“An authentic, extra-virgin olive oil is full of flavor, like a fine wine,” says Tonio Creanza, whose family has been harvesting olives in southern Italy's Puglia region—which produces more olive oil than anywhere else in Italy—for six generations. Each November, Creanza gathers volunteers from around the globe to help harvest his family's 700 olive trees as well as partake in the celebration that accompanies it. At his family home in Altamura, a small, ancient city on Puglia's Murge plateau where olive trees grow seemingly by the thousands, glass jars filled with Famiglia Creanza olive oil take up prime kitchen real estate beside bowls of homemade orecchiette pasta and hearty slices of fresh bread. It is both the product of hard work and a symbol of great pride, as it should be. Once you see what goes into producing a bottle of authentic extra-virgin olive oil—and then tasting the results—there is really no going back.
Olive harvesting is back-breaking work. Creanza and his volunteers rise at dawn to drive out to the orchards, laying massive nets beneath each to catch the olives before removing them with pneumatic rakes and by hand. They move meticulously down each orchard's often misaligned rows, careful not to step on any of the fallen olives while removing as many stems, leaves, and branches as possible from each net before gathering them up and pouring their bounty into crates. Once the sun descends and most every crate is full, it's off to the press for the extraction of olive oil.
Creanza is the founder of Messors, an organization that runs workshops in—among other things—the culinary wonders of Italy's Puglia region, and he has made it part of his mission to help educate others on the benefits of consuming extra-virgin olive oil. While he's not a scientist, Creanza has done plenty of research on these benefits and has more than four decades working in the fields.
“Authentic EVOO,” he says, “is made without the use of chemicals and industrial refining. Therefore, it's the olive varietals, the terroir where they grow, and the countless decisions and production practices of a dedicated producer that influence the oil's overall quality and taste.” For Famiglia Creanza, this means an extra-virgin olive oil with hints of pomegranate, quince, figs, and green apple. However, says Creanza, any olive oil without defects should taste of things like grass, fruit, and almond.
“You can also sometimes smell vanilla due to the overall flavor combination,” he says. Still, if you simply walk into a supermarket and choose the cheapest bottle of olive oil off the shelf, chances are you'll walk away with a bland, doctored oil sporting none of the qualities—such as antioxidants (recognizable by the burning effect on your throat when tasted properly)—that a real EVOO provides.
“In the world of olive oil, many labels are misleading,” says Creanza, who then runs through a list of olive oil types to show the sheer selection that is out there: things like 'pure olive oil,' 'light olive oil,' and 'first-press olive oil.' While some of these are marketing gimmicks (“There is no 'second press' in olive oil,” he says), others—like 'light olive oil'—are simply vague terms that refer to the oil's extremely filtered, flavorless quality instead of its overall fat content (which remains the same). What you want to look for is extra-virgin olive oil, which according to the International Olive Oil Council (IOOC)—the governing body of most olive oil production worldwide—is made simply by crushing olives and extracting their juice. This is olive oil in its purest form, says Creanza. Virgin olive oil is all right, too, but he recommends looking for one that tastes dense and grassy, with an acidity that is no more than two-percent, as anything higher severely compromises the oil’s flavor.
Although, he concedes, a lot of olive oils that claim to be extra-virgin are not, because there is no official regulation. “Many corrupt companies are mixing their olive oil with things like rapeseed oil, a plant-based oil that was once a lubricant for steam engines,” says Creanza. “They are then calling it extra-virgin. These companies are making lots of money on peoples' lives, as well as diminishing the value of the hard work put in by honest farmers and dedicated volunteers.”
To help assure that you're not getting swindled next time you shop, Creanza has a few suggestions. First, do your research. “Select an EVOO that provides specifics on where the oil is being produced as well as who is bottling it,” he says. “Generic labels such as 'imported by' such and such a place' and labeled 'distributed by another' means your olive oil is untraceable, and anything too generic is a good indication that it has been adulterated.”
Next, choose an EVOO that has been cold-pressed, meaning that the oil has remained below a temperature of 80 degrees Fahrenheit during processing. This helps ensure that it has retained all of its flavor and nutritional benefits (“Plus,” says Creanza, “oils that are extracted with heat or the use of chemical solvents can be very bad for your health.”) Also, take note of the bottle. Avoid plastic, as the oil can actually leech harmful substances such as PVC, or polyvinyl chloride, from the plastic. Like beer, you want an EVOO that's been bottled in a dark glass container so that it doesn't let in a lot of light, which can quickly turn any oil rancid. The general rule of thumb is that an olive oil keeps for up to 18 months to two years from the time it is pressed, so be sure and look for a harvest date (the best EVOO's are harvested and pressed within 24 hours) on the label. Once opening the bottle, you should use the oil (“Generously!” says Creanza) within approximately two months.
“In the end it's a bit more to pay, but it makes a world of difference,” he says.
A few more thoughts:
- It doesn't make a difference where your EVOO is from: When it comes to Italian olive oils versus California or Greek olive oils, Creanza believes the country where it is produced has very little to do with an EVOO's flavor profile. “Definitions such as 'Italian olive oil' or 'Spanish olive oil' are so broad,” he says. “I don't believe it is truly possible to identify an olive oil based on a specific region, because so many other factors come into play: the olive varietals, the extraction method of the oil, etc.” Essentially, two Italian olive oils can taste as different from one another as a Spanish olive oil and a Greek olive oil might—in the same way one California pinot tastes dissimilar to another.
- There's nothing wrong with flavored olive oils: “Flavored olive oils are simply olive oils infused with herbs, chili, truffles...whatever,” says Creanza. “However, remember that this masking of an olive oil's flavor makes it impossible to tell whether the oil is extra-virgin. That is, unless you do the infusing yourself.”
- Tips for cooking with olive oil: Creanza says when cooking with olive oil it should always be on low heat, because it has a lower smoke point (the temperature at which an oil starts to break down, producing smoke) than many other oils—generally between 365-410 degrees Fahrenheit, although low-quality olive oils can reach their smoke point at 325 degrees Fahrenheit. If you are going to fry with it, websites such as The Olive Oil Source (http://www.oliveoilsource.com) suggest using a less expensive oil in the pan, then adding one of your better EVOO's at the table. Choose a lighter, milder olive oil for something like fish, or a more robust EVOO for heartier dishes such as stew and red meat.
- Purchasing EVOO: When buying extra-virgin olive oil to use for dressing, Creanza recommends finding one that is both fruity and peppery. Ultimately though, it all comes down to personal preference. “Olive oil, like many foods, shouldn't be sold at the supermarket where the logic is 'long shelf life,''' he says. Look for specialty shops that offer tastings. “You're choosing for both your palette and your health,” says Creanza.