Category Archives: origins

The inedible olive

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I had passed the olive tree by the house many times that day. Its leaves were a shimmery silver like an exotic party dress waving to the rhythm of the warm Mistral wind on that sunny autumn day. I stopped to touch a branch, running its leaves through my dry fingers. I came across a soft, firm little fruit and, before I knew what had happened, there was a cold hard olive lying in my hand. The black fruit became glossy as a rolled around between my fingers. Its firm flesh had ripe give when I pressed it. I knew nothing about olive trees and their mystery got the best of me: I popped the exotic fruit into my mouth and bit down. BLEHHHHH! Bitter mouth contorting awfulness. I spit several times on the ground and went looking for water.

The raw olive is inedible, despite its seductive looks. In her fascinating book, Much Depends on Dinner (1986), Margaret Visser tells us that raw olives contain a bitter substance called oleuropein, which is separated in the production process for making oil. It is siphoned off with the vegetable water. Apparently this byproduct is quite difficult to dispose of and can become a dangerous pollutant. In Roman times, it was called amurca and it was used as a weed-killer and insecticide.

When I go down to Amelia next week, I plan to avoid eating the raw olives but I will investigate what happens to this bitter byproduct. It would be interesting to see if it is being put to some use and maybe there is a potential to do so in the future.

Let’s give more value to olive oil than motor oil

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I really think Carlo Petrini, president of Slow Food, has a point here: why are people complaining about the high price of olive oil? It should cost more than motor oil because there is a lot more work involved in producing good olive oil. People also complain about the price of motor oil but the automobile is sacred. Perhaps we should be giving the same consideration to our food instead.

In this video clip, Carlo Petrini uses olive oil as an example for thinking about food that is good, clean and fair. Essentially, we need to encourage small producers and, as consumers, we need to be concerned about food production.

Food Miles?

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Lately I have been thinking a lot about food miles and it has been heavy on my consciences for a while. For the past six years I have been a member of Slow Food and I truly believe that eating locally is a good thing from the point of view of taste, environment and economy. Yes, this has led me to a dilemma: I am importing olive oil from Italy. How do I justify this? Good question. I guess my line is that moderation is the best path: I eat local when I can and I try to be aware of food miles. For example, I eat local and seasonal produce that supports nearby farms. This makes up the bulk of my groceries. However, I purchase spices and, of course, olive oil from abroad. Let’s face we just can’t produce olive oil in Canada!

At the same time, there has been a lot of debate lately over the validity of the food miles argument. A recent article in the New York Times by James McWilliams presents the findings of environmental researchers in New Zealand who argue that the environmental cost of local food is not always as low as imported food. What is a shopper to think?

Over the holidays I read Michael Pollen’s Omnivore’s Dilemma and Pollen makes a strong case for eating locally as a protest to the industrial food chain. I agree that change starts with the consumer. In many ways I feel that is what we are doing at Amelia Oil: we are giving our customers a chance to support sustainable, small-scale farming in Italy. With fraud and poor quality rampant in the olive oil industry, it is about time that consumers demand transparency.

After living in central Italy for several years I never really got used to using butter again. What can I say. The health benefits of eating olive oil only confirm my non-local food choice. I also know that Amelia Oil is the best quality and it is produced by people I know and care about.

Slippery Business: Olive Oil Fraud

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I just read a great article in the New Yorker magazine that uncovers some of the widespread fraud in the olive oil business in Italy. It was about time people started talking about it in North America. I think it is just the tip of the iceberg but nonetheless it is a good call for consumers to be vigilant when purchasing olive oil. It really is necessary that we demand transparency and quality. It is also time to support farmers directly and make sure they are being paid fairly for their products. Cheap oil, can’t be good oil!Take a look at my olive oil buyers guide to see how you can try to protect yourself from olive oil fraud.

Caveat Emptor: A buyer’s guide to olive oil

Facing rows of bottles in the olive oil section of an upscale grocery store, I felt overwhelmed. What is the difference between all of these oils with fancy labels? Why are the prices so different? If I spend a lot of money, will I get an exceptional olive oil I will like? I don’t think I am alone in feeling confused when it comes to buying olive oil. In addition to not knowing where to start, the labeling on some of these products can be misleading and out-rightly false. This short guide to buying olive oil will help you become a better-informed consumer who gets what they want or at least what they bargained for.

