Like wine, extra virgin olive oil is a product of a natural fruit, the quality and character of which is largely dependent on the climate. And like the grape vine, there are a many different varieties of olive, each producing olive oils with distinctive style and character. Varieties like Arbequina that hails from Catalonia, produces sweet fruity oil; the fragrant Frantoio, spicy Leccino and bitter Moraiolo from Tuscany; the aromatic Koroneiki from Greece, and the world’s most prolific yet great varieties, Picual from Spain. One of my favorite oils.
Extra virgin olive oil is one that has been extracted from fresh, good quality olives solely using a mechanical process of some sort. The mechanism may be a press, but these days nearly all extra virgin olive oil produced throughout the world is extracted by the action of spinning the lighter oil away from the heavier water and ‘olive bits’ using a high speed centrifuge. Have you ever made orange juice at home using one of those juicing machines? You just put the fruit in and the juice comes out. You didn’t add anything or do anything special. Well that’s how extra virgin olive oil is made. It’s just that in this case, the juice is oily. The color of the oil is based on the specie of olive and not its quality. It would be tempting to think that all oil that is labeled “extra virgin” is of the highest quality. Unfortunately this is not the case. By international convention, olive oils labeled as extra virgin are free of any undesirable flavors and have some degree of olive fruitiness. While these minimal quality requirements ensure that the oil won’t detract from your food, they really don’t give a guarantee that the oil will be of premium quality either. So within the extra virgin category you will find a range of qualities from rather bland oils through to aromatic and spectacularly complex oils that can turn a simple dish into something special just by giving it a splash.
So what makes a good extra virgin olive oil? High quality oils can be just about any conceivable color – from emerald green through to golden yellow. However, what distinguishes a great extra virgin is its layers of aromas and complexity of flavor. The palate complexity of olive oil comes in part from two unusual characteristics specific to extra virgin olive oil; bitterness and pepperiness. Most extra virgin olive oils have some bitterness and many also produce a peppery tickle at the back of the throat. This throat catching sensation is not unlike what you get from eating ginger or mild chili. Both the bitterness and pepperiness of extra virgin olive oils is caused by the health giving naturally occurring substances found in extra virgin oil called polyphenols. Finally outstanding extra virgin oils display a harmony of olive fruitiness, bitterness and pepperiness. But above all, excellent olive oils are pristinely fresh showing vibrant lively fresh fruit characters without any hints of tiredness or fattiness.
Be sure to buy your olive oil from a purveyor that has a good turnover in oil. Olive oil has a pretty short shelf life. About 6-8 months from the time it was bottled, if kept in a cool dark place, not the refrigerator either.
Buy in fairly small quantities and use it up that insures your olive oil will likely be tasty and not rancid. The majority of olive oils found in stores in America are rancid. That isn’t going to make you sick but it tastes awful. Remember the fact it says extra virgin does not mean its high quality oil. Find one you like and stay with it.