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Extra Virgin Olive Oil – Who Can You Trust? Top U.S. Chefs Weigh In

Special to the Washington Examiner
By: Jordan Wright
October 26, 2010

Mixed Olives

Mixed Olives

By all accounts the health benefits of the mono-unsaturated extra virgin olive oil are well documented. As the foundation of the much-lauded Mediterranean Diet, research has shown its high levels of anti-oxidants, good fats and phenols to be necessary to maintain a healthy diet. Okay, we are all in agreement with that.

But scientific testing at the University of California Davis has revealed that a number of the better-known olives oils, labeled “extra virgin” are anything but. Some are diluted and quite a few erroneously labeled as to country of origin. Not only are they compromised by the addition of seed or nut oils or even “pomace” the detritus from olives, but also they also come from countries other than those printed on their labels.

So how can you be sure you’re getting the health benefits from the extra virgin olive oil you purchase? Recently I’ve noticed that the olive oil I’ve purchased in my local market has not been up to snuff. Supermarket store brands labeled extra virgin olive oil have slight flavor variances but the overall quality is lackluster and I want more depth of flavor, more authenticity. I began to wonder why on trips abroad and to olive growing areas like California, the food was so superior to the same dishes that are often replicated and served in restaurants or homes. I began to think about it…perhaps obsess would describe the feeling better…and to seek out explanations.

It began at Agora earlier this summer, a new Dupont Circle Turkish restaurant in Washington, DC, where I found a world of flavor unfolding on my plate. The olive oil they used had a nutty pungent olive essence that was fruity and rich tasting and brightened the traditional mezes. Creamy spreads like htipiti made with roasted peppers, feta and thyme and labneh, a simple dish of Turkish yogurt they serve with diced apples and walnuts came alive with a more robust flavor. Both dishes were drizzled with extra virgin olive oil, but why was there such a dramatic difference in these oft-served Mediterranean dishes?

In a call to Agora’s owner Latif Guler, I discovered the source of the aromatic and flavorful oil that he uses. “It comes from our family olive groves in Foca near Izmir on the west coast of Turkey. These are our own trees and I know the quality,” he informed me. “It was my goal to use this first press oil even before we opened. I told my father who owns a restaurant and hotel in our small village that I had to have it for my restaurant too!”

He explained that it is commonplace throughout the Mediterranean for families to cart olives from their small private groves to local mills, dividing the precious oil among close family members. This short hop from grower to miller insures the quality, origin and purity of the resulting product. And since olive oil is the only oil that can be consumed freshly pressed from the fruit without further processing, like wine, it has its own distinct characteristics.

But for those of us without our own personal olive groves, how can we know what we are buying and how fresh it is?

I started asking around and kicked up a lot of dust. I discovered every chef had a fierce loyalty to particular brands they swore by to enhance and complement the flavor profile of their dishes.

American Chef Marc Collins Shares His Favorite EVOO

Let’s begin in the South with American chef Marc Collins of Charleston, South Carolina’s Circa 1886 Restaurant, whose food is on the posh edgy side. Collins has a predilection for molecular gastronomy and plays with complex techniques to re-interpret regional favorites. He prefers West Coast Products’ brand of extra virgin olive oil, a California company that has been processing locally grown olives since 1937. Lately Collins’ is serving a heart-healthy whipped olive oil “butter” using this oil.

Executive Chef Marc Collins’ Recipe for Olive Oil Butter

65grams (or 2.29 ounces) of Texturas Glice
700ml (or 23.7 fluid ounces) of good EVOO
300ml (or 1.27 cups) of good canola oil
1 tsp sea salt.

Place the glice and all of the oil into a pot and heat to 140˚ F. Remove from the heat source and cool overnight.

The next day take half of the oil mixture and put it into a blender. Grind the salt to a powder and place half of it into the blender as well. Blend on high until creamy and pour into a container. Do this with the other half as well. Chill overnight. Place this mixture into a mixer fitted with a whip attachment and whip on high until double in volume. Check the seasoning. Place in a pastry bag with a star tip and pipe rosettes.

