By Joan Leotta,
In the past 20 years, olive oil has become more popular in American kitchens for its health benefits and its simply incredible taste, even though the silken “juice” of the olive costs more than other vegetable oils.
In fact, many California olive oil producers call it liquid gold. For example, a small bottle of a premium oil – fewer than three ounces – averages $5-$6, and bottles of less than a quart can range from $18 to $35.
According to the North American Olive Oil Association, 98 percent of the world’s olive oil comes from the Mediterranean region. Olive oil ranges from single variety extra virgin to varietals, flavored oils, and lesser types of olive oil. Some oils are certified by various olive producer associations.
On the Grand Strand, a shopper can purchase ordinary and premium olive oils from those places and many others.
“There is a lot of choice,” said James Maloney, deli and bakery manager at the Kroger in Murrells Inlet. “We even have oils from places as far as Chile and Australia as well as many kinds of Italian and other Mediterranean oils. We carry flavored oils as well.”
Jodi Carlson, manager of Umberto’s Italian Deli at Coquina Harbor in North Myrtle Beach, notes that while he carries only Italian olive oil, the restaurant carries flavored oils and extra virgin oil.
Grand Strand experts
Chefs in the area’s Italian eateries are some of the area’s biggest users of olive oil.
Vini Malasi, the owner and chef of Villa Tuscana in North Myrtle Beach, recommends using the best olive oil you can afford.
“It has to be first press in olive oil. The taste is everything.”
It’s especially important to use the best oils where you can taste them most distinctly, such as on a salad or when finishing a dish by drizzling a bit of oil over the top, he said.
“You should be able to taste the olive in the oil,” he said.
Malasi get brands through restaurant suppliers, but there is no shortage of olive oil resources for Grand Strand residents. Local grocers and specialty stores as well as the Internet offer a wide variety.
Choosing an olive oil
Olive oil, like wine, develops taste characteristics that vary according to the soil and climate of the place where the olives are grown. The type of olive and the weather in a particular year also influence the final product. The best way to select an olive oil for your kitchen is to attend a tasting. If you cannot attend a tasting, rely on the label and trust in the distributor to make your decisions.
Luanne O’Laughlin, manager of Olio2go, headquartered in Fairfax, Va., said: “We test every oil before we accept it. Many come with certifications attached and a laboratory certification that also tells us about that oil’s flavor characteristics. We spend a lot of time looking at authenticity.”
Attending a tasting
This year I enjoyed olive oil tastings in two locations – Italy and the Napa Valley. In Italy, my husband and I spent the better part of one morning at an exposition and tasting in Sorrento. We sampled estate bottled oils from the Campania region of Italy. Some were peppery, others were smooth and buttery. We also learned about the care these artisinal producers take to ensure that their oils are known as reputable.
While in Napa Valley, we visited McEvoy and St. Helena tasting bars. McEvoy is one of the larger farms in the area and presses olives for some of the smaller producers, including some of the wineries.
St. Helena carries its own limited production and that of several other local groves. St. Helena’s Peggy O’Kelly notes, “We are so small we do not bother with California certification. Most of our customers buy directly from us after tasting.”
McEvoy Ranch is a certified organic producer as well as a California COOC producer. In addition to oils for the kitchen, McEvoy produces handmade olive oil soaps and creams and uses its winnowed olive tress to produce olive wood bowls and art.
My family and I tasted COOC-certified olive oils at the Round Pond Olive Oil grove and ranch, where guide Jill Jackson also showed us the machinery that transforms olives into liquid gold.
Round Pond’s groves are quiet and lush. Five different types of olives fill out the long rows of trees. Jackson explained how to judge the oil. She poured about a tablespoon of each of the single variety oils (Italian and Spanish) and then a blended one into individual blue glasses. The colored glass, she said, keeps us from being swayed by the oil’s color, which is not a determinant of quality.
Jackson explained how to enjoy each oil’s bouquet and how to swish the oil in our mouths to give us the experience of each oil’s full range of flavors. We then sampled the oils in a culinary setting – drizzled over gorgonzola, with bread for dipping, over arugula, mozzarella and tomatoes.
Round Pond makes flavored oils, and Jackson explained the importance of infusing the additional flavors right at the press, which Round Pond does, using their own organically grown lemons or blood oranges.
When judging an oil by its label, Jackson advised checking for certifications (such as COOC for California oils), the year the oil was bottled and the acid level as well as the designation as extra virgin.
Storing olive oil
Chances are that if you are an olive oil aficionado, you have at least one bottle under the sink or in the back of a pantry. Both of those places are dry and dark – two important qualifications for storing olive oil to maximize its shelf life. A good olive oil should be used within a year of its bottling and within three to six months of opening.
- Olio 2 Go (70 different Italian olive oils) www.olio2go.com 703-876-4666
- Round Pond Olive Oil www.roundpond.com 888-203-2575
- McEvoy Ranch www.mcevoyranch.com 866-617-6679
- St. Helena Olive Oil www.sholiveoil.com 800-939-9880
- California Olive Oil Council www.cooc.com 888-718-9830
- North American Olive Oil Association naooa.mytradeassociation.org 732-922-3008
- International Olive Oil Council www.internationaloliveoil.org
- Olive Oil Source (health and food) www.oliveoilsource.com
If you cannot attend a tasting, let the label be your guide, and buy from a trusted source. The International Olive Oil Council has established the following classifications:
Extra virgin olive oil | Derived from the cold pressing of olives without any refining. It has a distinctive aroma and taste and intense fruity flavor. It’s also low in acidity (less than 0.8 percent).
Virgin olive oil | Also derived solely from the pressing of olives and requires no refining. With a mild taste and odor and a fruity flavor that varies in intensity, with acidity levels of less than 2 percent.
Olive oil | Usually described as “pure” or “100 percent pure,” olive oil means a blend of refined olive oil and extra virgin or virgin olive oil. This oil is neutral, so it’s blended with extra virgin or virgin olive oil and has an acidity level of less than 1 percent.
Olive-pomace oil | A blend of refined olive pomace oil and virgin olive oil. Pomace is the crushed olive material that remains after pressing. Oil is extracted with the use of solvents and blended with virgin olive oil.
DOP (Denominazione D’Origine Protetta) | Italy has 36 DOP regions. This designation is set by the European Union as a guarantee of quality for European products.
California Olive Oil Council | The designation means the grower supports the standards of the International Olive Oil Council headquartered in Madrid, Spain. www.cooc.org
Date | The best olive oils have the date of bottling stamped on the bottle, usually the year after the harvest. Look for the most recent.
Other important designations include organic and the certifications of olive oil grower groups in other countries.
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