Getting to Know Your Olive Oil

BY EMMANUEL HESSLER AND KATHERINE MACNAUGHTON

EVOO event
Photo credit: Emmanuel Hessler

Recently, The Foodie Collective was invited to Montreal’s Académie culinaire for the purpose of attending an event, Flavor Your Life, focused on raising awareness and consumption of high quality European extra virgin olive oil. Part of a larger campaign funded by the European Union, the Italian Department of Agriculture (MIPAAF), and the Italian association for olive growers (Unaprol), the event was as educational (it was presented by the very scholarly Robert Beauchemin, ex food critic at La Presse) as it was entertaining (we got to cook and eat with olive oil while sipping wine). I can think of worse ways to spend a couple of hours in the middle of the workday…


The focus of the event was to educate on what makes a good extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) and which tools are available to the consumers so they are able to make a smart choice. There were many things I didn’t know about EVOO. Mr. Beauchemin explained it very well by comparing EVOO to a bottle of wine: there are plenty of cheap bottles of wine that you could buy, but when you drop a little extra money on a special bottle, you want to make sure that you are not getting swindled. Here are a few rules of thumb that will get you going in the right direction:

Quality Comes at a Basic Cost

For years, I’ve been buying the cheap EVOO at the grocery store (1 L on special for $5.99).  It says “Extra Virgin” on the bottle, so it’s got to be the real stuff right? Wishful thinking, I know. To be able to call olive oil “extra virgin” it needs to have an acidity level inferior to 0.8%. According to Mr. Beauchemin, some producers will take real EVOO and mix it with cheaper oils, like cheaper olive or vegetable oils. The strong taste of the EVOO will dominate the other oils, therefore fooling the consumer. These are considered substandard. Some producers will go as far as using chemical agents to bring down the acidity levels to the magical 0.8%. These are considered adulterated. Check out this recent New York Times illustrated article about it, it’s really fun. The bottom line is that although you don’t have to spend a fortune on olive oils for them to be both good and authentic, you will have to dish out a minimum sum. Mr. Beauchemin established the minimum price at $13 for a 500 ml bottle. Less than that, he says, and it’s not guaranteed to be 100% EVOO.

Look for the Logo

European associations are trying to combat the substandard EVOOs by providing tools for the consumer. Different countries have created an official logo affixed to EVOO bottles to certify they are 100% the result of pressing juice out of olives, and nothing else. It is not because a bottle doesn’t have the logo that it is not authentic extra virgin, however, as you are removed from the process, you will never know. Unless it is your Italian uncle or trusted friend who brings the oil back from their family orchard and can vouch for it, you don’t have any guarantees.

Look for a Best Before Date

As with anything you would cook with or eat, make sure to look for a ‘Best Before’ date. You want to know the oil will last more than a few weeks. Olive oil oxidizes after one or two years. This translates into a subtle mold-like flavour, much like the smell of decaying leaves in the fall. You can detect it by smelling the oil and by swishing a sip in your mouth the same way you would with wine. Because you rarely have the chance to taste an oil you are about to purchase, your best bet is to look at the best before date.

This event was really eye-opening for us. We realized how much there was to know about the ingredients that appear on our plates and with just a little bit of curiosity and education, you can fully enjoy a rich and traditional ingredient for all it has to offer.

Fun Facts

  1. “Cold Pressed Olive Oil” is extracted without heating the oil past a specific temperature (27 °C), which allows it to keep more flavours and nutrients, but is a more complicated process.
  2. Most olive oil is made from unripened green olives so as to keep the acidity level low.
  3. Spain is the largest producer of olive oil (41% of world production), followed by Italy (20%), and Greece (11%).
  4. There are over 450 different types of olives in Italy. One olive tree in Sardinia, Italy, is estimated to be between 3000 and 4000 years old.

EVOO Event
Photo credit: Emmanuel Hessler

Check out the Prosciutto-Wrapped Roasted Asparagus with Spicy Tapenade Aioli we made during the event.

Now that you know more about EVOO, don’t be shy to douse your food with it as it makes everything taste better and is pretty healthy to boot!

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