Olive oil. Like a Virgin… in Italy.

Somewhere between the years of the ongoing schifoso scandal surrounding contaminated Buffalo Mozzarella, and the recent “divine” birth of a son to a Salvadoran nun in Italy, I find myself questioning the purity of certain established facts here in Italy. If two Italian staples like Buffalo Mozzarella and Catholic Nuns aren’t pure… then how do I know if anything is really pure?

Let’s take another biggie – Italian Extra-Virgin Olive Oil. If one condiment could define a nation, this would be it, folks.

When my great-grandfather immigrated from Bauso, Sicily, to Boston in 1898, he had a few lire in his pocket, the clothes on his back , and this whacking great big huge jug of olive oil…

bisnonno olive oil jug

My bisnonno’s jug of olive oil. ‘Cuz ya never know!

… because you never know. There might not be decent olive oil in the New World. Then where would we be? Disastro!

olive tree in Sirmione 2009

olive tree in Sirmione 2009

Here in Italy, we consume vast amounts of this stuff, and pretty much all Italians will tell you that they would rather die than use (God forbid) SPANISH olive oil instead of 100% Italian. One day in the Coop Supermarket I made the fatal mistake of suggesting that we try a taste test, to see if the quality was really so different to justify the price difference. My marito nearly divorced me right there in the supermarket aisle.

I am not allowed to purchase any olive oil that does not say 100% Made in Italy, Extra-Virgin.

The problem is that Gianni, down at the port, can have a whole shipment of soybean oil from China dumped into that 100% Italian olive oil, and he can still slap the sticker on the bottle that implies that the oil is Italian. There are attempts at regulation and control, but (as with many things in Italy) political power and connections often override any “findings”.

If you want to make your stomach churn, check out this New York Times slideshow (because apparently no one can read any more, so we have to dumb everything down into digestible graphics. Pretty graphics, though!).

New York Times - "Extra Virgin Suicide"

New York Times – “Extra Virgin Suicide”

  • Update on this controversial infographic: apparently done by a graphic artist, NOT a journalist. Source information questionable.
  • Update 2: NYT made changes to infographic in response to outcry from apparently very vocal olive oil community!
  • Update 3: Facing one of the most passionate olive oil dramas of our time (have there been others?), the NYT has been forced to back-peddle a lot and include this at the conclusion of the infographic:

extra virgin suicide retractions

So… let’s move on. What can we do about this? I, for one, am not going to hold my breath waiting for the Italian regulatory system to kick in. And I really don’t have time to sit around and wait for my damn olive tree to spit out more than 5 sad little olives. Plus I have NO IDEA how to “press” an olive. Maybe someday I’ll arrive at that level of local food production, but until then I need a way to find reliably good Italian olive oil.

How can I find 100% Italian Extra-Virgin Olive Oil?

Research. Dude, the power of consumer research is SHOCKING. We should be researching every single thing we put in our mouths. For that matter, we should also be knowledgable about the crap we fill our houses with, but I’ll leave that discussion for another day.

So I looked around online a bit, and here’s what I’ve discovered:

Labels to look for:

Yes, the labels can be falsified, but let’s at least start with the brands who are at least lying correctly! Look for these stickers or words on the packaging:

  • “Extra Virgin” (NOT “pure”, “light”, etc)
  • This year’s date of harvest is best… although it will last until 2 years past bottle date.
  • PDO (DOP in Italy) or PGI – these signify that the geographic origin is protected. Theoretically olive oil from outside Italy cannot claim to be Italian.
  • “First pressed” and “cold pressed” aren’t usually correct, because of the way processing is done today. But true extra virgin olive oil is from the first processing of the olive, and it should say that somewhere.

Some tips for guiding a purchase of olive oil:

  • If you don’t have an olive oil mill nearby (which, I realizes sounds ridiculous to many Americans reading this… but we actually DO have a mill nearby), you can find a specialty food store that will allow you to taste test oils.
  • Quiz your olive oil seller, if possible. Or check out their website (where, sure, they could be lying) to make sure they store their olive oil in stainless steel containers topped with an inert gas to block oxygen.
  • It’s best to purchase those metal containers that block out light, instead of the glass jars. Or, at least look for the darker glass jars that block out more light.
  • Purchase quantities that are readily usable. Olive oil can go rancid, so it makes no sense to buy a huge vat of it if you won’t use it fairly quickly.
  • Don’t worry about the color or variations in the taste. There are more than 700 kinds of olives, so variation is to be expected. Tastes that are bad: (need I say?) moldy or rancid flavors.
  • According to Tom Muller, who has a fantastically sensual connection with olive oil (read his new book “Extra Virginity”), a good olive oil will have free fatty acidity (FFA) of 0.2% or lower, and peroxides at well below 10 meq/kg. It will also have a polyphenol rating between 300 and 500, or higher (but higher = more bitter).

