All Olive Oils are not Created Equal
Your Guide to Choosing the Best
by: Sarah Leah Chase
Salad-making has long been my fondest culinary passion. Back in the 1980s when I was running my Que Sera Sarah specialty-food shop on the island, I’d go through at least a gallon of olive oil per day assembling the dressings and vinaigrettes for the rotating array of predominantly Mediterranean-inspired salads I featured in the shop’s refrigerated display cases.
At the time, olive oil was just entering mainstream American consciousness as an ingredient panacea laden with health benefits. Many people were initially confused because they were unaccustomed to the distinctively pronounced flavors of oil extracted from olives.
Today, America is the third-largest consumer of olive oil in the world, yet scandals have plagued the industry over the last decade, causing new and even more rampant confusion, rivetingly documented by Tom Mueller in his book “Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil” (W.W. Norton & Company, 2012).
When I published my shop’s most popular salad recipes in 1987 in my “Nantucket OpenHouse Cookbook,” I used the term “fruity olive oil” to describe the type of olive oil I recommended using in my recipes. While extra virgin and EVOO have now become preferred olive-oil nomenclature, I opted for fruity back in the 1980s because I witnessed lots of people gravitating to the use of light olive oil since it tasted more like the neutral oils whose flavor, or rather lack of flavor, they were long accustomed to embracing.
I, in turn, enthusiastically wanted to introduce my customers and fans to the incomparable lush complexity of the olive oils I had discovered during forays to Provence and Tuscany. The process was a gradual one, but now three decades later, the olive-oil selection in major supermarket chains across the country can be mind-boggling.
Unfortunately, a lot of the olive-oil brands proliferating in our supermarkets are not in fact the extra-virgin olive oil that the enticing labels claim them to be. On Jan. 3, 2016, CBS’s “60 Minutes” echoed Mueller’s findings when correspondent Bill Whitaker traveled to Italy to report on police there confiscating 7,000 tons of phony olive oil, most of it bound for American markets.
It was found that the oil in question had originated in North Africa and that an organized-crime group referred to as “Agromafia” had deodorized the oil with chemicals and rebranded it as expensive Italian extra-virgin olive oil. Authentic extra-virgin olive oil, as explained by Mueller, “must come from the first press of olives and be free of any additives. It is fruity, aromatic and has a spicy finish. The best can sell for $50 a gallon . . . but fake costs just $7 per gallon to make. The profit margin can be three times better than cocaine.”
Conscientious American consumers were rightfully horrified by this report, and as a result gravitated to buying California olive oil since the California Olive Oil Council has some of the most stringent olive-oil purity regulations in the world. Two widely-distributed, top-ranked California brands are California Olive Ranch and
McEvoy Ranch. Either of these extra-virgin olive oils would impart true California savor to Maria Sinskey’s Herb Garden Salad with Goat Cheese and Tomato, and Mozzarella Salad with Pesto, as well as the Berkeley Bowl’s recipe for Falafel Waffles with Cucumber Slaw.
Since I first became enamored of fine olive oil while exploring the world of Mediterranean cooking, I remain partial to trusted brands from several different regions. Personal recommendations include Alziari from the South of France, Nuñez de Prado and Zoe from Spain, Gaea from Greece, and Paesano and Partanna from Sicily.
For everyday use, Italian Monini is the best supermarket bet along with Greek and Sicilian olive oils from Trader Joe’s. Absolutely the most sublime olive oil I’ve had the pleasure of drizzling over the past two years is La Casa di Montegrossi from a private estate in Tuscany.
The olive grove in Gaiole in Chianti is owned by part-time Nantucket residents Jay and Nancy Nichols and their olive oil is sold exclusively at the Nantucket Culinary Center. Sadly, last fall’s harvest did not pan out, so it may be several more months before their olive oil will be available again on-island.
Sarah Chase is a noted cookbook author and food writer. She teaches cooking classes at The Corner Table and writes the “Good Dish” column for The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.