Virgin" . . . What's It Mean?
Everyone knows that when it
comes to olive oil, "extra virgin" means the very best. But what—exactly—does "extra
Outside of the U.S., a lot. Within the U.S., unfortunately the term "extra virgin"—along with
all the other labels you've ever heard associated with olive oil—have no legal definition. "100% Product
of Italy". "Cold Pressed". "First Press". Yada, yada, yada. They all
are marketing terms, with no meaning in America.
That's why every bottle of olive oil at the grocery store is certain
to have these terms on their label.
what should "extra virgin" mean?
Let's start with virgin olive oil. Just like extra virgin olive
oil, virgin olive oil is oil obtained from olives without the use of heat or chemicals. This means that the olives
are pressed, or technically crushed today, by mechanical means at room temperature. "Cold pressed" is
the term that tries to describe this process.
But virgin olive oil has some taste or odor defects.
Extra virgin olive oil, as determined by an independent, trained tasting panel, has none. In addition,
it's acidity level, which is a rough measure of how ripe the olives were when they were pressed, is below a certain percentage.
In California, it is 0.50 percent. In Europe, the percentage is higher, 0.80.
These standards seem pretty strict. How much olive oil in the world is really
These requirements, especially
having a trained third party doing a taste test, are indeed strict. As a result, it's estimated that worldwide, less than 10 percent of all olive oil is really, trully extra virgin olive oil.
All Things Olive sells
only California olive oil. We stick with California because the California Olive Oil Council (COOC)—an independent third
party—has perfomed the taste tasting and chemical analysis and certified that the oils we sell are really
How's Real Extra Virgin
Olive Oil Made?
make their special olive oil, producers will generally pick the olives by hand so as not to bruise the skin
or pulp. The olives are then transported to a nearby olive mill because the olives must be crushed
and pressed within 24 hours of being picked. Any longer, and the olives—as with any fruit—will
begin to ferment, which will degrade the quality of the oil.
At the mill, any leaves or twigs are removed, the olives are rinsed in fresh,
cold water, and then pressed at room temperature—the fabled "first cold pressing". Using heat or chemicals
will produce more oil, but at the expense of the oil's flavor and nutrients.
Extra virgin olive oil is not filtered, which is typically done by forcing the oil through cheesecloth
or similar material. Filtering extends the shelf life by removing any bits of fruit that remain, which will ferment
and shorten the life of the oil. But it also diminishes the flavor in doing so.
Instead, after pressing, extra virgin olive oil is allowed to settle or 'rest' in air-tight
stainless steel tanks for a couple of months. This allows some of the fruit particles and remaining water
to settle on the bottom of the tanks. The oil is then drawn off the top of the tanks as needed throughout the year to
ensure a fresh supply of oil for bottling. A few producers bottle a small portion of their new oil directly
from the mill. This "olio nuovo"--new oil--is available only in late in November and early December.
Given this labor
and time-intensive process, olive oil is rarely produced in this manner today. Estimates are that less than 10 percent
of all the olive oil in the world is authentic extra virgin olive oil. But that 10 percent—WOW—what a remarkable
The Taste of Extra Virgin
Once you sample
a real extra virgin olive oil, you'll discover that it can have a range of flavors—delicate and buttery, fragent
and fruity, olive'y' and peppery, all the way up to leafy green and grassy. What determines these flavors?
Two factors—the type of olive, and the time of the year that it's pressed.
The olives used to make the oil sold by All Things Olive comes from trees in California. The
olive tree has been growing in California since the late 1700s, when the Franciscan monks began planting them along their
mission trail from San Diego to Sonoma. The olives were the varieties known to their native Spain: manzinillo,
ascolano, and sevillano, along with misson, which is native to California and Mexico. In the late 1980s, at the beginning
of the resurgence of California's olive oil industry, olive varieties native to Italy were planted. Pendalino, lecchino,
and frantoio are common Italian varieties grown in California today.
Each olive, just like an apple, grape, or any other fruit, offers a distinctive flavor.
