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, not so much. 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". "Green." Yada,
yada, yada. They all are marketing terms.
"extra virgin" mean?
Let's start with virgin olive oil. Like extra virgin, virgin olive oil is oil obtained from olives without
using heat or chemicals. The olives are pressed (technically crushed today) by mechanical means at room temperature—"cold
pressed" in essence.
Virgin olive oil, however, has some taste or odor defects according to an independent
third party. Extra virgin olive oil has none. Another quality control item, the acidity level, which measures
how old or how roughly handled the olives were before they were pressed, will be below a certain percentage. In Europe,
the percentage is 0.80 percent. In California,
it's even lower, 0.50 percent.
much olive oil in the world is really, truly extra virgin?
the "cold" pressing, no taste or odor defects, low acidity, are strict. As a result, it's estimated that worldwide, less
than 10 percent of all the olive oil produced each year qualifies as extra virgin.
All Things Olive sells only extra virgin
olive oil produced in California. We do so because an independent third party—the California Olive Oil Council—perfoms the taste tasting and chemical analysis. Those oils that exceed the Council's
standards, earn its annual seal. These are the oils we sell.
Real Extra Virgin Olive Oil Made?
To 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 crushed and pressed within 24 hours. Any
longer, and the olives—as with any fruit—will begin to ferment, which will degrade the quality of the oil.
At the mill, 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. Filtering extends the shelf life
by removing the bits of fruit that remain in the oil. If left in the oil, they'll ferment and shorten the life of the
oil. But filtering also diminishes the flavor of the oil.
Instead of being filtered, 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.
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 oil we sell comes from trees in California. The olive tree has been growing in California
since the early 1800s, when the Franciscan monks began planting them along their mission trail from San Diego to Sonoma. Back
then, the olive trees were among those being grown in Spain: manzinillo, sevillano, along with misson to name a few.
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 being among the more common Italian varieties. A number of varieties
from France and Greece are also grown.
olive, just like any other fruit, offers a distinctive flavor. Think green apples and red apples. Olive oil
producers can make their oil using a single variety of olive, or they can blend a variety of olives to create a
unique flavor. Although many try to replicate the oils being produced in Europe, many others will blend to produce very
The time of the year that an olive is picked and pressed will also affect the flavor of the oil. Olives are
picked in California beginning in mid November 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, all the way to black. When pressed,
green olives produce a much more pungent and robust oil than black olives.
The ripest olives can be pressed to produce a mild and delicate
olive oil that's often used as a substitute for butter. You get the healthful attributes of olive oil, without a strong
olive flavor. This type of oil is ideal on toast or bagels, for scrambling eggs, or dressing fresh peas or potatoes.
The next notch up in the flavor category is the "fragrant
and fruity" olive oil. This oil is most often pressed from Spanish varieties that are almost, but not quite,
fully ripe. This category is a good choice to serve with green salads and steamed vegetables.
The next category, "olive-y and peppery",
is generally produced from Italian varieties, which are even younger. This type of olive oil—often referred
to as a Tuscan-style—goes great on a crusty piece of bread, as a simple sauce for pasta, or grilled vegetables.
The last category is leafy green and grassy
oil. This oil comes from olives, Spanish or Italian, that are pressed earlier in November. They have a characteristicly
strong olive flavor and peppery finish, which is great for salmon, tuna, lamb, minestrone soup, or other robust dishes—the
oil's flavor will come through!
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.
You can 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
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.
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 indicates how fresh and how well handled the olives were before they were used to make
the oil. 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.
- 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.
Word about European Olive Oil
The most authoritative sign to look for in buying olive oil from European producers 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 cheese.
Depending on the
country, real extra virgin olive oil produced in Europe will carry its country's designations of origin. Some examples are:
d'origine contrôlée (AOC)
Italy—Denominazione di Origine Protetta (DOP)
de Origen (DO)
Given the current
premium of the Euro over the American dollar, authentic extra virgin olive oils from Europe will also be much more
expensive than the other "extra virgin" olive oils on the shelf. The average price is between $30 and $40
a pint. But they will be the real deal.
A word to the wise, olive oil labels that say "Imported from
Italy" usually mean that the olive oil was shipped to an Italian port from a country with lower labor costs. It
is then 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.
After producing the oil in this
method, the processor must then follow these steps:
Bleaching—Eliminates any pigments
in the crude oil.
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
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.
E is added to further prolong shelf life.
make the oil look green, as well as to add some taste and aroma, the processor will often add chemicals and artifical flavors,
such as chlorophyll and beta carotene.