Italy’s liquid gold: Olive oil producers compete for annual awards

By GREG PATENT – for the Ravalli Republic

I’m not usually a superstitious person, but the Soothsayer’s words from Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” echoed in my brain as I boarded the plane to Italy, “Beware the Ides of March.” It was March 15 (and the day Caesar met his fate), and I was on my way to Rome.

My plane landed in the Eternal City on March 16, and all was well. I had been invited by the Italian Trade Agency (ITA) to attend the finals of an annual nationwide extra-virgin olive oil competition, the Ercolo Olivario, where the country’s finest oils were to be honored and celebrated.  My colleague, Ari LeVaux, another invitee, was with me on the trip, and we were two out of the six American journalists asked to participate in this event. Mirella Menglide, from ITA’s New York office, accompanied us everywhere and made sure everything proceeded smoothly.

Over 230 independent producers of extra-virgin olive oil from 17 of Italy’s 20 regions submitted samples of their oils, all pressed from the 2015 harvest. The 2014 harvest had been a disaster due to a bacterial blight, destroying more that 40 percent of olive oil production, so this year’s Ercolo Olivario, the 24th, was particularly important.

And just what is extra-virgin olive oil? Olives are a fruit, and oil extracted from the fruit is considered a juice. Extra-virgin is the highest quality olive oil. It has a low acidity, not to exceed 0.8 percent. It should have no defects and it must have the flavor of fresh olives. The oil must be produced entirely by mechanical means and without the use of any solvents. Typically the olives are put into a machine that mashes them and the mash is pressed at a low temperature that will not degrade the quality of the oil.

Many Italian extra-virgin olive oil producers proudly display a designation on their labels that say PDO, protected denomination of origin, or DOP in Italian. It’s a way of identifying the olive oil as originating in a specific place, and having the quality or characteristics which are fundamentally or exclusively due to a particular geographic setting. Production of the oil also takes place entirely in a defined geographic area.

The oils submitted to the Ercole Olivario are judged by a panel of 16 professional olive oil tasters. Each evaluates the oils alone, isolated from all the other tasters. They do not communicate with one another and their numerical scores are submitted independently. To prevent any bias as to the color of the oil, which can range from golden to deep green, the oils are presented to the tasters in blue glasses.

In Rome’s Chamber of Commerce offices, William Loria instructed us on how to taste olive oil. The idea is to evaluate not only the taste but the aroma, and to do that you cradle the small cup holing the oil in the palm of one hand, cover the cup with the other palm, and gently swirl the cup to warm the oil for about 30 seconds. Upon raising the palm covering the cup you plunge your nose into the cup, without touching the oil, and inhale deeply. The oil must have a distinct aroma. Fruitiness is highly prized, as is grassiness. After taking a small sip, and allowing the oil to bathe the front of your tongue, you forcefully suck in air through clenched teeth to aerate the oil and drive it towards the back of the tongue.

This is when things get really interesting. Taste depends on the variety of olive (there are more than 500 in Italy) and whether the olives were pressed at the first harvest or whether the fruit was allowed to stay on the trees to ripen further. Bitterness and spiciness are what you’re looking for. The fruity oils tend to be less spicy and bitter than the heavier oils. Some oils may be more bitter than spicy and vice versa. And other subtle vegetal and fruity flavors may come forth like artichoke, cut grass, kiwi, for example. Tasting high-quality extra-virgin olive oils is much like tasting wine.

William Loria had us sample five oils, all from Lazio, the region where Rome is situated, and he arranged them from fruitiest to heaviest. He also pointed out that most extra-virgin olive oils are more suited to being drizzled over food, such as a steak, or soup, perfectly ripe tomatoes, or grilled fish than being used in a salad dressing.

And what he told us about frying came as a shock. You can deep-fry in a top quality Italian extra-virgin olive oil so long as the temperature does not rise above 190 degrees Celsius. That’s 374 degrees Fahrenheit.

What you shouldn’t do is use these oils to sauté over high heat.

For the Ercole Olivario finals, we were driven by bus north to the beautiful hillside town of Perugia, passing beautiful rolling hills landscaped with olive trees along the way. The awards, presented in the morning of our fourth and last day in Italy, drew huge bouts of applause from the audience, mostly olive oil producers.

Over the past 20 years or so, Italian extra-virgin olive oil has been besieged by scandal after scandal. The unscrupulous practice of shipping hazelnut oil from Turkey and adulterating it with chlorophyll for color and powdered beta-carotene for flavor and passing it off as extra-virgin olive oil, is one example. Importing inferior olive oils from other Mediterranean countries, bottling them with the label “Made in Italy,” is another. The bottle was made in Italy, but the oil wasn’t.

So how will you know which oil to buy? You can’t just open a bottle at the market and perform your own taste test. What you can do is study the label carefully and avoid major brand names and anything labeled as “light” olive oil. So-called “light” olive oil has been treated extensively with organic solvents so that it isn’t really olive oil anymore. If the label says “Superior category olive oil obtained from olives and solely by mechanical means,” you can trust that the oil is genuine. Sometimes you’ll see the name of the producer on the label. If you’re looking for an organic Italian extra-virgin olive oil, the label will say “Biologico.” Some brands say “Hand-picked Estate Grown 100% Italian Olives.” “First cold press” or acid percentages are also facts to look for. And the only ingredient that should be listed is “extra virgin olive oil.”

Olive oil should be bottled in dark glass because it deteriorates rapidly in clear bottles. Remember, also, that olive oil is a fruit juice, and as such should be consumed within a year of purchase. Keep in a cool, dark place for best flavor.

Another way of finding a reliable source for Italian extra-virgin olive oil is to order it online from vendors whose buyers are experts. Each of the following retailers carries a selection of fresh olive oil that is authentically produced from the current harvest:

Eataly online: (www.eataly.com)

Gustiamo in New York City, New York (www.gustiamo.com)

Market Hall Foods in Oakland, California (www.markethallfoods.com)

Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor, Michigan (www.zingermans.com)

The best way to taste an extra virgin olive oil is to pour a small amount into a cup, a tablespoon or so, and follow the procedure I described above when we journalists were at the Rome Chamber of Commerce. Another way is to bite into a slice of good crusty bread drizzled with it. At one olive oil mill (frantoio), the bread had been toasted to the point of being a rusk, and after pouring on a goodly amount of olive oil and crunching into it I tasted fruit, spice, pepper, and artichoke, not all at once but in some sort of olive oil order. I’ll never forget it.

One final bit of good news. Just a few days ago, on April 16, Italy swept the New York International Olive Oil Competition (NYIOOC) with 109 awards, the most from any country. Twenty-six countries from around the world submitted olive oil to be tasted and evaluated by the NYIOOC international panel of expert judges. This year’s competition marked the fourth annual NYIOOC and the largest international collection of olive oils ever assembled. Brava Italia!

Greg Patent is a columnist for the Missoulian and Ravalli Republic. He is the author of “Montana Cooking” and winner of the James Beard Award for his cookbook, “Baking in America.”

Read more here.

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