(that title was a librarian in-joke, btw)
What do you look for when choosing a wine? Normally, you look for a region or a country, a particular name, and/or a type of grape. You would also consider the context: is this going to be a cooking wine, an “evening in front of the TV” wine, or a bottle to bring to a dinner party?
Now, what do you look for when choosing olive oil? That’s right, olive oil, the old staple for cooking, dipping bread, or drizzling on salads or pasta (or, if you are like my friend’s mum, rubbing on your hands before bedtime).
I thought so.
I confess I too was woefully ignorant of the intricacies of olive oil production until recently. In fact, someone discouraged me from writing this post, exclaiming, “But they’ll think you’re stupid!” Be that as it may – as a Digestive Librarians’ Digest blogger, I have a responsibility, nay, a duty, to make sure you are all fully aware of the complexities of olive oil, and of the olive oil industry.
You see, I missed the 2007 New Yorker article that “exposed the underbelly of the global olive oil industry” (thanks to Lora for sending it along after I brought this subject up with her for a blog piece). Apparently, there is widespread fraud involving misleadingly-labelled olive oil: the problem, which is ongoing, involves both misleading origin labels (olive oil labelled Italian when it is not) and misleading product labels (olive oil that is half hazelnut, sunflower, or other oils, or even pressed olive waste).
Ew! If you, like me, are now wondering who is catching up with these olive oil scam fiends, you can check in with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, who, according to the Globe and Mail (more on that article later), have caught “several companies importing oil labelled as extra virgin olive oil that was, in fact, blended with 50 per cent sunflower oil.” Observes the New Yorker, the E. U.’s anti-fraud office has set up an olive-oil task force, no less (“Profits were comparable to cocaine trafficking, with none of the risks”).
I was shaken out of my own ignorance on a recent visit to Grace in the kitchen, a lovely Ottawa store selling everything from dinnerware to espresso makers to soup mix and organic potato chips (you know I spent longest in that last area, don’t you?) They sometimes set up sampling stations for a new product, and a lineup of olive oils and tasty baguette was hard to resist. I casually sampled a bit, and promptly exclaimed, “Wow!” This was no ho-hum oil. It was, not to put too fine a point on it, heavenly. I quickly called over the husband to bear witness. The cashier mentioned that if I liked it, I should tell the guy who makes it, waving his arm at a young man lurking among the Art-is-in bread.
Turns out he was a member of the Fazari family, makers of the olive oil, rated No. 1 for value in Eyewitness Companions Olive Oil. The Fazaris were recently written up in the Globe and Mail, and their representative in Grace in the kitchen (I am so very sorry I now forget his name) patiently and engagingly described the olive oil scams to us, and the process of making real olive oil, without once seeming to talk down to us.
I learned that oil should say “made in Italy,” not “product of Italy;” the latter may mean that the oil comes from elsewhere and is only blended in the country. I learned that different olives taste differently, so you should be aware of what cultivar (variety) is being used (that seems so obvious when you say it, but I wasn’t checking it!)
We were thoroughly scandalised to discover that the oil we regularly buy is a “product of Italy” blend of who knows what; my husband asked about a local well-known Italian grocery chain as a result, wondering if we just shopped there we could steer clear of trouble. Our olive oil guide actually told us that even they carry many blended oils not made in Italy, although he did qualify that by saying they do carry some excellent olive oils. Apparently, the old “shop the perimeter of the grocery store, not the centre aisles” applies here as well: what our Italian grocer puts up at the front in the “fancy pants” section is the good stuff; what he stocks en masse at lower prices in the aisles is crap.
So as not to end on a yucky note, and as a final treat, here is some eye candy:
Olearia San Giorgio olive oil: lovely clear yellow colour
And as a reminder, here is what the Globe article mentioned to pay attention to when choosing olive oil:
- Family’s name
- Country of origin (“made in!”)
- Cultivars (varieties) used
- The address of the estate and production (these should be close together; says the Globe, “the sooner a picked olive is milled the better”)
- Importer’s information
- Best-before date
- Lot number; country-of-origin, region-of-origin classification
- Amount of monounsaturated fat (should be about 75% of total fat content)