Europe has long been obsessed with tradition, regionalism, and purity in its foodstuffs. Germany’s Reinheitsgebot, the Bavarian Beer Purity Law, was the world’s very first food purity rule, enacted in 1516—more than 500 years ago. It mandated ingredients and processes for any beverage marketed and sold as “beer” so consumers would know exactly what to expect for their money.
Ever since, European nations have scrambled to keep delicious products high quality and unadulterated. When you go into a Paris bakery and order a baguette, you are not just buying a long skinny loaf, but rather a baguette de tradition Française, which by law can include nothing but wheat flour, water, yeast, and salt.
But no product has been in the spotlight as much as olive oil, which is heavily regulated, protected and unfortunately, frequently mislabeled or counterfeited. It has been the source of countless media exposes and warrants an entire chapter in my New York Times Bestseller, Real Food, Fake Food: Why You Don’t Know What You’re Eating & What You Can Do About It. In the academic study of food fraud, no other product as has been as frequently referenced over the past four decades, and when it comes to olive oil, it has long been a case of buyer beware. Yet it is well worth the trouble of seeking out because it is both incredibly delicious and one of the healthiest ingredients, with myriad demonstrated benefits including heart health, and it is the cornerstone of the heralded Mediterranean diet.
Olive Oil and Italy Go Hand in Hand
Olive oil is most commonly associated with Italy, where citizens consume 12-14 liters per person per year, more than one large bottle each month. In comparison, Americans consume less than one liter per capita annually. It is utterly indispensable to Italian cuisine, and while food in the country tends to be very regionalized, it is the signature ingredient that connects north and south, islands and coast, mountains and lakes. It is used to cook, season, dress salads, dip bread, coat pasta, vital in all kinds of seafood preparation and is even poured directly over fire-grilled beef in Tuscany’s most classic dish, bistecca alla Fiorentina—a thick charred T-bone that is sliced and doused. If you go to Italy, a big part of the reason is probably to eat, and that means consuming olive oil, and in many cases, bringing some home. Here’s what you need to know.
Most olive oil produced in Italy is of high quality, but much of the oil you will encounter is not produced in Italy at all. The nation is both the world’s largest exporter and importer of oil, basically a middleman, purchasing vast quantities from all around the Middle East, North Africa and Southern Europe, then packaging it with labels sporting picturesque Tuscan landscapes and terms such as “Bottled in Italy,” which while technically true, is misleading. Italy does not even produce enough of its own oil to meet domestic demand, but the good news is that there is still plenty available for you when you visit.
Italy’s laws follow the conventions set forth by the International Olive Council, which define the grades of olive oil. The highest is Extra Virgin Olive Oil or EVOO, but while the standards and testing behind the different levels are complex, to the consumer the issue is simple—do not ever buy anything other than extra virgin. While that alone is not a guarantee of high quality, the absence of these words is a guarantee of low quality. The next grade down is Virgin Olive Oil, and stay as far away as possible from anything simply labeled Olive Oil, or variants such as light olive oil, Mediterranean blend oil, etc. The first step is to choose oils labeled both “extra virgin” and “made-in” or “produced-in” Italy. For added security beyond this, look for oils bearing Italian or European Union (EU) geographic designation seals such as DOP, DOC, or PDO along with a specific place of origin, which guarantee what Italian town or region the oil was made in.
Puglia, in the hot south, is Italy’s largest olive oil producing region and a very good choice for travelers looking to purchase excellent oils. There are about 60 million olive trees in this region alone, many centuries old, while some go back much further. There is no other plant or tree that feeds us with this kind of longevity, and they can continue to yield fruit ten generations after the person who planted them is long gone.
T.J. Robinson runs a specialty olive oil importing business in the US and is known in the industry as “The Olive Oil Hunter”. He told me that artisanal production of oil has been: “a central part of the Italian culture since the days of the Roman Empire. Olive trees can live for thousands of years, and there are trees still bearing fruit today that may have supplied oil for the table of Julius Caesar or a gladiator’s final meal. Imagine sitting with your back against one of the gnarled, ancient trees. If it could talk, it might tell you what life was like back in the day when Rome ruled the known world…or when the Empire was sacked by barbarians…or during the long Dark Ages, followed by the Crusades, the Renaissance, and right up to modern times.”
Sicily is another good source of very high-quality oil. Naples, Genoa and the Ligurian coast produce excellent oils as well as basil and pignolia (pine) nuts, the three key ingredients in the region’s famous green pesto Genovese. Tuscan oils are the most popular with Americans and can be excellent, but tend to be blends of different olive varietals – like grapes for wines, there are hundreds of these. Because Tuscany’s climate is considered cold and northerly for olive growing, blends tend to reflect the varieties that performed well that season, and the result is typically smoother and milder, but often complex and layered in flavor. In the hotter southern regions, many oils are single olive varietals which tend to have stronger distinctive flavors such as peppery, spicy or grassy. It is very similar to the distinction between blended wines like Burgundy, which are often more nuanced, and 100% Cabernet, Zinfandel or Syrah, which tend to be bigger, fruitier and bolder. The preference is a matter of personal taste, and if you are traveling through Italy, it is a good idea to taste both Tuscan and Southern oils and see which you prefer.
Grapes and Olives Are Inter-Connected
Wine grapes and olives often grow well in the same places, so many Italian wineries produce oil and it is often possible to taste test and buy at the wineries you visit. Likewise, there are lots of farms and agritourismos selling their products directly, so it is relatively easy to buy oils from the source and often taste them first. Ditto for the ubiquitous markets in every city and town across Italy, where both oil vendors and farmer-producers sell and offer tastings. Whenever possible, taste oil first, both for freshness and flavor profile, and if you find one you like, buy it. When you taste, good oil should leave a little tickle or heat in the back of your throat, known as “olive sting.” This is an indicator of freshness and quality, but many Americans used to commodity supermarket oils have never experienced it.
One big mistake many consumers make is buying oil that is too old. Unlike all other major cooking oils we use (soy, canola, corn, peanut, etc.) which are seed based, olive oil is made solely by crushing olives, which are fruit. By law, extra virgin olive oil can have no further additives, ingredients or processing, including heat purification. It is simply 100% freshly squeezed juice, and as such, does not have a long shelf life. The best oils will retain their quality for about a year unopened, and lose flavor in just a few months once cracked. All Italian oils are made in the fall, so look for “pressed on” or “harvested on” dates (not “bottled on,” which may simply mean the date older oil was moved from steel tank to bottle), which should be no older than the previous fall. Be careful with this, and wary of undated oils as there are often bottles two seasons or older still on store shelves.
Like in North America, avoid large supermarket brands, which have typically fared worse in third-party testing. Winter and spring are the best time to get fresh oil in Italy, summer is still good for the previous year’s batch, but by fall, until the new harvest arrives, everything you can buy is at least a year old. Bear this in mind if bringing larger quantities back home with you.
Because oil keeps better unopened, if you are buying to bring home, you are better off choosing several smaller cans or bottles than one larger one, then going through them one at a time. Cans are not as sexy, but they actually do a better job of protecting the oil from its natural enemies, light and air, they weigh less and are safer to pack, and because they often come in small sizes, are ideal for carrying several back home. And once you try good Italian extra virgin olive oil, you will want to bring some home. It’s awesome.