In my perfect world, everyone would have a beloved Uncle Lorenzo who lives in the beautiful Sicilian countryside with groves of ancient, gnarled olive trees. Family and friends would gather annually for the “crush” (the making of olive oil) and there would be an abundance of food, drink and laughter. Of course, we would all take home a generous supply of the freshly pressed liquid gold.
Most people, however, don’t personally know someone with an olive grove, let alone a mill, but we can educate ourselves on what to look for when purchasing extra virgin olive oil and the best way to store it.
Many fine wines improve with age, olive oil does not. The moment the crush commences, the clock to deterioration begins to tick. A “harvest date” or “bottling date” on the label helps to determine how long the oil will keep (12 months at most). I use olive oil every day and within a just a few months for optimum freshness.
Buy this year’s harvest and as close to the mill as possible. Search online for olive mills in your area, state or country. Do a bit of research as to how they press their oil. There are several producers who are choosing to sell their olive oil “bottled to order” directly to their online customers.
Look for seals of certification that include both a chemical test and a sensory evaluation performed by a certified taste panel, such as those done by California and Australia.
Whenever possible, taste and smell the oil before you purchase it. There are three positive sensory characteristics of an EVOO, fruity, bitter and pungent. Fruity means the oil must taste or have an aroma of fresh olives. The aroma can have many nuances (buttery, green apple, grassy, nutty tropical, floral). Bitter is that acrid taste on the sides of the tongue that indicate the presence of antioxidants (this is a good thing). Pungent, the peppery sensation you feel at the back of the throat after swallowing the oil, (followed by a cough or two) is a characteristic that takes some getting used to.
Specialty olive oil stores and tasting bars are becoming more common, (search online) but if you ever purchase an oil you can’t taste before you buy and it’s bad, return it. As for the color of oil, it’s not really an indicator of the quality of an oil, rather an indicator of the variety of the olive. High-quality olive oils come in various shades of green and golds.
If you are a fan of flavored oils, like lemon or basil, the best ones are made by crushing the peels or whole fruit together with the olives. This process, called agrumato, (Italian for co-press) produces a superior taste than those oils flavored with extracts.
Natural infusion is a process that adds dried herbs or spices to the oil (taking up to forty days depending on the potency of the infusion).
I used to only use EVOO, now I’m experimenting with many of the flavored oils, they are like spices to me now, with many possibilities. (I avoid the olive oils with fresh herbs in them because they are susceptible to botulism).
Buy oil in dark bottles to protect it from the light and in a size you will use quickly. Store the bottles in a dark, cool pantry. Light, oxygen and heat will turn even a quality oil into rancid ruin. I have many ceramic bottles I’ve brought back from Italy that I set on the table to use with a meal. I refill them as needed. Never store your oil in the refrigerator. This does not prolong the shelf life, rather it promotes condensation and consequently oxidation. Oxidation lowers the quality of the oil.
Italy is one of the world’s major importers of olive oil. Oils come from all over the Mediterranean (Tunisia, Turkey, Greece, Spain) just to be blended, packed and re-exported. Even if there is absolutely no Italian olive oil in the bottle, the label can legally use the phrases, “Packed in Italy” and “Bottled in Italy.” Caveat Emptor! (Let the buyer beware).
If you’re using olive oil because it’s a healthier choice, it’s important to purchase only what you expect to use within one year of the bottling date and to store it properly. Many olive oils in supermarkets are rancid by the time they hit the shelves (and sadly, buyers have become accustomed to the taste). Rancidity causes free radicals to form (which are the causes of many health issues) as well as making all the good antioxidants, polyphenols and omega-3 fatty acids disappear altogether.
EVOO comes from the finest, healthiest olives, harvested at the perfect moment of ripeness and pressed immediately to achieve a low acidity for a nutritious and delicious oil.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil should be consumed on a regular basis and not be treated like the “good” dishes you use only on special occasions. Olive oil is perishable … so is time … eat the oil, use the dishes!