Category Archives: quality

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


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.

Slippery Business: Olive Oil Fraud

New Yorker Image

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.

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.

Olive oil that is too cheap

When olive oil is too cheap I usually suspect that there are one of two things going on. First, I imagine the consumer is getting a raw deal. Usually cheap oil means that quality is compromised and what you think you are buying is not really what is in the bottle. Second, perhaps the producers are being forced to sell at a rate that is lower than their production cost. This sometimes happens when big olive oil companies get involved and monopolise international markets. I personally see this as the death of small-scale olive oil production in the Mediterranean.

If you are buying very inexpensive olive oil, you should expect to get what you pay for, which is usually not much. I am aware that different types of cooking require different types of oil; however, there is really no way I would ever consume ‘lampante’ or ‘olive oil’ grade. In fact, many consider these grades of olive oil unfit for human consumption. When the Romans said “caveat emptor” I think they were talking about buying olive oil. What can you do to ensure you are buying quality oil? First of all, read the label carefully and look for signs of fraud. Check that your oil is extra virgin (if that is what you are after), that it has a specific and identifiable origin and there should be a ‘best by’ date. Although these indications are a start they do not always ensure a high-quality product. I would even suggest checking on the Internet to find out more about the producer and distributor.

That said, I do not think that good quality extra virgin olive oil should be available exclusively to the privileged. There is lots of over-priced olive oil out there on specialty food store shelves. I will have more to say on that topic in the future…

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.