When I first decided to dive into the realm of olive oil, I was on a mission to discover whether or not paying $25 for a bottle of Olive Oil was really worth it. Before I even stepped out the door to go taste my way to an answer, I knew I had the wrong idea. Instead, I made my way over to the bookstore and grabbed a copy of Tom Mueller’s’ “Extra Virginity: The Sublime & Scandalous World of Olive Oil”. I had heard whispers about several scandals on the authenticity of olive oil and even the problem of companies claiming their Extra-Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO) was straight from Italy when in fact it was not (a lot of them ended up not even being real olive oil), but had never paid much attention to it before now. Four pages into the book and I knew I had my story.
Before I began my investigation, I studied up on some background information.
Olive oil has quickly become an essential item-not just for food but for medicine, beauty aid and, in some countries, an element of religious ritual.
Olive oil is taken so seriously that there exists organizations such as Corporazione Dei Mastri Oleari in Milan, Italy- a private oil association dedicated to ensuring olive oils are of the highest standard according to Italian and European law. These kinds of organizations exist all over Europe and today more and more are popping up in the United States. These places hire tasters who sample several olive oils then identify and quantify the flavors and senses they can distinguish in them. These samples, which are served at 28° Celsius or 82° Fahrenheit to bring out the flavor, are then scored by the panel leader using a vigorous statistical method. The tasting process is also unique. After the oil has reached the right temperature, it is poured into a small cup where the tasters proceed to smell it, sip it and let it roll around on their tongue. They also use the technique known as strippaggi, in which the taster sucks in the air at the corners of their mouth in order to coat the taste buds and bring the aromas up into the nose. If the oil contains one defect – rancid, fusty, winey/vinegary, muddy sediment, metallic, esparto, or grubby – then it is considered lampante or lamp oil, which can legally only be sold as fuel since it is not fit for consuming. Unfortunately, as Mueller discovers in his book, the law isn’t enforced. Most people, myself included, trust the label when buying a product. When I go to a store and get a Barbera D’Alba wine, I know exactly what I am getting, but when I go to the store to buy olive oil and I see a label that says “100% Cold-Pressed Extra-Virgin Olive Oil from Italy”, I could be getting olive oil mixed with grape seed oil from Connecticut for all I know. Even paying for a more expensive type of olive oil doesn’t ensure that you will be getting authentic olive oil. With some help from Mueller’s’ Buyers Guide, I knew what to look for when I approached the olive oil section at a grocery store. However, this method wasn’t 100% and I wanted to guarantee that I was digesting real olive oil that even the best tasters would approve of.
Armed with this new knowledge, I set out to see how Boulder stores were doing when in came to olive oil. My first stop was Alfalfas on Broadway and Arapahoe. I had heard great things about their bottle-it-yourself olive oil bar and decided I had to check it myself. I was immediately impressed. If you didn’t bring your own bottle, you could purchase a nice glass 375 mL bottle for $1 or a 700mL glass bottle for $2. The bar featured eleven different olive oils from all over the world. Due to the fact that every batch of olive oil comes out different, these batches are swapped out as soon as they are empty, making each type of olive oil extremely unique. While I was there, they were featuring 3 olive oils from Australia that were harvested two weeks ago and had already won several gold medals. Of these, I tasted a single varietal Koronieki – a greek olive, which had a medium robustness and was rather fruity. The other gold medal winner that I tried was made from Spanish olive called Hojiblanca; it was rich and fruity in taste as well as the winner of “Best of Show” and “Best of Class”. At this point, I decided that I needed to try a more basic olive and so I poured myself some Tuscan-herb olive oil. This was the kind of olive oil I would put on everything! It was sweet, fruity and infused with herbs, sundried tomato and garlic making a truly sublime oil. Unfortunately, not all of the olive oils are organic, meaning that there may have been chemicals, growth enhancers and pesticides used in the growing and manufacturing process.
As I was performing my own stripaggi on my olive oil samples, one of the employees walked up to me and told me I had to try their newest olive oil. The title, Lime Infused Extra-Virgin Olive Oil, gave me a good idea what this oil would taste like, and it was out-of-this-world. He then proceeded to tell me about garlic he had roasted using this olive oil and how his dinner guests loved it. I laughed; it was such a relief to be helped by someone pleasant in a grocery store. I foolishly didn’t ask for his name but I knew he was the head of produce so I was rather shocked and impressed to hear how much he was able to tell me about their olive oil. We talked for a few minutes about their ever-changing selection and he wrote down my information to give to their head olive oil man, James. While James never called me, I plan to go back and talk to him about some other questions I still have. I left Alfalfas satisfied with my experience. I enjoyed all the different varieties the olive oil bar had, especially that each oil had a card that described the oil so you knew what you were getting. However, the cards didn’t mention whether or not that oil had been certified by a council, which is the only fool proof method in knowing it’s 100% authentic. I’m hoping when I talk to James, my question will be answered. However, they did have a scale to determine the freshness of the oil, making it clear that all the oils had been tested and inspected. This made it easy for me to determine which oil was the freshest (the least fresh still met the minimum standards for EVOO). These olive oils weren’t pricey either, which was my one fear when I began this expedition. The highest price was about $11 per pound, a fairly standard price for pre-bottled oils.
