Olive oil has been used as a foodstuff for thousands of years. Cultivation of the olive tree probably got its start in the Mediterranean region over five thousand years ago. Now it is a product in much demand all over the world, which means opportunities to fool the public into buying something that’s not exactly as advertised. Today on Food Matters, I told the story of a new shop in Victoria that wants to take the oiliness out of shopping for olive oil.
Clearly, not all olive oils are the same…
I thought I knew a fair amount about olive oil since I studied it in my Masers of Food Culture course in Italy a few years ago and I’ve visited several olive groves in Italy, Greece, New Zealand and even on Pender Island. But I learned even more last weekend when I visited a new store in the Hudson Building in Victoria called Olive the Senses. Get it?
Steve and Emily Lycopolus bring a very interesting perspective to the business, as part of Steve’s family owns an olive grove in the Marche region of Italy, and Emily has a background in chemistry. This mix of practical knowledge and science turns out to be very important in the world of olive oil, and it was their love of olive oil that made them open up this shop. They had been living in Europe for a while, enjoying good oil, but when they moved back to Canada they were disappointed in what they could find, and Steve told me part of it had to do with how the oil is packaged:
“We came back to Canada and we’re buying fifty dollar bottles of olive oil and we were very disappointed in the quality we were getting. We could tell that there once was good olive oil in the bottle, but these ‘top shelf’ items don’t sell that quickly and are maybe stored where they get too much heat and light and they just aren’t that fresh-tasting anymore. When the opportunity came to open a shop like this one we figured we can’t be the only ones out there who are having problems finding a good product.”
When you walk into the shop you don’t see rows of bottles of olive oil. Instead you see these beautiful stainless steel containers called fustis, 15 litres in size, each with a little spigot at the bottom, each with a different kind of olive oil to taste. When you taste one you like, they fill up a bottle for you and label it. Olive oil does NOT improve with age. It’s best as soon as it’s pressed. Emily says they will rotate their oils carefully so that you will never purchase an oil older than eight months, in most cases it will be six, as they take advantage of the different harvest times in the different hemispheres of the world:
“Right now we have olive oils from the southern hemisphere, Australia and Chile, but in a few weeks time, the harvest will start in the United States (California) and the European countries. So we try to switch over our oils every six months so we can keep up with the seasonal pressings.”
A lot of people are under the impression that the best olive oil comes from Italy, and that it should be really green when you pour it out of the bottle. But after having tasted some of these ‘new world’ oils from Chile and California I think they are fantastic, and the varieties are usually those that were developed in the traditional Mediterranean olive oil producing countries like Italy, Spain and Greece. Much of the olive oil we see that says ‘product of Italy or packaged in Italy’ is not Italian olive oil anyway, it’s brought in from another country for bottling. And colour is no indication of the quality, in fact, some less-than-forthright producers will add colour to their oil to make it seem more appealing. And that’s why we tasted the oil today in opaque blue glasses, made especially for olive oil tasting.
Emily says it doesn’t matter which one you like best, you know you’re getting chemical quality first, nothing but first cold-pressed oil with no additives or chemical methods of extraction. But they will help guide you through their selection:
“There’s a whole range of flavours out there and there’s no explaining why you will prefer one over the other. But we work with you, ask you questions about the kinds of foods you like, where you like to travel, and then we can make some suggestions based on your answers…but of course you are free to taste all of the oils in the shop before you make a purchase of the oil you love most.”
Cooking with olive oil doesn’t destroy the flavour of it; that’s where more of the chemistry comes in. Emily told me particular oils have certain qualities that make them more well-suited to cooking than others, and although it has a lot to do with the chemical make-up of individual oils, don’t worry, they label all of the oils as to their suitability for cooking. If you want something different, they also have choices of some infused oils, such as this blood orange olive oil, or lemon. Then there are the vinegars…but that’s for another time. They stock a whole range of Italian balsamic vinegars that also have some very yummy infusions. Put the oil and vinegar together and you get a fantastic Christmas gift, hint hint.
To listen to the conversation I had with guest host David Lennam, just click through to this page on the All Points West website.