As an oil specialist, I often find myself faced with the most diverse queries. There is however one recurring question that consumers ask me when I am in contact with them: which is the best extra virgin olive oil? And from here spring a multitude of other questions: what region of Italy produces the best oil? From whom should it be purchased? How much should I pay for it? And so forth.
I will now attempt to summarize the main facts, trying to be as clear and concise as possible.
The main asset of olive oil
It consists in the fact that it is derived from fruit. In order to preserve the olive drupes, Nature has arranged for the plant to elaborate a series of useful compounds to protect the fruit from external factors. Thanks to these molecules, the olives can better withstand adverse conditions and the oil derived from them, being so rich in antioxidants, is also more stable and resistant in time. These compounds possess important biological properties that are also beneficial for the consumers' health. What are these biological functions? The ability to neutralize free radicals, for instance, thanks to their intrinsic antioxidizing properties.
The quality of an olive oil
Quality has multiple facets. First of all, it should be noted that there is a quality pyramid which can be divided into various levels, each corresponding to a product class. The best oil is doubtlessly extra virgin oil, followed by virgin oil, olive oil and pomace oil. This is a very rough distinction. The consumers should always keep in mind, especially with respect to extra virgin products, what the product will be used for. The choice depends on this too. A bottle of ordinary olive oil is fine for frying. If instead the purpose is to drizzle it over your dishes, it is better to go for a top-of-the-range extra virgin oil. If used for cooking, an extra virgin of average quality will do.
The nutritional quality
This is the most important parameter, because it involves our health. When making a choice, in the aisle of a supermarket, it is always best to go for a medium-high or high quality product. The consumer should always be suspicious of cheap oils. The nutritional quality has an intrinsic value that should be protected. The need to save money cannot justify certain marketing policies that are rather rash, to say the least. So, be alert.
The sensory quality of an oil
This is the critical factor in our choice. The consumer does not possess the necessary tools and equipment to assess the chemical, physical, hygienic and sanitary parameters of an oil. It is only by tasting it that one can truly appraise the quality an extra virgin olive oil. When no flaws can be detected in the flavour, aroma and consistency of the oil, one can be sure that the chosen bottle also meets all chemical, physical and nutritional standards. It is therefore advisable to become a bit more familiar with olive oils. By learning some sampling techniques, consumers could benefit a lot, because they would have the means to assess the quality of the product, and detect any mislabelled or adulterated oil. Moreover, they would also gain a different, more hedonistic approach towards food, which would allow them to choose the best oil at the most reasonable price.
The best extra virgin olive oil in the world...
...does not exist. It is impossible to proclaim it, because quality can spring from all corners of the world. There is no production area better than all others. Naturally, some regions are more ideal than others for olive cultivation, but not for this are they better. Quality is the result of many factors, and much skill. The same batch of olives can give extra virgin oils that range from superb to average, to ones that barely meet the standards laid down by law. Indeed, some oils can even be deemed unfit for human consumption, if some of their components have been altered. The "best" oil is that meeting all parameters of excellence, and can be produced both in Northern and Southern Italy, but also abroad, in Europe and other countries outside our continent. There are no boundaries. All that is needed is source material of the greatest quality, that is to say healthy, unblemished olives, and the skill to extract the best oil, without leaving behind any of the goodness that Nature has bestowed to these fruits.
The oil that is produced from olives is the result of the plant's metabolism, which in turn depends on weather and environment. When all goes well, a skilled professional is needed to extract what Nature has created inside the olive drupe. The quality of oil therefore depends on a multitude of factors, which encompass the features of the cultivar, the degree of ripeness (the olives should never be picked when overripe), the harvesting and transportation methods employed (care must be taken to never damage the olives), stocking time and conditions at the oil mill, the extraction methods used and how the oil is preserved and used in the kitchen.
Superior quality oil and the difference in price
By law, since November 2003 all labelling on extra-virgin olive oil must bear the following information: “superior category olive oil obtained directly from olives and solely by mechanical means”. Apparently, there is nothing strange, because it indicates that extra virgin olive oils differ from all other vegetable oils: they are closer to fruit juices, as only mechanical means are used for its production. Nothing to object, if not for that “superior category” claim that can leave us rather baffled.
Nowadays “superior category” extra virgin olive oils range from doctored ones that are often cut with deodorized, or cheap vegetable oil, to oils made from olives cultivated with skill by expert, honest farmers. Obviously, the retail price is different, and this can confuse the purchaser. If both products are, by definition, of a “superior category”, the consumer, when deciding what to buy, will only take price into account. The information on the label is therefore misleading, because it encourages people to purchase less expensive products, since they will always feel reassured by this generic but inappropriate claim.
The right price in relation to quality and yield
There is no standard price to refer to when purchasing olive oil, because production costs vary from region to region. In Italy, with its complex morphology and lack of an efficient labour market - production costs are rather high, but this is also due to the fact that 67% of olive trees are cultivated in hilly regions and 11% on mountain slopes. Moreover, in Southern Italy, where there are the conditions to lower production costs, no need is felt to organize a common, united front. The right price however should never be too low. In this respect, we must learn to change our mindset, and start to focus on quality rather than quantity. It is important that we consume less fats, but better, healthier ones. Price would then becomes a secondary matter. Moreover, with an outstanding extra virgin, the amounts needed to dress a dish are minimal, because the oil would possess a greater flavour and aroma. A spoonful would be enough, so as well as saving on money, we would also save on calories, and gain in health. As regards cooking oils, it is always possible to opt for a less expensive alternative, although the price must reflect the dignity of the product. If the oil is too cheap, we can have no guarantee of its genuineness and purity.
How to recognize frauds and sophistications
It would be naive to believe that a label alone can act as an effective deterrent against frauds and sophistications. It is only a general protection, but obviously, not enough. No analysis kits are available to assess the quality of the purchased oil at home. As mentioned previously, the only solution is to use a sensorial approach, or in other words, to taste the oil. Not by chance have organoleptic analyses been chosen by the EU (hence adopting the investigation method defined by the International Oil Council) to determine the quality of the various types of oil that are available on the market. As regards PDO extra virgin oils, it is a fundamental parameter that must be taken into account. By tasting an oil, the consumer can establish whether the oil has any flaws, and it is obvious that a sophisticated oil, being rather odourless, flavourless, or perhaps having suspicious aromas, will obviously reveal its true nature when sampled.
What to look for when tasting an extra virgin oil
It is harmony, that is to say the overall pleasant sensation, to make an oil acceptable to the nose and palate. Not necessarily should an extra virgin oil recall the fruit from which it is made. The intensity of the fruity notes may be tenuous, middling or intense, but should always be pleasant. A good extra virgin oil is fragrant, with a fresh and pleasant aroma; it is also balanced both in its bitter and piquant notes, and in its astringent traits, if present. The fruity sensations, which largely depend on the variety of olives and the oil extraction technology, can be perceived either directly, or retro-nasally. An oil produced from pressing olives has a well defined personality, and if this is missing, it is obvious that one is dealing with a product of doubtful origin.