Top grade olive oil from Spain - photo by Jordan Wright

Top grade olive oil from Spain - photo by Jordan Wright

You can order Texturas Glice from:
Collin’s favorite EVOO comes from:

French Chef Eric Ripert On What Complements His Cuisine

French culinary giant Eric Ripert, the three Michelin-starred owner of New York’s Le Bernardin and star of the PBS series “Avec Eric”, likes to conduct blind tastings every few months along with his sous chefs. They put out the ones they have been cooking with alongside a few other high-end olive oils. He acknowledges that they keep returning to the same two brands, but he has noticed that the flavor can vary with the seasons and changes in the climate in the country of origin. “Even though we are always checking to see if there is a better olive oil for us, we find Sitia which is Greek and Frantoia which is Italian, are the most compatible with our cuisine.”

José Andrés Gives a Spanish Olive Oil Primer

Since Spain produces the most olive oil in the world, my inquiries took me to the most acclaimed Spanish chef in the country for his sage advice. José Andrés, who is currently lecturing at Harvard University told me, “People tend to think about olive oil in what you could almost say is a one dimensional way…as a medium for cooking or frying or for use in salads…but it is so much more. It adds flavor, body or silkiness to the texture of dishes. Beyond that people need to recognize that there is not just one olive oil…but many. There are so many varieties of olives suitable for making oil, each with unique characteristics.”

He further explained, “It helps to think of olive oil the way you think about wine. You would never expect a bottle of Barolo from Italy to taste like a California Chardonnay would you? Why then would you have the same expectation of olive oil? Just like when you are talking about wine, the region, the climate, the conditions, the soil, the topography, all these things impact the oil that winds up in the bottle. Olive oils from Andalucia will be different than an olive oil produced in Navarra.”

I was beginning to see the light when Andrés in full throttle expounded on the resultant differences in flavor from particular olives. “The most important factor is the variety of olive used. Some olives, like Picual from Andalucia, are robust and have a pleasant bitter and peppery edge that tickle in the back of the throat. That makes it preferred for salad or gazpacho, dishes where you want an assertive olive oil flavor. Another variety produced in Andalucia, the Hojiblanca, is slightly sweet and very smooth while still retaining a hint of bitterness. It’s good for desserts and salads. Others like Arbequina, produced in Catalunya, or Empeltre, from Aragon, are softer and more delicate with an almost almond flavor. In general the more golden oils tend to be softer and sweeter and the greener ones more fruity and peppery. Some like Lechin from Andalucia and Cornicabra from the region around Toledo and Ciudad Real are wonderful but a pain to harvest so the production is not as high. Or perhaps the yield is low. Still others have little flavor but have great body and thus are used to beef up blends of olive oil.”

Andrés maintains that there is nothing wrong with a blend of varieties. “In fact much of the olive oils that come from Spain are not single varieties. Play with them and see what works best for you,” he suggests.

At his well-known Washington, DC restaurant, Jaleo, he uses a product by Crismona, which is a blend of Andalusian varieties. At minibar by josé andrés they prefer monovarietals.

Here’s his expert primer on Spanish olive oils.

From the Arbequina olive:
Unio and Castillo de Canena both produce good delicate and fruity Arbequina oils.

From the Hojiblanca olive:

From the Picual olive:
Castillo de Canena also produces a peppery and robust Picual.

Blended Oils
Nunyez de Prado is a nice blend of Picual, Picudo and Hojiblanca, very Andalusian and from Baena near Cordoba. [Author’s note: I have to say that this is my everyday favorite EVOO]. Marquez de Valdueza is another nice blend that uses Arbequina as well as Picual and Hojiblanca and features the Morisca olive grown in Extremadura.

Italian Chef Bryan Moscatello Looks to the Italian Alps

At this point I needed to find out what an Italian chef would choose and I went to Washington, DC Executive Chef Bryan Moscatello of Potenza who sources his favorite olive oil from the Apennine Mountains of Umbria.