I did take a peek at the pre-bottled section as well for those who want olive oil but aren’t interested in bottling your own. Alfalfas has some standard brands and some that I had never seen before. Some were organic, some certified and some looked a little questionable, which you will get at any store. One that I would definitely recommend would be Colavita Extra Virgin Olive Oil. It is certified authentic by the Italian Olive Oil Council and I’ve already heard great things about it. My boyfriends’ mom, Suzanne, has said that she has never found another olive oil that she liked as much as Colavita. The price for a bottle of this certified authentic olive oil goodness? $18 for a whole liter of it and yes, smaller and cheaper bottles are available.
Palate cleansed, I headed over to Whole Foods on Pearl and 30th. While all stores carry the WF 365 olive oil, the store in Boulder now features their own EVOO bar. First, I should mention the 365 olive oil; there are 5 different types of olive oil under this brand; 2 Italian olive oils, 1 Greek, 1 Spanish and 1 Italian Mediterranean oil. Unfortunately only one of these is organic but on the plus side, the International Olive Oil Council has certified all of these olive oils. The Whole Foods EVOO bar features 9 different olive oils at roughly the same price as Alfalfas. Each olive oil featured its own card describing the flavor and nutritional values. Unlike Alfalfas, the olive oils that had been certified (I counted 5) were labeled. I did notice that most of the olive oils were of the Lucero brand -an olive grove outside Sacramento, CA. Of these I tried one that had been infused with garlic (delicious but overwhelming), and one titled Sevillano, which had some floral notes, hints of apples and artichokes. My favorite was the Arbequina, mild and fruity with some nice buttery notes. I found that this one would probably be best for my day to day use of olive oil but I do hope to branch out to the many infused and tropical oils, I can’t even imagine how well some of the flavors would compliment my dishes.
It was nice to know exactly where the olive oil was coming from but I craved more variety. Even though many different flavors were available, I’ve found that Spanish olive oil can taste extremely different than an Italian or California olive oil mostly because the trees from which the olives come from are different species and there are different climate conditions. Even to my inexperienced tongue, I can taste more fruity notes in a Spanish oil and grassier notes in an Italian one.
Whole Foods also offers free plastic bottles in small and large sizes to store any olive oil-at no additional cost. I was a little disappointed though that no one came to help me while I was at the bar. There were plenty of workers walking around during the time that I was there and I had hoped that someone would stop by to tell me about the bar and maybe even give me some recommendations. That was something I greatly enjoyed about my Alfalfas experience. The olive oils themselves were delicious and I definitely found some that I would buy myself. I do not know whether the olive oils change constantly or if the same ones are featured all the time, which can be good or bad depending if you are someone who will change it up or stick to one flavor all the time. Aside from their own brand, Whole Foods did offer some excellent bottled oils (I will not be mentioning ones that were $25 or higher). Olivista is a California grown certified olive oil that is available in a few flavors for a decent price. Napa Valley is a great organic brand and while they may not be certified, they have won enough awards for me to trust that their olive oil is real. Olave is another organic brand that has recently come into the spotlight for being simply delicious. Being a larger store, there was more selection at Whole Foods but even Alfalfas had some excellent quality olive oil for a reasonable price.
With the strong taste of olive oil still in my mouth, I went home to check out the olive oil I had at home. To my dismay, I found that the Sprouts 100% Italian olive oil I had purchased was not certified and was produced on the east coast. After tasting such delicious olive oils, this oil tasted horrible. I too had fallen for the “Cold Pressed 100% Extra Virgin Olive Oil from Italy” label scam. I was now an olive oil snob and so I dumped the
small amount remaining down my sink and vowed that I would only buy certified authentic olive oil. However, not everyone needs to be as paranoid as me, in fact, I would recommend that you don’t be. You can get real olive oil that hasn’t been certified by paying attention to the brands that have won awards or that you’ve heard great things about. It’s when you decide to buy the cheapest ‘select’ brand that you may have to worry. Even with guides helping me find good olive oil, I no longer trust anything unless an olive oil council has certified it or I’ve done research on the brand, which I will be doing a lot of. With all the health benefits that olive oil gives, I believe it is worth it to find one that is authentic even if it is a little more expensive. You may be saving money paying $6 for “olive oil” but it’s not doing your body any good. A quick Google search on health benefits of olive oil will have you gulping down the stuff like it’s water.
For starters, olive oil lowers cholesterol, helps prevent colon cancer, moisturizes skin, slows the aging process and it reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease. I bet that sentence alone made you grab some olive oil and drink it raw (which is actually delicious).
So next time you are daunted by the task of choosing an olive oil in a grocery store, fear not, just take a deep breath and look at the label to see if it’s been certified. Certified does not mean it will cost $30, in fact, I’ve found plenty of large bottles that only cost me $13 dollars. Don’t buy the biggest bottle if you don’t intend to use it very quickly, like many real foods olive oil will lose flavor after a certain amount of time. It is also best to keep olive oil away from heat, unless you are about to cook with it or eat it, it’s bad for olive oil to be heated and cooled while in it’s glass container.
In this post, I only mentioned two stores that I personally found to have a great selection but please venture out and check your local grocery stores olive oil selection. I would like to spotlight some locally owned small businesses that carry great olive oil, but those are deserving of their own post. So stay tuned for my next post where I dive even deeper into the Boulder olive oil scene.
For those interested more on the subject, I highly recommend Tom Muellers “Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous world of Olive Oil”. It is available in most bookstores and on amazon.com.