By Annunziata Gianzero

What do you really know about olive oil?

Most everyone in New York likes to think of themselves as a foodie, as we make great sport of knowing the latest restaurants, chefs, diets and even trendy kitchen gadgets (Whaaat? You do not own a home sous vide cooker and an Instant Pot?).

Being an Italian-American of impending dual citizenship status, and a make-pretend foodie in my own right, it’s not surprising that I became interested in the nuances of olive oil. I may even have been heard to utter, “Wine sommeliers are sooo last week…I wanna be an olive oil sommelier!” (There actually are accredited programs, though still rare and infrequent). But when most people learn of my little EVOO fetish the question they most often pose to me is, “How do I know if I’m getting ‘the good stuff’?”

Well, we all seem to know we’re supposed to buy extra virgin olive oil (EVOO: pronounced “ee-voo” by the industry and hip foodies alike) and, indeed, 86% of consumers do. But for most New Yorkers, foodies notwithstanding, that’s where our knowledge dwindles. Most likely you’ve heard, but not fully grasped, terms like first cold-press, cold-extracted, hand-picked, unfiltered, or harvest date. Few of us have been to an olive oil tasting, much less a conference of olive farmers, distributors and retailers.

So, it was with great pleasure that I accepted an invitation to this summer’s Olive Oil Conference. Joseph Profaci, a SoHo neighbor, also happens to be Executive Director of the North American Olive Oil Association (NAOOA) which co-hosts this yearly event. It was, as expected, a delicious mingling of cultures all convening to discuss one of the most beloved ingredients in our favorite recipes and the cornerstone of the famed Mediterranean diet—olive oil.

With under 100 attendees hailing from all over the world, this was an elite group of olive savants. I shared a table with producers and distributors from Morocco, Cairo, Spain, Australia and Turkey. Going to this conference was a bit like signing up for Olive Oil 101 and finding out that you’ve mistakenly enrolled in the PhD program. Much like wine enthusiasts discuss the grape varietals of cabernet, chardonnay and merlot, the conference tasters often identify “cultivars” (olive tree varieties) like Koroneiki, Picual, and Frantoio. They reference tasting notes of “green banana,” “grass,” or “butter,” and cite the balance, complexity, and harmony of specific oils. This, of course, only fed my new obsession as I began to learn more about the story of this fascinating fruit juice.

SALUTE! Extra Virgin Olive Oil has only one ingredient (olives!) but the tasting notes for oil made from different olive trees are as varied as those for wine. Photo credit: Mark Wilkinson.

Fruit juice? Lesson number one: olives are a fruit. Ergo, olive oil is actually a fruit juice. That’s why it’s critical to pick fresh olives and extract their oil within twenty-four hours. The ingredients in a bottle of EVVO? Olives. That’s it. Plain truth. Anything else and it ain’t EVOO. There are additional qualifiers. But that’s our starting point. Follow me further, if you will, on the road to becoming an “oleologist,” which is, according to Olive Oil Times, someone “engaged in the study of olive oil.”

So—what exactly is “extra virgin(ity)?” Whether via hydraulic press or centrifuge, oil is separated from the olive pulp without any heat or chemistry applied. If the heat rises above a certain temperature (27°C) during pressing or extracting, the oil loses quality (hence “cold-pressed” or “cold-extracted”). EVOO must be obtained from the first pressing of the fruit, not by subsequent pressings of the leftover residue (“first press”). In general, lower production equals higher quality, which is why better EVOOs are more expensive. They also contain more of the stuff that’s good for you.

That’s the chemistry part. However, in order to claim the EVOO label, the oil must meet both a chemistry standard and a sensory one. There is a slew of regulating bodies designed to raise awareness of the goodness of EVOO and to inspect quality control. A few are IOC, NAOOA, COOC, AOA and EVA. They provide authentications when an EVOO meets their standards. It’s good to know these organizations are out there and all are worth googling.

Of course, there are other reasons why you’d want to get the “good stuff.” True extra virgin olive oil is loaded with powerful antioxidants (specifically polyphenols), monounsaturates, and nutrients, some of which have been shown to destroy cancer cells, ease arthritis pain, contribute to cardiovascular health, stave off Alzheimer’s and even, a focus of the conference, to combat diabetes. In fact, the Mediterranean diet was recently ranked #1 for preventing diabetes and heart disease.

So how can you ensure you’ve got a good olive oil? First, be aware of the common shopper misconceptions. “Refined” sounds like a good attribute. Not so in EVOO. Refined oil includes chemical additives which alter taste and remove the positive attributes from the product. Refined oil is not EVOO. Also, olive oil has a shelf life. After two years, it’s not even considered EVOO. Look for a harvest date rather than a “best by” date, as there can be gaps between harvesting and bottling. And “light” olive oil isn’t what you may think. It is not lower in calories or fat. Light refers merely to color, flavor or aroma. Also, it should be understood that “unfiltered” oil is incredibly good for you (even more polyphenols!) but must be consumed quickly because the fruit particles can ferment. Next comes your role in EVOO quality control.

The Care and Feeding of EVOO: Since UV light, heat, and oxidation degrade the quality of this rather finicky fruit juice, buy/keep EVOO in a dark bottle or opaque tin, store it at 65°F (not where it probably is—near your stove), keep it in a tightly sealed container.

Sipping olive oil out of a tasting glass is fascinating—and loads of fun to learn how to do properly. However, for me, the single-most mind-blowing experience of the entire conference happened during lunch. The first course listed a “roast eggplant –heirloom cherry tomatoes–petite chicory-basil ricotta mousse tart” (basically, a fancy bruschetta). But there were two on each plate. One was dressed with a premium EVOO brand while the other was prepared with the foodservice’s “house” EVOO. The difference changed my mind—firmly and forever—regarding finding and serving premium extra virgins. One tasted like a good upscale bruschetta. The premium oil recipe was extraordinary, the clear winner in highlighting the flavors of the fresh veggies.

Now, my newly appointed oleologists, go forth and conquer the culinary world!!!

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