Say “Olive Oil” to most Americans and they think “Italy.” Good for the Italian olive oil producers, but is olive oil from Italy really the very best? What the Italians don’t want you to know is that Italy consumes a great deal more olive oil than it produces. So where does olive oil from Italy come from?
Big Italian olive oil companies buy their best olive oils oil from Greece, Spain, and the Middle East. The oil is shipped to Italy, where it is blended, bottled, and exported to America, where people looking for olive oil from Italy will buy it without suspecting its true origins. On this very long supply chain, the oil gets older and loses its unique qualities as it is blended. The fats involved are still the healthy fats, but even if it grades as “Extra Virgin Olive Oil” it’s quality is questionable.
Which brings us to a good question: What is Extra Virgin Olive Oil? In the old days, it was the oil from the first pressing of the olives, which had the lowest acid content. Times have changed.
Today most olive oil is produced in a different way – no more crushing olives with stones, pressing it with weights, and heating it up to get out the lower quality oil. In a modern olive press, the olives are crushed in a steel machine and the oil is extracted by centrifuge. The temperature is kept low to protect the oil quality. There are no subsequent pressings – all of the edible oil is extracted at the same time. The secret: if the olives were harvested at the right time and handled correctly, every drop of this oil is extra virgin.
Does all this mean that you can’t get a good olive oil from Italy? No, absolutely not. But you can’t get a good olive oil from Italy from mass producers – the ones your grocery store stocks. That oil serves its purpose – and it won’t hurt you. But to get a top olive oil from Italy, you have to look to the smaller, artisan, estate producers. These producers grow their own olives and are very careful about handling their product.
Poor handling and storage of olive oil is the best way to ruin a good product. Let it get warm, expose it to light and oxygen, let it get old and you turn a magnificent natural product into ‘just an oil.’ It loses most of the qualities that make olive oil not just good for you, but enjoyable. The major producers don’t take the same care as the artisans. Neither does your local grocery store.
So the next time you are looking for a top olive oil from Italy, look to the smaller producers. With the internet, what used to be reserved for visitors to Italy is within the reach of Joe in Wisconsin. These small producers are out there, and their fresh olive oils are some of the best olive oils available anywhere.