An Introduction to Olive Oil
The world of olive oil is a surprisingly complex one. One of Spain’s major assets, it is a fascinating world of taste, skill, honesty and lies. With the olive harvest just around the corner I thought that this would be an ideal place to start for those who are new to Olive Oil or those who wish to learn more. No better phrase applies to olive oil than “You can’t judge a book by it’s cover”, no matter where it is from.
Yes, Spain, is great at wine it is also great at many other things but when it comes to olive oil it is by far the best in the world. I was very surprised to read not so long ago that 50% of the public interviewed in a UK survey carried out by the Spanish Olive oil Association, didn’t know that Spain was an olive oil producer. They only mentioned Italy and Greece. Well this is very much the case with most Spanish produce as they haven’t been able to earn their righteous place in the market.
Spain is in fact the largest olive oil producer in the world, producing over 44% of the world’s olive oil. So it is the Spanish harvest that sets the global pricing for olive oil and every September the world looks at Spain to see how the olives are developing just before the imminent harvest season. In fact a large percentage of Italian Brands and Greek Brands actually fill their bottles with Spanish olive oil, as do the French with Spanish wine. So the chances are you have all tried Spanish olive oil even though you thought it was Italian!
Yes every year the Italians come over to Spain to negotiate their purchases for the season, as they are unable, by a long way, to meet international demand with national production, the same goes for Greece. So why has Spain not been able to position itself properly in the market? Well really it’s quite simple, it was always easier to sell bulk to the Italians, white label brands and the food industry around the world than actually build brands. However this is changing, over the past five years or so Spain is starting to make head way into the branded Olive oil market, especially gourmet brands, as countries start to catch on to the “Mediterranean diet fever” and start to look for more specialised products.
The world of olive oil at a first glance appears to be a simple world. You grow olives, you press them and you get olive oil. Well in essence it is that simple but it is also very complicated and even more so to understand what really is olive oil and what isn’t. How do I know what I’m getting? This isn’t sunflower oil, there are nine different classes of olive oil.
1. Extra Virgin Olive Oil
2. Virgin Olive Oil
3. Virgin Olive Oil “Corriente”
4. Virgin Olive Oil “Lampante”
5. Refined Olive Oil
6. Olive Oil
7. Raw Pomace Olive Oil
8. Refined Pomace Olive Oil
9. Pomace Olive Oil
Only number 1 and 2 are apt for direct human consumption but all can be found eventually at some point in the food chain, once refined, filtered and treated many are mixed with a percentage of Extra virgin olive oil and then sold on as that, Extra Virgin Olive Oil, which it is not. The Italians have even been found guilty of using walnut oil to dilute their Virgin Olive oil and make it go further. It adds no taste so you would never know. It is not just the Italians but the Spanish as well, when regulations and fines are not strict enough and big bucks come into play, morality tends to take a side step all over the world.
So how do you know what you are getting, well it is quite complicated and I will go into it in more detail on another post but one simple filter is price. If it is cheap you can be certain you are not getting 100% the real thing. Ask your self the question how is it possible that 1 litre of Olive oil can cost the same as a cheap bottle of wine? It costs a minimum of 4 times as much to make 1 litre of olive oil than it does to make 1 litre of wine. That just takes into consideration the amount of olives needed, not the rest of the farming process. From 100kg of grapes you can get approximately 80 litres of wine and from 100kg of Olives you can get a maximum of 20 litres of olive oil. Simple maths! You can buy a litre of white brand Extra Virgin Olive Oil for €2,50. It is literally impossible for this to be real authentic extra virgin olive oil, no matter how much you buy in bulk. The average price for extra virgin olive oil to the cooperative farmer is around 2 euros and then the mill has to make it’s cut, packaging, distribution, advertising and so on come into play after that, so I can assure you they are not loosing money, so what are they doing? The big brands are diluting their olive oil with other lower grade oils but maintaining it within the parameters of acidity for that class of olive oil at the time of packaging. But of course as the packaging and storage of these big brand olive oils is completely inadequate, the chances are by the time it hits your table it has completely lost all of it’s organoleptic and nutritional properties. So much for the Mediterranean diet!
This isn’t a problem just for foreign countries but the vast majority of the Mediterranean population aren’t aware of this either. In general they don’t have a clue what is a good nutritional olive oil and how to identify it. So what I pretend to do with this series of posts is help inform you all how to find, identify and understand what an authentic Extra Virgin Olive Oil is, because once you have discovered it there is no going back and you can truly say you have found “liquid gold” and rest assured the purest of them all is here in Spain.