A DIY test for confirming nasty olive oil:

Stop! Don’t do this. There is a substantial number of claims around the grand World Wide Web that if you put your olive oil in the fridge, you can “test” it to see its purity. That’s bull-hiney. All oil congeals at low temperatures, and all you’re doing is wasting time and decreasing the shelf-life of your oil.

The ultimate olive oil resource – http://www.truthinoliveoil.com:

For the ultimate guide in English on how to get personal with your olive oil, Tom Muller is the man to see. He even has this super handy map of his approved olive oils in Italy. Let me know in the comments if you can confirm any of these! (Tom, if you’re reading this – what’s up with the big hole in map around Reggio Emilia?! Is it because there are none or because you haven’t visited here? If it’s the latter, come on down! We’re quite friendly, and we will feed you well.)

29 thoughts on “Olive oil. Like a Virgin… in Italy.

    • well, just brag away, why don’t you, Debra! 🙂 just kidding. We are lucky here. I’ve been stealing from my suocera’s cantina for a while now. They bring some back whenever they pass by a mill. Yum!

  1. I love your grandfather oil jug!

    I have to admit that even after living for more than 20 years abroad (USA first, and The Netherlands later) I still abhor any extra virgin olive oil bottle which hasn’t print on it “Made in Italy” – so you got me there 😉

    As for the whole extra virgin olive oil adulteration/fraud, It’s a very sad state of affair and it has been for a very long time. As usual in Italy the dirty interests of a few supersede the general population interests….

    Ideally I would buy from small certified oil makers (and as you said there are many), rather than the mass producing brand, but financially it can be quite difficult.

    • great jug, huh?! I actually saw that logo somewhere in passing recently and thought -shwa?!?! I tried to track it down again, but couldn’t find it. I wonder if it was a fairly common thing back then.

      You’re right in that financially, mills may cost a bit more than big producers. It’s cheaper when you can go straight to their doorstep, but if in you’re in a big city abroad you have to rely on specialty shops that have a huge markup in the price.

      That’s why you should never leave Italy. There. Someone had to say it. 🙂

      • hmmm i wouldn’t say olive land but we do live in the province of Padova and he Colli Euganea produces some yummy oil :). i glad these practices are becoming better known – my sister sometimes has allergic reactions when she has olive oil, i know it has to do with the mix of oils. In Dallas we used to buy Olio Carli which seemed pretty good but who knows, its a shady business for sure. i usually look for the DOP IGT. i hope they crack down onthis!

  2. Hi I’m an English girl (we’ll a 40 something)

    living in the abruzzo region. We have English/Irish friends that have settled here in a run down farmhouse, they have lots of olive trees so this year I helped pick them and got my oil from them, it’s lovely and has no food miles to worry about. Love your blog, got onto it when you posted about the vanilla extract, keep up the good work

  3. Awesome, awesome post! One of my favorite clients was featured in Tom Muller’s book, Villa Campestri olive oil resort and I really have grown to truly appreciate what ‘extra virgin’ really means. It’s a shady world out there in the olive oil business..

  4. Luckily, living in Colli Euganei, south of Padova, the area is studded with wonderful olive mills. I went to one in November when they were still crushing the olives and had some straight from the tap! Gorgeous, thick and green on crusty bread. Fantastic!

    • Hi Stacy. My wife and I are Americans and we own a home (rustico) in the Colli Euganei, actually near orna2013. We will be planting 40-50 olive trees this year or next, and eventually be bringing our olives to one of the great local olive mills nearby. We only buy from one of the olive mills or a known local producer, and lug the elixer with us when we travel back to the States. It is precious to us. We like to think this is one of our first markers in what will be a long journey in becoming more Italian.

  5. the french are the same they will always go for the “made in france” olive oil then the “made in italy” olive oil looool

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