Olive oil producers can make their oil from single variety of olive, or they can blend a variety of olives to create a
The time of the year that an olive is picked and pressed will also affect the flavor of the
oil. Olives are picked each year in California beginning in late October and continuing through to late January.
The olive typically starts green, and as it ripens, it changes color, moving from green-yellow, to red, to purple, until
it is very black and ripe. When pressed, green olives produce a more robust oil than black olives.
Because it does not have a strong olive flavor, a mild and
delicate olive oil is often used as a substitute for butter. You get all the healthful attributes of olive oil, without
a strong olive flavor. This makes a mild and delicate oil ideal for use on toast or bagels, scrambling eggs, or on fresh
The next notch up in the flavor category
is the "fragrant and fruity" olive oil. This oil is most often pressed from Spanish olives that are almost,
but not quite, fully ripe. This category is a good choice to serve with salads.
The next category, "olive-y and peppery" olive oil is generally produced
from Italian olives, which are greener. This type, often referred to as a Tuscan-style, is great on a crusty piece of
bread or with pasta.
The last category
is the leafy green and grassy oil. This oil comes from olives, Spanish or Italian, that are pressed early in the year.
That gives them their characteristicly strong olive flavor and peppery finish.
Olive oil is unique among all the oils in that you can eat it without having to first process or refine it.
This is because an olive is really a fruit--like an apple or a pear--whose juice is an oil.
pick an olive off a branch and press it to get its oil. Oil produced from olives in this way is, in the truest sense,
extra virgin olive oil—the fresh squeezed juice of the olive. But fresh-squeezed olive oil is a rare
commodity. Estimates are that of all the olive oil produced worldwide each year, less than 10 percent
is really, truly, extra virgin olive oil.
To be a true extra virgin olive oil, the oil must be mechanically
pressed or crushed, with no added heat or chemicals. The oil must have no taste or odor defects as determined by a trained
panel of experts. It also must undergo a chemical analysis to determine if the oil has a 'free acidity' level of
less than 0.8 percent if it is a European oil, or 0.5 percent if it is from California. The free acidity level
is an indication of how ripe the olives were when they were pressed--the higher the acidity level the riper the fruit was.
Just as you would not want to eat a pear or banana if it was too ripe, you do not want to press olives that are past
their peak ripeness. If the oil has no taste or odor defects,
and it is below these acidity levels, it is declared an extra virgin olive oil.
Oil that is good but does not meet the extra virgin requirements is referred to as "virgin"
olive oil. Virgin olive oil is generally not available to the public and is sold commercially for
the food industry. The next level of olive oil is "refined" olive oil, which is usually a blend of
refined and virgin or extra-virgin oil. "Pomace" oil comes from the final pressing of the olive mash or pomace.
It is used for manufacturing, making cosmetics, and as an oil for lamps.
The oil from seeds, such as sesame, grape, safflower, corn, sunflower, soy, and canola, can only be obtained
using high pressure, heat, and often-times,chemical solvents such as hexane.
To sum up, the difference between real extra virgin olive oil and what is typically
labeled extra virgin olive oil in the U.S. is somewhat comparable to the difference between a glass of fresh squeezed orange
juice and a can of orange soda.
- Tasting Notes -
Depending on the type of olive and the date of its pressing—mid-autumn to early winter—extra virgin
olive oil can taste delicate and buttery, fragrant and fruity, olive-y and peppery, or leafy green and grassy.
Free Acidity Level
(Oleic Acid per 100 gms.)
California - 0.5% maximum; Europe - 0.8%
Refining removes most flavor/odor
How Can I Tell If It's Really Extra Virgin
The simplest way is to buy California
olive oil that has earned the California Olive Oil Council's (COOC) yearly seal of approval.
The California Olive Oil Council is an independent third party that certifies whether or not a California
olive oil is really extra virgin. The COOC seal, awarded annually, is your assurance that the Council's trained experts
have verified that the oil in the bottle you are buying really is extra virgin.
