Just got an e-mail from Cost Plus World Market last week: Sale! Three hours only! Extra virgin, cold pressed from Italy, only $3.99! The old me would have thought that was an amazing deal, and stocked up for the year. Now, I know better having just read an alarming new book called “Extra Virginity, the Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil,” by author and journalist Tom Mueller. Tom Mueller has become one of the world’s authorities on olive oil and olive oil fraud–a story of globalization, deception, and crime in the food industry. According to his book, really good olive oil costs 6 euros (almost 8 dollars) just to produce alone, before bottling, branding, and marketing. So is $3.99 a good deal? You bet it is, but you get what you pay for. Olive oil is one of the most tainted food products from the European Union—much of it is counterfeit. Even the most well intentioned shopper searching for “Cold pressed, organic, extra virgin olive oil, made in Italy,” can still be duped by the label. That oil with all of its sunny descriptions could very well be a subgrade oil that has nothing to do with olives and thus does not offer the anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits of the real deal. The flavor suffers dramatically as well.
Mueller in his book bravely exposes the corruption and greed behind this commodity. He describes how producers take rotten olives, or worse, soybean or hazelnut oil and add chlorophyll or beta carotene to make the oil green—or how they deodorize (or heat at mild temps) the oil to erase any bad smells or flavors. He exposes how the mafia or big producers try to control the many aspects of oil production in Italy–even when whistleblowers expose them and win in court. He demonstrates how even our own FDA cannot monitor whether the oil you buy in the United States is truly organic or not. His book inspired me to create this video below, where I talk about how to know if your olive oil is fake:
Our tastes have been eroded by the glut of mediocre olive oils, where consumers have been guided to value a mild smoothness of flavor versus the robust, rich, fruity and peppery taste of good quality oil. I had the privilege of meeting Mueller at his book signing at Purcell Murray in California. He made the excellent point that olives are a fruit, and just like we value the quality of fresh fruit juice, the same applies to olive oil. Not only that, I learned that good olive oil is very difficult and expensive to produce. So how can one spot a good quality olive oil?
- Pay attention to the harvest date on the label. It’s a good sign when the label defines when the olives were harvested, and where the oil was produced, not just bottled or packed.
- The COOC seal, otherwise known as the California Olive Oil Commission is another good sign. Olive oils with this certification have passed chemical and taste tests set for California and have passed as 100% real extra virgin olive oil.
- Follow your own senses and take the time to smell and taste the oil. A rancid or tasteless flavor indicates a bad quality or tainted oil.
After the discussion with the author, we began the olive oil tasting, which truly was a sensory awakening experience. From the six cups placed before us of olive oils from Australia, Spain, Italy, California, and the West Bank in Palestine, we were instructed to swirl, sniff, sip, and smell from each cup. We cleansed our palates in between with green apple wedges and water. This made me realize how in our busy American culture, we never really take the time to smell our food. Even in ordering takeout we omit the olfactory experience of filling our kitchens with cooking aromas prior to eating. I know it sounds gross to drink straight oil, but the point was to coat the tongue and gurgle just slightly to get the full flavor.
I was dumbfounded by the smells of the olive oils: in one, I smelled the combo of tomatoes and grass, in another, artichoke and mint. I particularly enjoyed the one from Italy called Crudo, which had a buttery flavor and a peppery finish. Then lastly I tried the Daskara olive oil from the West Bank, featuring Nabali olives—and the oil not only talked to me, but sang music to me as well. Instantly I was transported to my childhood, where I spent summers in Bethlehem with my grandmother. We would dip her fresh baked pita bread in olive oil just like this, followed by the nutty and fragrant za’atar spice. I almost cried from the memory. Is this what olive oil was supposed to do? How could a condiment bring out all of these emotions? I had brought along my mother, and as she tried the West bank oil she began to excitedly dip every piece of bread she had on her plate until she finished it all.
She recounted how her mother in Palestine would make her drink ¼ cup of the elixir every morning to make her bones stronger. She recalled how they would rub olive oil on their skin to cure everything from swollen glands to stomach pain. No surprise that in Mueller’s book he mentioned olive oil was first domesticated thousands of years ago in Ekron, Palestine. Now I understood Mueller’s book completely. I understood why the cast of colorful people in his book felt so strongly about preserving the art of making true olive oil–from the passionate De Carlo family in Puglia Italy to the scientific Andreas Martz in Germany. I understand now why Mueller took the time to paint a picture of the landscapes for the readers mind, and how the environment affects the flavor of the olives on the ancient trees.
The ultimate test though was when I got home. I reached for the cold pressed, organic, extra virgin olive oil I bought from the supermarket a week ago and poured some in a glass. I sniffed it, and it smelled like nothing. No grass, no tomato, no straw, no artichoke…..nothing. I tasted it, and it actually tasted a bit rancid. No peppery or floral notes–just an acrid amalgam of indiscernible flavors. What the heck have I been cooking with this whole time? Thankfully now I know better. To make your olive oil shopping journey a bit easier, here is a list of the excellent oils that we tried at the tasting. Do a taste comparison yourself and come back and share your findings!
Bozzano Olive Ranch,Stockton,California
Daskara Palastina Prima, West Bank,Palestine
Corto Olive Oil, Stockton,California
Marchesi De Frescibaldi Laudemio,Tuscany,Italy
Marques de Valdueza, Extremadura,Spain
The Olive Press, Sonoma,California