Buy extra virgin olive oil off a supermarket shelf, and chances are that it's extra virgin in name only.
"Unfortunately, in the United States, many of the companies that have sold olive oil have done so without having to comply with any standards for many, many years," says Paul Vossen, a UC Cooperative Extension farm advisor and expert in olive oil processing and analysis.
They're not breaking the law - because there isn't any. And profits are tempting. "Everyone wants to sell their oil as extra virgin, because it gets the highest price," Vossen says. Oil activists are working to change this, but nothing has happened yet.
One way to get genuine extra virgin olive oil is to check out the winners of the Los Angeles International Extra Virgin Olive Oil Competition. Northern hemisphere oils, including those from California and Mexico, were judged in March at the Sheraton Fairplex in Pomona. Southern hemisphere oils, which are in production now, will be judged in July. All the winners will be featured at the Los Angeles County Fair Aug. 29-Sept. 8.
Vossen was one of 12 international specialists who tasted 485 domestic and international oils in March, divided into delicate, medium and robust categories. They also evaluated 73 flavored oils. (Chocolate-infused olive oil, anybody?)
The tasters sniffed and sampled from blue glass containers that concealed the appearance of the oils. They refreshed their palates with tart green apple slices, not bread, and their dump buckets were lined with paper towels.
"Tasting olive oil is not like tasting wine, where you can go into flights of fancy," says Darrell Corti of Corti Brothers Grocers and Wine Merchants in Sacramento, chairman of both tastings. "The flavor profile is very limited. It has to taste like olives. Wine is less complex, more simple and easier to understand."
Olive oil does have something in common with wine, however. "Olive growing is agriculture, and oil making is, like wine, crop dependent," Corti says. "If there is little good crop, not even the best oil maker can make a lot of good oil. Most will be just OK."
Remember buying olive oil that was labeled "pure"? That was more than a marketing ploy. In the late 1800s California producers labeled their oil "pure" to indicate it was not cut with animal fat or other substances as was the case with imported oils, Corti says. "The FDA in 1906 threw up its hands in disgust when it could not control the importation of doctored oils from Europe. The history is that they gave up in disgust since 'all' samples were doctored with something."
The term "pure" is no longer used. However, says Corti, "Pure olive oil ... probably still is a better way to sell oil than calling it 'extra virgin.' When oil was classified, before WWI, there was virgin oil [meaning not blended with any other type of oil] and then olive oil. When, with technology, producers could make an oil with less acidity and of higher quality, the term extra was appended."
How to shop for olive oil? "The best way ... is to buy from a reputable shop and from a reputable producer," Corti says. "It is like choosing a doctor or lawyer. It depends on the outcome you want."
To start with, here are the five extra virgin olive oils that were named best of show in the northern hemisphere competition.
The California winner in the medium category was an Ascolano oil (Ascolano is the variety of olive) from MoonShadow Grove in Oroville. The best of show robust was a Coratina oil from Grumpy Goats Farm in Capay Valley.
The international winners were all Italian: Trappeto di Caprafico, a blended oil from Abruzzo (delicate); Fattoria Ramerino, a Frantoio oil from Tuscany (medium) and Gran Pregio Bio, a Coratina from Puglia (robust). Fattoria Ramerino also won the Marco Mugelli award for the single best oil in the competition.
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California's best of show in the delicate category was an Arbequina oil called No Malax made by Pablo Voitzuk at Pacific Sun in Tehama County. However, Corti Brothers sells this oil under its own label, and Corti declined the award. "Being the chairman, I have to be very circumspect," he says. "It won a gold, best of class and best of show delicate California. We will accept only the gold medal."
All of the winners will eventually be listed at laoliveoilcomp.com.