If you find an olive oil produced outside of California, there is
no third-party to certify that the oil is real, but there are a number of clues to look for:
virgin olive oil will be priced significantly above the other oils on the shelf.
Acidity Level—This is a measure of the
free fatty acids in the oil, which essentially indicates how ripe, or more accurately, how decomposed the oil is when it went
into the bottle. To be called extra virgin oil in Europe, it must have an free acidity level below 0.80 percent (below
0.50 percent for COOC-certified extra virgin olive oil).
Olive Variety/Varieties—Just as grapes or apples have different
flavors, so too do olives. Look to see which type of olive or olives were pressed to produce the oil in the bottle. Another
flavor factor is how early or late in the harvest season the olives were pressed. Olives harvested early, say in October,
will be greener and produce a more leafy green and pungent oil. This oil will also have more healthful properties.
Olives harvested late, in January or even February, will be black and produce a milder oil.
Growing Region—The region where the olive
trees are grown—the terrior as it is called in France—with its unique type of soil, weather, and sunshine, will
also have an affect on the flavor of the oil obtained from those olives. Real extra virgin oils will promote their growing
Date—Since olive oil, unlike wine, does not get better with age, the clock starts ticking as soon as the olive
is picked from the tree. As a rule, olives must be pressed within 24 hours to keep the acidity level low. Knowing
the pressing date can tell you how fresh the oil in the bottle is. Failing this fact, look for other signs of age, with
the weakest being the "best if used by" date.
Word about European Olive Oil
you are considering the purchase of European olive oil, there are a number of clues to help you determine if the
oil is really extra virgin oil. But remember that there is no third party that is independently verifying that what's
in the bottle is extra virgin.
authoritative sign to look for is the European Union's denominations of origin program. This is a strict labeling policy
that means a certain product comes from a specific geographical area, and was produced under a rigorous set of clearly defined
standards that have historically been used to produce the product. Think Chianti or Champagne or Parmigiano-Reggiano
Real extra virgin olive oil will carry its country's designations of origin, as established by the European
Union. Some examples are:
d'origine contrôlée (AOC)
Italy-- Denominazione di Origine Protetta (DOP)
Given the current
premium of the Euro over the American dollar, authentic extra virgin olive oils from Europe will continue to be
much more expensive than the other "extra virgin" olive oils on the shelf. But they will be the real deal.
A word to the wise, olive oil that says "Imported from Italy" on the label usually means only that
the olive oil was shipped by ocean freighter to an Italian port, where it was bottled by an Italian company. The
tip-off is that the label also will mention that the olives used in the pressing came from a variety of countries, such as
Tunisia, Turkey, or Spain.
How's the Other "Extra Virgin" Olive Oil Made?
The typical "extra virgin" olive oil
you find in the supermarket today is an industrial product that has been heavily processed. These producers are looking
for two things—quantity and shelf life, but most of all quantity. True cold pressing—where the olives are
crushed and pressed at room temperature—extracts only a third or so of the potential oil in an olive. By using
hot water and industrial solvents such as hexane, the processer can obtain over 95 percent
of the potential oil in the olive.
This industrial processing also enables the processor to begin with olives of poor
to very poor quality because after the processing method what remains is an almost clear liquid with little flavor,
aroma, or healthful properties.
producing the oil in this method, the processor must then follow these steps:
Bleaching—Eliminates any pigments in the crude oil.
Degumming—Delivers the "high smoke point" that
cooks need for sauteing and frying. Degumming works by removes the free fatty acids and small quantities of proteins
and other substances that contribute to the instability of the oil during high-temperature cooking.
substances that causes oil to go rancid, and thus prolong its shelf life.
Hydrogenation—Adding hydrogen prevents
oxidation or aging of the oil.
Refining—An alkaline substance (often caustic soda) is added to transform the oil's fatty acids into soap, which is
then extracted from the oil via centrifugation.
Anti-oxidation—Synthetic vitamin E is added to further
prolong shelf life.
give the oil a green appearance, as well as some taste and aroma, the processor will often add chemicals and artifical flavors,
such as chlorophyll and beta carotene.