Buy fresh olive oil
In my opinion, the most important consideration when buying oil should be its date of production. Unlike wine, olive oil does not get better with age. As oil ages, it loses its taste and colour. It is a good rule to consume your olive oil when 18 months of production: insist on fresh olive oil and make sure the bottle you are buying has a production date and not only a ‘best by’ date, which means very little.

Read the label
Half the battle of buying good oil comes when reading the label. Now that you have located the date of production, you might want to consider what kind of oil you are paying for: look for the quality of oil. Extra virgin olive oil is the most sought after and the priciest. Extra virgin has low acidity, which makes it perfect for using as a condiment on salads, grilled meats, vegetables, fish and soups. Some labels may even include the level of acidity (the lower the better). Now you should look for the area of production and the origins of your oil. This can tell you a lot about the style of the oil; for example, if it is heavy, fruity, spicy or light. The label might also mention the types of olives (cultivars) used in producing the oil. I always think that the more information given to the consumer, the more likely you are to be getting a quality product. I prefer artisan oils that are produced by small-scale farmers and I avoid multi-national brands. Big name olive oils usually have rather murky origins.

Not all olive oil is the same
Olive oil tends to compliment the local cuisine of where it is produced. Amelia Oil from Umbria is perfect on the grilled meats and lentil soups, which is typical fare in that region. If you want to drizzle oil on fish, you might consider using a Sicilian, Ligurian or Southern French oil that is lighter and better suited to the delicate taste of fish. Not all olive oil tastes the same and not everyone likes the same oils. I would suggest buying several types of olive oil from different regions and experiment with tastes in the kitchen.

Price
Just because an olive oil is expensive doesn’t mean it is good. If you buy fresh oil and you know where it is from, you are more likely to get good oil. Although the aesthetics of the bottle can play a part in the consumer’s decision making process, it is time to look beyond the package and demand sustainable fair-trade olive oil. That said, you should also be aware of olive that is too cheap: it is not likely to be 100% olive oil and certainly not extra virgin.

Buying olive oil can be tricky business because there are very few regulations placed on the labeling of this product. The European Union is trying to impose some order, but the lobby and interests of big industry is proving a major challenge. Shop intelligently and demand quality and transparency.

The Olive Gazette


I have really enjoyed getting reader comments the past few weeks. I was starting to think I was writing just for my own entertainment.

In particular, I have found Henry Mackay’s comments stimulating and well-informed. Mackay is an olive oil producer in Jaen, Spain who writes a very interesting blog called the Olive Oil Gazette. Topics on this blog range from current prices and futures of olive oil to the various awards handed out by international committees.

More thoughts on fair-trade olive oil

It is the consumer’s right to know how the product they are purchasing is produced; this goes for olive oil as well. When you buy a bottle of olive oil at the supermarket there is little indication on the bottle or the shelf of how the oil was produced or about who did all the work to turn olives into oil. Making olive oil is a year-long agricultural process that requires the attention of farmers, extra labour for harvesting and pruning as well as the people working in the mill.

Although there are few issues around fair trade in Italy it is something that needs to be considered nonetheless. Are farms getting their fair share of the profits? This is particularly important for small-scale farmers who have a hard time competing in the global market. When my mother and I started to import olive oil from Italy we wanted to make sure we were giving back to local communities and encouraging the continuation of agricultural practices and traditions.

Buying direct from the producer and selling direct to the client is one way in which we keep the cost of our oil reasonable. However, quality comes from careful labour, passion and expertise, which have their price. Generally these are not values espoused by industrial production.

As you may know, I am not a big fan of certifications and although Amelia Oil may not be certified fair trade, we are proud to be a part of sustainable, local agriculture in Italy.

Fair-trade olive oil from Palestine


As I was researching the Mediterranean and Palestine, I came across this site. Zaytoun is fair-trade Palestinian olive oil. It is an attempt to help Palestinian farmers reach the marketplace and continue their cultivation of olives: “Resisting the occupation by insisting on life.”

Cultivars-Moraiolo


Another type of olive in Amelia Oil is the moraiolo cultivar (featured above). This cultivar is most common in Umbria, Tuscany, Le Marche and Abruzzo. It is usually cultivated together with the frantoio cultivar. Moraiolo tends to have a grassier taste and balances the fruitiness of the frantoio olives. I personally think it is this olive that gives our oil its ‘green’ taste. It reminds me of lying down in long grass when I smell it. To really enjoy this grassy, greenness it is best to consume fresh oil that is no older than a year.