“I like Trevi olive oil,” he asserts. “It has fresh grass and citrus undertones with a nice sharp bite on the finish. It is a small producer and scarce. We have made some great olive oil emulsions lately… an olive oil “sponge” for our tomatoes that is delicious in our cantaloupe soup and wonderful in olive oil madeleines! At Potenza we use it to finish the orecchiette with spicy fennel sausage and broccoli rabe.”

No matter the cuisine, French, Italian, American, Turkish or Spanish, chefs are very particular about how the flavor and freshness of extra virgin olive oil can enhance or detract from the success of their dishes. No tasting panel or scientific testing can improve upon their highly developed and discriminating palates.

So what do we the consumers need to look for when buying olive oil?

Notes From a California Producer

Dan Vecere of West Coast Products, whose groves are located east of the Mendocino National Forest, sells the olive oil preferred by, and best suited to, Chef Collins’ cuisine. The EVOO they sell is produced from Arbequina olives all grown locally in Northern California. The olives are harvested and pressed within 24 hours producing a fresh tasting, high quality extra virgin olive oil. I’ve used this artisanal product, and found it has the perfect balance for American Modern cuisine.

The Scientific Revelations

Twenty years ago the FDA began to find problems with extra virgin olive oil. But it wasn’t until last year that the California State Senate passed a bill mandating the purity of state-produced olive oils, which are also under strict guidelines by the FDA and the California State authority.

Last month in a study by the University of California, Davis Olive Oil Chemistry Lab and the Australian Oils Research Lab, a third party analysis was conducted on olive oils labeled as extra virgin. Using international standards put these oils through eleven different chemical and sensory tests to evaluate everything from oleic acid values to peroxide value, UV absorption and fatty acid profile. These tests are indicators of oil quality, purity, oxidation and whether or not an oil has been adulterated or refined. Sensory evaluation by a “blind” taste panel confirmed that the failed samples had defective flavors, such as rancid, fusty and musty.

Certified tasters, using cobalt blue tasting glasses so as not to be influenced by the color of the oil, evaluated the positive attributes of fruitiness, bitterness and pungency as well as identified defective oils by their flavors.

They found that 69% of the imported oils and 10% of the California oils labeled extra virgin olive oil did not meet the International Olive Council (IOC) and US Department of Agriculture’s taste, smell and chemical makeup standards for extra virgin olive oil.

Dan Flynn, executive Director of UC Davis’s Olive Center, which is part of the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science, warns, “The market now has been flooded with olive oil that has been diluted, blended, and/or not stored properly.”

He acknowledges that California olive oil is more expensive but feels that the one million gallons of EVOO California produces each year is a superior product, “It is like the difference between Dom Perignon or sparkling wine.” He adds, “We feel the California olive oil industry is parallel to the early days of our wine industry here.

Here are some helpful terms he gave me to describe olive oil:

Positive descriptors can be grassy, floral, tropical, nutty buttery or minty with artichoke, green tea, peach, apple or banana notes. Negative descriptors can be earthy, fusty, moldy, rancid, grubby (from olive fly larvae), muddy, woody (from olives that have not been irrigated), or what they refer to as winey-vinegary.

Flynn also let me know that the term “cold pressed” is an archaic term. Preferable appellations are “cold extraction” or “first extraction”.

Here is his advice as to how to select the best olive oil.

1) Look for a dark bottle.
2) Look for a harvest date. Most olive oil should be consumed within a year to 18 months of harvest.
3) Look for the company’s reputation. The US has not had standards in the past. All that will change Oct. 25th when the USDA’s new standards go into effect, though they will be voluntary standards.
4) Typically green oil denotes an early harvest and is more aggressive in flavor. A more golden hue was made later in the season and should taste nutty or buttery.
5) One way is to look for the CA Olive Oil Council’s seal. They are more stringent even than the international standard.
6) The best way is to taste different oils to see which one appeals to you.

That final snippet echoes the advice from our top chefs. And as for buying guidance you can do no better than to follow the wise words of Turkish-born Latif Guler. For pairing olive oil with the cuisine of the country he says, “What grows together goes together.”

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