Imagine the gnarled and twisted trunks of century-old olive trees scattered along the Italian countryside. Cicada song. A flask of cloudy, gilded-green nectar glints in the sunlight.
Not much has changed over the ages. It’s a known fact that wild olives were collected by Neolithic civilizations as early as the 8th millennium B.C.E. The Greek poet Homer called olive oil “liquid gold,” and in ancient Hellenic times, athletes ritually rubbed it on their bodies before performing in Olympic disciplines.
Olive oil has meant so much more than mere food to the peoples of the Mediterranean: both medicinal and magical, olive oil has always been an endless source of fascination and wonder, and –– as the oldest existing food staple –– it has constituted the fountain of great wealth and power.
The best way to enjoy olive oil is pairing it with other foods as a condiment.
Italian food lovers use it as a dressing, or to cook certain vegetables, as shortening for some baked confections, and as a base for many pasta sauces. Olive oil is also liberally drizzled over charred bruschetta: crusty home-style bread that’s been rubbed with fresh garlic and sprinkled with sea salt. Olive oil is used as dip in pinzimonio, the Italian word for crudité of vegetables, and is only lightly seasoned with salt and pepper. Olive oil’s fragrant richness is too powerful for deep-frying, in which case vegetable oil is used — though some Italian cooks still swear by frying with precious olive oil.
When olive oil is freshly cold-pressed, it comes out of the spout bright green in color, and cloudy. If exposed to light and heat, it will eventually turn yellowish and lose its opacity and much of its crisp, scratchy-on-the-throat loveliness. Olive oil should therefore be stored in dark glass bottles, away from direct light and heat in order to avoid oxidation and maintain freshness, appearance, and overall quality.
The best olive oil is the extra-virgin kind, a pure and unaltered product with which other non-extra virgin olive oils cannot compete in terms of taste and nutrition.
What Exactly Is Extra-Virginity?
An olive oil can be defined as extra-virgin if the harvested olives have been pressed once, and the resulting oil is pure, not blended with other oils. Any remaining olive pulp from the first press will provide several other yields, whose quality will diminish with each passage, each one failing to be graded as “extra-virgin.”
Olive oil is a $1.5 billion industry in the US alone. According to Tom Mueller, a fearless journalist and author of the book Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, which exposes the inner workings of the olive oil industry, 70% of the extra-virgin olive oil sold in North America is cut with cheaper, lower-grade olive oils (or with canola oil or colza oil) and mislabeled, failing to meet the major legal definitions of the extra-virgin grade. The blended oil can then be chemically deodorized, dyed, possibly even flavored, and sold by the supplier as “extra-virgin” oil to the producer.
How Do American Olive Oil Consumers Avoid Being Duped?
A safe indicator is checking if the extra-virgin olive oil has a harvest date on the label. Freshness is important since olive oil is not like wine: it does NOT improve with age; quite the contrary. Even if properly stored, both flavor and nutrients deteriorate after 10-12 months of harvesting.
Artisan and locally pressed olive oils produced in domestic, small family farms have always passed every single authenticity test. The olives are usually always organically farmed, not sprayed with chemicals, and the extraction is carried out with hydraulic presses that don’t alter the oil’s nutritional properties. Small, independent farmers won’t need to add lower grade oils to doctor their extra-virgin product because they are not victims of big numbers required by mass distribution.
The best choice when purchasing extra virgin olive oil is to buy it locally. Get your olio from a farmer you know and trust. Don’t roll your eyes. There are no local olive growers near you? Not a problem, you can shop online, or at big box stores.
Yes, you read correctly.
Costco’s Kirkland Signature Organic Extra-Virgin Olive Oil is probably the best score in the olive oil market. Research conducted by the University of California-Davis has found that the affordable Kirkland Organic Extra-Virgin Olive Oil is one of only five in the study of 19 major-selling brands which is not mixed with cheaper refined products. Some complain of lack of supplies in the Costco branches, but Kirkland Organic can be easily purchased on Amazon.
California Olive Ranch
This small farm’s artisan olive oil production has grown ten-fold over the past six years, with a yield of 2 million gallons a year. The full range of sustainably farmed, cold-pressed, extra-virgin olive oils include a delicate “Everyday” blend; both Arbequina and Arbosana single varietal oils; the intensely flavored Miller’s Blend; and the unfiltered Limited Reserve, whose character is best enjoyed within nine months of harvest. Products can be purchased online on the company website or at major grocery chains including Safeway, Wal-Mart, Wegman’s, and Kroger.
Bariani Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Grown on a farm in California’s Central Valley by an Italian family who emigrated from Lombardy to the US in the 1990s, the beautiful Bariani olive trees are pesticide-free and thriving. Their first-pressed olive oil is handpicked, milled with a stone wheel within 48 hours of harvesting, and extracted with a hydraulic press. Products can be purchased online on the Bariani website.
It all started on the terraced hillsides of Tuscany, where the Cortopassi family has been producing olive oil for generations. This heritage, combined with considerable agricultural land holdings in the heart of California’s lush Central Valley, is home to state-of-the-art farming, milling, and storage of olives – factors which guarantee excellent conditions for the intensely fragrant Corto extra-virgin olive oils.
McEvoy Ranch Organic
The sprawling 550 acres of the McEvoy estate in Petaluma started with 1,000 seedlings brought over to California from Tuscany by inspired olive farmer Nan McEvoy, whose dream vision now relies on a production of prime certified organic olive oils. The full range features a signature Traditional EVO, whose robust flavor is due to the blend of six Italian varietals: Frantoio, Leccino, Pendolino, Maurino, Leccio del Corno and Coratina; plus two small-batch oils: Olio Nuovo and a Limited Edition blend. Products can be purchased online or at the Ferry Building shop in San Francisco.
Many California Olive Oil Council-approved olive oil producers offer tastings, tours, and direct sales on their websites – Here’s a list of California Olive Oil Council-approved retailers where you can purchase certified olive oils in the Golden State.
Georgia Olive Farms
Better keep an eye out for the booming Georgia olive agri-industry, as it promises more great things to come. Georgia Olive Farms is a cooperative formed in 2009 and is the leading East Coast producer and marketer of Arbosana, Arbequina, and Koroneiki varietal olive trees. They produce the branded Georgia Olive Farms Extra-Virgin Olive Oil “Chef’s Blend,” which can be purchased on the company website at an affordable price, with shipping costs included.
Disclaimer: I have not been paid or given samples to write about these products. I buy my extra virgin olive oil at a farm in Tuscany, and the quantities I bring back with me last me a year. I am fortunate to witness the magical extraction period at my friends’ family-run frantoio press every fall, during which I organize olive harvest and olive oil-tasting vacations for travelers interested in learning more about this millennial source of nourishment and pleasure.
Photo credits: Ewan Munro, Author, Margo Millure, Emőke Dénes, McEnvoy, Author