In recent years, the increasing success of Italian food throughout the world has encouraged a growing popularity of made in Italy alimentary products. Naturally, Italian wine features amongst these, exceeding even the supremacy of French wine. Another food product which is gaining popularity, intrinsicallyconnected to cooking and Italian life style, is extra virgin olive oil.
Italian extra virgin olive oil can be found on the shelves of supermarkets and gastronomy shops all around the world, also due to its positive effects on our health, as demonstrated by many scientific studies.The consumer, however, often does not know how to discern exactly what makes one olive oil different from another. They are all made with the same raw materials, olives, but the quality, taste and naturally also the pricing can vary a great deal. We can find numerous olive oil varieties in the shops, made by different companies and originating from different places, and so it is often difficult to make a choice.
The wine lover, on the other hand, even with an average knowledge about wine, is usually able to choose. The choice may be based upon the preferred grape variety, for example, Merlot, Sauvignon, Sangiovese; or based on the country of origin for example, France, Italy, Chile; or the region, Bordeaux, Montalcino; or on the basis of the various quality indications, such as, DOC, AOC, and so on.
Those who appreciate and prefer olive oil as a dressing or to accompany a meal, are often unaware of the fact that similar quality parameters for olive oil exist as they do for wine, which should be taken into consideration when trying to make a choice.As far as wine making is concerned, Italy, which has one of the most ancient traditions in the world, has had much to learn from France regarding modern wine making.
Regarding olive oil on the other hand, Italy can boast a quality and a variety that remains unequalled in the whole world. There are over 700 kinds of olives growing from the North to the South of the Italian peninsula, each one adapting itself perfectly to the differing climatic conditions, from the fresh hills of the Veneto, to the boiling plains of Puglia, and each of these varietals provides a different type of oil, more or less suitable to be combined with the different traditional Italian dishes.
The generic olive oils on the other hand, even if extra virgin, are often produced with a mix of olives made up of different varietals but also of varying origin, and sometimes even coming from different countries. In this case, appreciating the typicality of the product is absolutely impossible.
The most widely known quality denomination is “olio extravergine d’oliva” (extra virgin olive oil).An olive oil may be certified as being extra virgin when it is obtained exclusively through mechanical methods and if it has a total acidity of maximum 0,8%.
In determining the quality of extra virgin olive oil, the taste is also evaluated alongside the chemical -physical aspects. An extra virgin olive oil should be free from defects. The main defects that can spoil an extra virgin olive oil are, for example:
Winey-vinegary: a taste similar to wine or vinegar, which is caused by fermentation with oxygen in olives that have not been properly conserved before milling.
Reheating (Riscaldo): This typical defect is caused by lactic fermentation in olives that have not been conserved properly
Rancidness: another unpleasant defect caused when olives which have not been conserved in perfect hygienic conditions are processed causing oxidative processes.
Cooked: a defect caused by excessive heating of the raw materials during processing.
Mouldiness- mustiness: defect caused by olives, which have developed mould due to an excessive humidity during a lengthy storing period
A panel of official tasters evaluate the possible defects of the olive oil before it is assigned a qualitative category. Unfortunately, unlike the scientific analysis, the tasting evaluation can have a certain grade of subjectivity
A market research conducted by a well known Italian retail chain using blind tastings has revealed that roughly 70% of the extra virgin olive oils on sale in the supermarkets priced at less than 3€ a litre could not enter into the required minimum parameters.The huge success of Italian extra virgin olive oil, also in international markets, has moved enormous economic interests. This has triggered a real and proper commercial war in European legislative organisms, between defenders of product quality and the large companies using mass intensive cultivation and industrial processes producing bulk quantities of poor quality oil.
Commercial fraud is rife and unfortunately is often rather difficult to uncover. The most common is by means of artificial fragrance, frequently occurring in the Spanish oils. Heating the oil at a certain temperature can cause unpleasant odours to evaporate, making them less noticeable to a possibly compliant tasting panel, who evaluates that the oil olive oil is free from defects and therefore extra virgin. Of course, this process also reduces the naturally present typical aromas and flavours, thus the oil is free from defects but also without beneficial qualities. It is not just a matter of taste, however, but also of nutritional properties. Refined oils, infact, lose many of the polyphenols and antioxidants that generally make them so beneficial to health.
In recent times, new laboratory testing has shown that by assessing the concentration of certain substances, one is able to indirectly determine whether an olive oil was treated artificially or not. The hope is that these tests will soon be included amongst the official rules employed during the assessment and quality of extra virgin olive oils.