That smooth, golden oil that fries our food to a perfect taste is, well, bad oil. Real olive oil is hot and hits your senses the same way a hot pepper does. It will actually burn your throat in a delightful burst of flavor. This fact makes one wonder whether they have ever had real olive oil. So, what are we buying at the grocery store?
Most likely a small bit of old olive oil mixed with another oil such as grapeseed oil. Olive oil is a fruit oil, meaning it is fresh for only a few weeks, similar to fruit juice. After that, it becomes rancid. Most of us use olive oil because it is healthier than vegetable oil. However, if it is old, or cooked at high temperatures, or mixed with some lower-quality oil, it loses its nutrition.
The most well-known brand of olive oil in this area is Bertolli’s. Alex Renton, writing for theguardian.com, had this to say about the Bertolli brand:
“The story of the latter, a market leader here (UK) and in the United States, provides a good tour of the rottenness in the trade. The Bertollis were bankers and traders who never actually owned an olive tree, despite the bucolic Tuscan scenes depicted on their labels. They got rich on the back of the incomprehensible twist in European law that, until 2001, allowed any olive oil bottled in Italy to be sold as “Italian olive oil”, which, absurdly, is what we all pay most for. In fact, even now 80% of the oil Bertolli uses comes from Spain, North Africa and the Middle East. It it is still flogged in bottles with “Lucca” and “Passione Italiana” on the label. Today, Italy still sells three times as much oil as it produces.”
Renton credits Bertolli’s advertising techniques as the reason for needing a low-quality oil as a mixer. The Bertolli’s would describe their oil as “smooth, “gentle” or “not peppery on the throat.” Bertolli sold the company to Unilever who, then, sold it to a corporation in Spain.
There is a technique used to squeeze the oil out of olive twigs and for making chemical seed oils called deodorising. The Romans, for centuries, called the bland oil from this technique lampante and used it for lighting lamps because it was not good enough for consumption. Interestingly, this is what we are buying at the store.
When buying olive oil the most important thing is the harvest date which some companies will include on the bottle. The “sell by” date often refers to the date the oil was bottled rather than harvested. The “sell by” date is usually two years from the time of bottling. So, if the “sell by” date is two years away, the oil will be more fresh. These two dates may be very different. Keep in mind that olive oil is only healthy when it is fresh. The color of a good oil varies. A good oil will be bottled in dark glass containers because light will ruin it. Smell and taste is what is important.
If the label says “pure” or “light” the oil has gone through refinement and has lost some nutrition and flavor. The label should read “extra virgin.” Read the label to see if a specific mill is listed.
Tom Mueller, author of Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, and founder of www.truthinoliveoil.com, explains it better.
“Phrases like “packed in Italy” or “bottled in Italy,” do not mean that the oil was made in Italy, much less that it was made from Italian olives. Italy is one of the world’s major importers of olive oil, much of which originates in Spain, Greece, Tunisia and elsewhere, so don’t be taken in by Italian flags and scenes from the Tuscan countryside on the packaging. Some of the oil imported into Italy is consumed by Italians, but much of it is blended, packed and re-exported. Generally speaking, avoid oils whose precise point of production – a specific mill – is not specified on the label.”
As far as supermarkets go, Mueller recommends Ottavio which is available at HEB.
Here are links to companies that make and sell olive oil in Texas:
Texas Hill Country Olive Company
Bella Vista Ranch
Texas Olive Ranch
Visit Mueller’s website in the link above for tips on buying, cooking, recommended oils, and in-depth research on olive oil.