusses fraudulent olive oil and ways to find real extra virgin olive oil.
Enter Olivette. The timing of the opening of this boutique specializing in single varietal, single origin extra virgin olive oils (EVOO) from around the world is brilliant. At Olivette, you taste before you buy. Co-owner and General Manager Alina Lawrence said “This is a tasting room. You’re not going to go home and find out you didn’t like what you bought.” Gleaming stainless steel olive oil drums (fusti) line the walls and counters, each labeled in detail to provide tasters with complete product transparency, something unheard of in supermarket olive oil. The olive variety, date of crush, country of origin, awards received and a chemical analysis of the polyphenols, oleic acid, free fatty acids and peroxide levels – all determinations of quality and taste – are listed on each label. A low level of free fatty acids, for example, is desirable and is most common in oils that go from harvest to extraction within hours. Polyphenols are heart-healthy flavonoids naturally present in olive oil. Low free fatty acids are a sign of quality as are low peroxide levels, a product of oxidation.
Small tasting cups stand at the ready next to each olive oil type, inviting customers to taste and compare, perhaps for the first time, fresh extra virgin olive oils made from single cultivars from distinct places around the world. How do oils from Chile and Argentina compare to Australia and New Zealand? Can California oils compete with those from France, Greece, Italy, Portugal, and Spain? Do organic olive oils taste different? A note here: Olivette has chosen not to label organic oils to avoid prejudicing your choices. If you feel strongly about only choosing organic oils, ask a staff member to point them out to you.
“The higher the polyphenols, the more bitterness you feel in your throat” explained Alina as we began tasting down the line of EVOOs. Starting with the delicate and creamy, award-winning Australian Ultra Hojiblanca (polyphenols: 120) we worked our way up to the medium-intensity California Arbosana (polyphenols: 101) crushed in November 2011 that tasted of fresh olive and artichoke and was creamy and mild, a reflection of low polyphenol levels. “You want to taste olive oils just like wine” said Alina, “starting from the mildest and working your way up to the most robust.” The California Frantoio Verde, measuring 728 polyphenols at crush, was robust and exhibited bitter and peppery characteristics as well as a more more intense finish than the first two. Polyphenols (heart-healthy antioxidants) are not found in processed or refined olive oils due to heat decomposition, but no labeling laws require makers to divulge polyphenol levels, or free fatty acids or oleic acids for that matter.
Special “agrumato” oils made from crushing olives with whole, fresh native citrus fruits including blood oranges, lemons or Persian limes are a beautiful expression of a region and so versatile they’ll surely become pantry staples. Oils infused with herbs and spices, like Milanese Gremolata made from fresh lemon zest, minced garlic, Italian flat leaf parsley and a hint of mint, make gorgeous sauces for pasta, fish and fresh vegetables and are excellent seasonings for roast chicken, lamb, pork or beef. Olivette’s line of fine vinegars includes a rich and intense 18-year-old balsamic vinegar from Modena aged in the traditional Solera system in chestnut, oak, mulberry and ash barrels, a Champagne vinegar from France, and a 25-year-old Sherry reserva wine vinegar from Jerez, Spain. Something we’ve never seen or tried before is Handcrafted Artisanal Honey Vinegar, a 2008 Sofi™ Silver award-winning vinegar that’s both sweet and tart and made from 100% US honey! This vinegar can be used in place of grape-based vinegars in dressings and sauces.
Alina has a stack of Mueller’s books artfully displayed in her store and was quick to show us a US report corroborating the author’s claims of widespread adulteration and mislabeling of extra virgin olive oils worldwide. The July 2010 report by the UC Davis Olive Oil Center and Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science at UC Davis was subtitled: “Tests indicate that imported “extra virgin” olive oil often fails international and USDA standards.” The rise of specialty olive oil retail stores like Olivette is the private sector’s way of achieving what the US and Italian governments have failed to do – distinguish real extra virgin olive oils from cheap substitutes for the retail consumer. Veronica Foods, a leading importer and distributor of premium olive oils based in Oakland, California is the exclusive supplier of extra virgin olive oils and high quality vinegars to Olivette and 200 other stores around the country. Mueller lists Veronica Foods in his book and website as “a high quality source” for olive oils. Mike Bradley, President of Veronica Foods, is quoted frequently in the book and Mueller classifies him as having “among the most encyclopedic knowledge of world oil he’s encountered anywhere” and someone who shares his conviction “that the shortest route to oil quality runs through consumer education.”
Don’t miss our extra virgin olive oil and tasting event at Olivette on February 2. We will schedule a second tasting event to accommodate anyone wait listed.
1084 Boston Post Road
Darien, CT 06820
Alina Lawrence, co-owner and General Manager
www.olivettect.com (under construction)
Guide to Buying Olive Oil in North America by Tom Mueller, author of Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil. Mueller lists Veronica Foods, the exclusive supplier of extra virgin olive oils to Olivette, as “a high quality source” for olive oils.