Sunday, 17 May 2009

The Olive Oil Problem

It seems so simple. You grow olives, press them, and there you have it: olive oil. Utterly delicious in its simplicity.

But there are some complicating factors. First of all: not all olive oil is equal. There is cold pressed oil, warm pressed oil or refined oil, there's extra virgin or regular, and don't forget all kinds of fantasy names, such as 'mild', 'light', 'wok' etc. On the one hand, olive oil is an honest, agricultural product, but on the other hand it is big business, led by multinationals who do their best to market their products as 'authentic' and 'rural'.

The consequences are confusing. Do you really believe your Italian olive oil is made from olives that were grown in Italy? Think again. They are most likely from Spain. Well, then Spanish olive oil must definitely be made from Spanish olives, right? Wrong. Tunesia or Algeria probably. It's all about marketing and commercial interest. And all this is only mildly bad if you consider that there's massive fraud going on with the quality labels.

The key in the production of olive oil is managing the acidity level. The lower the better. Oils with an acidity level below 0,8% are allowed to be called extra virgin. These oils are made from the first, cold pressing of the olive oil, which gives the highest quality. After this pressing, it is possible to get more oil out of the olive by heating the pulp. This gives oil in various quality levels, varying from decent cooking oil, to oil so acidic it is not fit for human consumption.

There are many honest producers, who make very good extra virgin oils, and sell them as such. But there are also plenty companies who aim to make a bit more money, and they have a tendency of blending regular olive oil with extra virgin, in order to have a larger volume with an acidity level (just) under 0,8%. And there are even companies who refine the poorest qualities and sell them as regular olive oil (either blended or on its own). And the difficulty is that it is almost impossible for you, as consumer, to know whether you buy an authentic product or a fake.

There are some helpful guidelines though:
  • Look for a seal of origin (such as the Italian DOP label). If the oil has such a label, you can be sure that the product is tested and approved by the local authorities, and is from the region is says to be.
  • See if you can find the acidity level on the label. For instance, if an olive oil has 0,2-0,4% acidity you can be sure it's authentic
  • Avoid the 'big boys', such as Pons, Bertolli and all buyers' own brands (BOB) unless they have a very clear seal of origin.
  • Taste the difference. Once you've found an authentic, good quality extra virgin oil, compare it to one of the big brand fakes. You'll taste the difference immediately, and it won't be difficult to understand why we're making such a fuss out of this.
It must be said that the choice of extra virgin olive oils isn't big in Oman, but you can find a couple if you try. Here are some recommendations:
  • Al Fair used to carry a Waitrose BOB called A drizzle of Umbria that was of decent quality. Nice and grassy, although slightly bland. The price was a huge drawback though, as it was around 11 OMR for a small bottle. They recently replaced this brand with a new Waitrose BOB, which is slightly cheaper. We haven't tried it yet.
  • Organic House sells a Tuscan extra virgin oil, made by Lucini. It is organic (of course) and costs 8.800 OMR for 500ml. We weren't really enthusiastic about the taste, as it was mainly bitter and hot, but this could have something to do with the fact that it was a 2007 bottling. A fresher bottle may be better.
  • Not available in Oman (as far as we know), but by far the best olive oils we found in the area, are those of Goccia di Sole, a co-operative from Puglia (Italy) that produces a very good range of extra virgin oils, both organic and non-organic. Although the organic oil is very good as well, our favourite is the non-organic Goccia di Sole DOP Terra di Bari. A truly classy olive oil, grassy and nutty, with a refreshing, slightly bitter bite. We bought this in Dubai, where the producer has a stand close to the entrance of Ikea. Or have a look at the website of the distributor, they may do mail orders. If we're not mistaken, the price was around 6 OMR for a 500ml bottle (but that could just as well been a 750ml bottle).
If you buy any of these, remember: olive oil quickly goes bad due to heat or light. So always store unopened bottles in a dark and cool place.


  1. the instituto del olio in italy found out that ther is a "best" temperatur for the pressing (in regard of quality - not quantity)
    the themperature is higher than the themp. is used for cold-pressing, but lower than the quantity-optimized.

    one problem is now that pressing at the best themperatur would not be allowed to write "cold-pressed" or vergine!

    after x years of briefing people to a sertain thinking-direction, it is difficould to say different now ;-)

    as an italian i can say: my favorite oliveoil is:
    jean marie cornille from the provence France :-)

    (see, i have the strengh to not be a patridiot ;-) (this was not a writing mistake as all others i do ;-))

  2. Interesting, I did not know that!

    I wish we had a larger choice of good oils here, but it is very limited, unfortunately. It's good though, to have something like Goccia di Sole, which is a very nice oil.

    Some additional information on the levels of oil, as I found them on Wikipedia:

    The grades of oil extracted from the olive fruit can be classified as:

    - Virgin means the oil was produced by the use of physical means and no chemical treatment. The term virgin oil referring to production is different from Virgin Oil on a retail label.

    - Refined means that the oil has been chemically treated to neutralize strong tastes (characterized as defects) and neutralize the acid content (free fatty acids). Refined oil is commonly regarded as lower quality than virgin oil; the retail labels extra-virgin olive oil and virgin olive oil cannot contain any refined oil.

    - Pomace olive oil means oil extracted from the pomace using chemical solvents, mostly hexane, and by heat.

    In countries which adhere to the standards of the IOOC (International Olive Oil Council) the labels in stores show an oil's grade.

    - Extra-virgin olive oil comes from virgin oil production only, contains no more than 0.8% acidity, and is judged to have a superior taste.

    - Virgin olive oil comes from virgin oil production only, has an acidity less than 2%, and is judged to have a good taste.

    - Pure olive oil. Oils labeled as Pure olive oil or Olive oil are usually a blend of refined and virgin production oil.

    - Olive oil is a blend of virgin and refined production oil, of no more than 1.5% acidity. It commonly lacks a strong flavor.

    - Olive-pomace oil is refined pomace olive production oil possibly blended with some virgin production oil. It is fit for consumption, but may not be described simply as olive oil. Olive-pomace oil is rarely sold at retail; it is often used for certain kinds of cooking in restaurants.

    - Lampante oil is olive oil not suitable as food; lampante comes from olive oil's long-standing use in oil-burning lamps. Lampante oil is mostly used in the industrial market.


    But, as we said in the topic, fraud is very common and it is not unlikely that oil sold as extra-virgin contains large components of inferior oil.