05 Nov

Do you really know your olive oils?

Texts: Marlene Parrish Photo: Tony Tye,

Spain, not Italy, is the world’s largest producer of olive oil. Members of a Post-Gazette tasting panel sampled seven extra-virgin Spanish olive oils.

Extra-virgin olive oils can be confusing. A recipe for pesto calls for a fruity and fragrant olive oil. A recipe for tapanade calls for a green and grassy olive oil. Another recipe calls for a peppery olive oil, and yet another calls for an herbal one.

Good oil isn’t cheap, and instead of finishing a bottle at a sitting as you would a bottle of wine, a bottle of extra-virgin olive oil might stay in the kitchen for weeks, even months. So how is a person supposed to know what to buy, how it tastes and how best to use it?

Searching for the answer led us to olive oil expert Jeff Robbins, owner of Embarcadero Inc., an importer and distributor of Spanish olive oils in the area. Robbins might be a savvy businessman, but first and foremost he’s a teacher, and an entertaining and opinionated one to boot. Just the guy we needed.

But before discussing the flavor nuances of various oils, you need to understand how they are graded, according to Mr. Robbins.

Extra-virgin olive oil is the highest class of olive oils. These oils have what is described as perfect taste and aroma. The olives are pressed shortly after they are harvested, and their oils never come into contact with chemicals or heat. They do not undergo any treatment other than washing, decantation, centrifugation and perhaps filtration. This yields oils with a wide range of flavors, colors and characteristics, all of which have less than 0.8 percent free oleic acid as specified by the International Olive Oil Council (IOOC).

Virgin olive oils have higher acid levels, from 1.5 percent to 2 percent, and compromised flavor characteristics. This makes them good choices for baking and frying.

Olive oil (with no adjectives) is a blend of chemically refined oil combined with a small amount of extra-virgin oil. These oils with very little flavor are sometimes labeled “Light.”

“To get the idea, instead of an olive, think of an orange,” Mr. Robbins continued. “Take an orange and squeeze it with your hand. Pour the fresh juice into a glass and drink it. You notice the flavor and aroma, which is full of everything the orange has to offer with all the flavor, nuance and subtlety.

“Now squeeze the orange again. There’s not so much juice so you have to squeeze harder, and you’re getting less pure flavor and more extraneous stuff. Still, it’s a good glass of juice.

“The third squeeze, now you’re working, digging, really manipulating the orange, going for the leftovers. All the good juice was taken in the first two squeezes, so now you are getting cellular remnants. You might have to resort to using an orange squeezer. At about the third squeezing, the juice lacks flavor and most all the good stuff, leaving only traces of antioxidants and Vitamins A and E.”

Myth busting

It’s a myth that light and extra-light olive oil are less “fattening” than better-quality and higher-priced extra-virgin olive oil, according to Mr. Robbins. All olive oils have 14 grams of fat per tablespoon.

It’s also a myth that Italy makes the only truly premium olive oils in the world, says Mr. Robbins.

“The Mediterranean region is the epicenter of olive growing, but olive oils are cultivated in many areas, including Argentina, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia. Olive oil, like wine, depends on the soil, the climate, the altitude at which the olives are grown and harvested, the producer and his knowledge, the single olive used or the variety of olives in a blend.”

But when most people think olive oil, he said, they think Italy, because Italian oils are the most familiar. Of those, Tuscan oils are often considered the most desirable.

“The Tuscan and Tuscan-style extra-virgin olive oils are often green and pungent. Because of its altitude, Tuscany has frost issues, so olives must be harvested early. The resulting green olive oil can be harsh and bitter. The producers, ever aware of the strength of marketing, decided to made that style a virtue. Word got around that peppery and bitter is how Italian olive oils are supposed to taste. A lot of us got used to it.”

Italy produces the most olive oil in the world. True or false?

False, according to Mr. Robbins. “Spain is the largest producer of olive oils in the world. It produces about 40 percent of the world harvest, and Italy buys about 60 percent of the Spanish harvest. The oils are then blended and repackaged under an Italian label. If you want to verify that, go to Penn Mac or Costco and pick up a can of Italian oil. Look on the back at the bottom and you’ll see that the oil is a blend.”

Spanish oils are coming into their own, Mr. Robbins says. Consumers, ever curious, are seeking new flavors and different styles. It helps that Spain is a hot tourist destination, and Spanish chefs are leading international culinarians. Also, the emergence of the European Union has strengthened the Spanish economy.

How long can I keep olive oil?

Not as long as you might think. The most important fact you will learn from a container of olive oil is the date of harvest, because olive oil loses flavor as it ages.

“The difference between olive oil and wine is the inverse relationship to time,” Mr. Robbins says. “Wines mature and open with time, whereas olive oils fade with time.”

Most olive harvests take place from November through January in the Mediterranean region. Then the oil has to rest before being bottled and shipped. The life of an extra-virgin olive oil is two years, at most.

After resting, bottling and shipping, olive oils won’t reach customers in the United States until they are about six months old. They should be used within 12 to 18 months. If a label doesn’t have a date of harvest, it might have a “use by” date.

Where and how olive oil is stored affect quality. Store olive oil in a cool, dark place, for instance, in a cool pantry or dark part of the kitchen. If the oil is in a clear, glass bottle, wrap the bottle in aluminum foil. If you want to buy oil in bulk, buy a large tin that you keep in a cool place, and decant some into a dark wine bottle with a pouring spout for daily use in the kitchen. As a rule of thumb, experts advise against refrigeration or freezing.

A well-stocked home kitchen will stock at least three kinds of olive oil: one for cooking, one for salads and one for finishing, according to Mr. Robbins.

“If you can afford to have only one, go for a good all-purpose olive oil. At Pennsylvania Macaroni, look for Carruca or Oleum in the beige can. Both are good for cooking, dipping and drizzling.”

Other good sources of olive oils are Uncommon Market in Upper St. Clair, John McGinnis and Co. in Castle Shannon, Whole Foods Market in East Liberty and Donatelli’s Food Center in Bloomfield.

“People often ask me which country has the best olive oils,” Mr. Robbins says. “I ask them, ‘First, tell me which country has the most beautiful women? Which country has the most intelligent people?’ Taste is subjective, and good olive oils come from all over the world. There is no one best.”

More information

You won’t find all of these elements on any given label, but here are facts to look for:

  • Extra-virgin olive oil.
  • First cold-press.
  • Olive variety or a blend.
  • Country of origin.
  • Region of the country.
  • Estate-bottled or not.
  • Use-by date.
  • How dark the bottle is. Or if it’s a clear bottle, a good gold to green spectrum.

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