Many people do not know what a good olive oil tastes like. And since this ingredient is now an element always present on our tables, it is important to know what to look for in a good extra virgin olive oil. Marco Oreggia will explain to us the importance of extra virgin olive oil for our health and how to choose a good oil, even without being an expert in the sector.
WHAT IS THE CURRENT SITUATION OF EXTRA VIRGIN OLIVE OIL PRODUCTION?
As since ancient times, even today the vast majority (over 96%) of world oil production comes from the countries of the Mediterranean basin, traditionally producing countries. Here the greatest weight is made up of the nations of the European Union which, alone, make up about 70% of the production of the whole world, with Spain, Italy and Greece being the production giants. The rest is represented by the productions of America (United States, Mexico and a large part of South America), Oceania (Australia and New Zealand) and that part of the Asian and African continents that are not bordered by the Mediterranean.
HOW IS THE SITUATION IN ITALY?
Italy competes every year with Greece for second place on the podium. In the last campaign (2019-2020), oil production stood at around 300 thousand tons. The most fruitful are the regions of the South, followed at a long distance by the Center and the North. Among all the Mediterranean countries, Italy stands out, as well as for the tradition of the cultivation and rooting of the plant on the territory, especially for qualitative factors. In other words, the olive tree has covered the entire peninsula since time immemorial, but the real reason for the Italian leadership lies in the richness of the variety park: to date, 695 cultivars have been registered that give rise to extra virgin olive oils of the highest quality and different between them, each unique in its kind because it is an expression of the variety of the olive from which it is made. So let’s immediately focus on an important concept: it is not the territory of origin that determines the characteristics of an oil, but the variety of the starting olive.
HOW IMPORTANT IS THE CONSUMPTION OF EXTRA VIRGIN OLIVE OIL?
Even with the premise that in the context of the consumption of fats, pressure oil represents just 3-4% worldwide, we are among those who argue that the consumption of extra virgin olive oil is very important for the health of individual. This is indeed an excellent condiment, but also a food. It is a so-called nutraceutical product, qualitatively improved in recent years, healthy, and in some ways similar to a natural medicine. Of course, we are still talking about a product rich in fatty acids which, however, in the right quantities and together with other components, prove to be precious for our body. So yes to the extra virgin prince of condiments and staple food of the Mediterranean diet. Fortunately, no one or almost no longer identifies it as a mere substance to “prevent food from sticking to the pans”, while the admirers who praise it as a product of great aromatic quality, capable of strongly influencing the characterization of the main dish, are increasing. a pasta, a second course, a preparation of vegetables or a simple slice of bread.
HOW IMPORTANT IS IT TO KNOW HOW TO DISTINGUISH A “GOOD” OIL FROM A “BAD”?
I would start with a premise, recalling how extra virgin olive oil is classified from a product point of view: superior category olive oil obtained directly from olives and solely by mechanical means. Therefore, it is an exclusively mechanical process that, through pressure, allows a compound made of oil, water and small particles to be extracted from the olive. This mixture is then centrifuged to separate the oily part which, lighter, is filtered and forms the extra virgin olive oil, ready to be consumed. Therefore, first of all, extra virgin olive oil is clearly distinguished from other vegetable oils which, to become edible, must be refined or subjected to a chemical (using organic solvent) and physical (temperature and pressure) transformation process which determines an impoverishment of the nutritional components. But it is above all its composition that makes it a precious food, because it includes, in addition to nutrients, a smaller portion of components, including substances that perform a protective function for our body. Those same substances that are also responsible for the particular organoleptic characteristics of extra virgin olive oil that make it tastier than other vegetable oils. Having said that, then the answer is easy: knowing how to distinguish a good oil from a bad one is very important.
HOW CAN YOU RECOGNIZE AN AUTHENTIC EXTRA VIRGIN OLIVE OIL FROM ONE OF LOW QUALITY OR, WORST, COUNTERFEIT?
At this point, the figure of the expert taster comes into play who is able, through tasting (whose method is codified by the International Olive Council), to evaluate an oil. The expert tasters, that is, selected, trained and gathered in working groups, are enabled to develop a sensorial evaluation of the product (panel test) decreeing whether or not it is free from defects and establishing whether it is in the correct product category (extra virgin, virgin, glaring).
The quality of an oil is therefore established on the basis of not only chemical-physical but also sensorial analyzes. In other words, it is the organoleptic analysis that teaches us to recognize a quality extra virgin. This is such when it releases, both on an olfactory and gustatory level, an aroma (more or less intense) that is defined as fruity, or a fresh and pleasant scent that recalls the fruit of the olive, the freshly cut grass and any aromatic notes that they can be recognized and described. An oil, then, is of good quality when, on the palate, two sensations are perceived: bitter and spicy.
These perceptions, which are also more or less intense, distinguish not only the quality of an oil, but also its wholesomeness. Instead, it commonly happens that the bitter and spicy, which are therefore a real asset of the product, are mistaken by consumers for defects, believing that the oil that has this taste and this characteristic of “pinching in the throat” is ” heavy “,” indigestible “or” acid “. Here, let’s immediately dispel this cliché: chemistry teaches that the free acidity of the oil is not perceptible in terms of taste (the free fatty acids of the oil are odorless and tasteless). On the contrary, the bitter and spicy are indicative of a high concentration in the extra virgin olive oil of those minor components – chlorophyll, phenols, carotenoids, phytosterols and tocopherols (or vitamin E) – which perform an important function for our body, being antioxidant elements that help fight cellular aging. Not to mention that they constitute, so to speak, the “muscles” of the oil, those that allow it to last longer over time, before natural deterioration.
If you are not an expert (or not yet), a good choice criterion may be to move towards extra virgin olive oils whose origin is certified. They are products that boast the so-called Designation of Origin which is the result of an agreement between producers and institutions institutionally responsible for ensuring the protection of the origin of the product. The advantage is the guarantee of a traced supply chain, with a control carried out at the origin, both tasting and chemical. A certified extra virgin olive oil is recognized because it has a PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) or PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) mark on the bottle. These brands, attributed by the European Union, generally protect foods whose qualitative characteristics depend exclusively or substantially on the territory of origin. In the specific case of extra virgin olive oil, both the PDO and PGI brands indicate that the entire production chain (cultivation of the plant, olive harvesting, processing and bottling of the oil) takes place in the same area. Even organic farming methods can constitute a further certification and become a criterion of preference: the Organic Agriculture brand certifies that the product is obtained with organic methods.
WHAT CAN WE EXPECT FOR THE FUTURE?
There are positive signs: the legislation on origin and labeling, the inclusion of new chemical parameters useful for the fight against fraud (we are thinking in particular of the analysis of extra virgin olive oil based on the DNA test) and the greater recognition of PDO, PGI, BIO brands. There are certainly many unresolved problems, first of all a still inadequate and deficient legislation both in Europe and in the world. But I am confident in a revival of the sector in general through a major control of production areas and volumes, a decisive strengthening of anti-fraud rules and the improvement of the still ineffective product classification of olive oil. In short, even in view of overcoming a moment of crisis like this, I would definitely focus on this plant which is such a special resource and asset.