Virgin" . . . What's It Really Mean?
Outside of the U.S.,
a lot. Unfortunately inside the U.S., not so much. The USDA, which grades and inspects food, offers only voluntary standards
for olive oil.
All the terms you've come to associate with olive oil—"100% Product of Italy", "Cold Pressed", "First Press"—have no legal definition. They're just marketing terms.
What should "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.
Unlike extra virgin olive oil, however, virgin olive oil has some taste or odor defects according to an
independent taste panel.
Another quality control item, the acidity level (which essentially measures how good
or bad the olives were before being pressed) will be below a certain percentage. In Europe, the percentage is 0.80 percent. In California, it's even lower, 0.50 percent.
How much olive oil in the world is really, truly extra virgin?
These requirements, 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
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?
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 ripen or ferment, which will lower 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. But filtering also diminishes the flavor of the oil.
Instead, 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.
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.
At The Olive Press in Sonoma, where malaxers slowly mix
the crushed olives prior to the centrifuge extracting the oil
- 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.
The Taste of Extra Virgin
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 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 olives that are
still somewhat green 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!
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:
Price—Real extra 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.
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 regions.
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.
How's the Other "Extra Virgin" Olive Oil Made?
Most often, the "extra virgin" olive oil you find
in the supermarket today is an industrially-produced product that has been heavily processed. The producers are after
two things—as much oil as they can possibly produce and a shelf stable product (whom do you know that's ever toss out
an old bottle of olive oil in their cupboard?).
olives without using chemicals extracts less than 25 percent of the potential oil in an olive. But, by using petroleum solvents
such as hexane, the processer can get almost all the potential oil in an olive.
However, after producing the oil in this method, the processor must then follow
Bleaching—Eliminates any pigments left in the
removes the free fatty acids and small quantities of fruit and proteins and other substances that contribute to extra virgin
olive oil's instability oil during high-temperature cooking. After degumming, an olive oil will have a higher "smoke point".
Deodorizing—Eliminates any remaining natural substances
that can cause an oil to go rancid, thus prolonging 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.
Finally, after this processing, what remains is an almost clear liquid with little flavor, aroma,
or healthful properties. To make the oil look
green, as well as to add some taste, some producers will add a bit of real extra virgin olive oil. Others will often
add chemicals and artificial flavors, such as chlorophyll and beta carotene.
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
Depending on the country, real extra virgin olive oil produced in
Europe will carry its country's designations of origin. Some
France—Appellation d'origine contrôlée (AOC)
di Origine Protetta (DOP)
Spain—Denominación 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.