The prince of Italian extra virgin olive oils
has long been considered either Ligurian or Tuscan -- the Ligurian, especially that made from Taggiasca olives, is more delicate, whereas the Tuscan often has a marked peppery tang that can be quite addictive. Umbrian olive oils are also nice, as are those made on the southern banks of Lake Garda. South Italian extra virgin oils,
by contrast, can be heavier and more oily tasting -- fine for cooking with, but not necessarily what you want to put on your salad or drizzle over your minestrone. The problem is temperature: It's too hot in the south, when the olives ripen, and the temperatures that the picked olives are subjected to during storage and pressing result in heavy-tasting oils.
This was until recently; South Italian producers have begun to experiment with refrigeration and their olive oils are improving dramatically -- they're not yet to the level of the best Tuscan and Ligurian, but they're getting there.
This bodes well for the consumer, because southern olive trees are several times the size of their northern counterparts, and with high yields the producers will be able to make good olive oils at low prices.
There is a problem with this happy picture, however: Honest producers are being undercut through crafty use of an EEC food production loophole, according to which an olive oil imported from outside the EEC (North Africa, for example) can be sold as EEC oil if it's cut with locally produced olive oil following its importation. All the unscrupulous farmer has to do is buy cheap foreign oil for a few cents per liter, filter it, blend in some local olive oil, and voilá -- locally produced extra virgin olive oil!
It's not going to be as good as what really is local, of course, but how's the consumer to distinguish between two bottles from the same town without buying both and tasting them? Those who get burned will look elsewhere.
Alas, this gambit is not limited to Southern Italy; in November truckloads of olive oil from elsewhere are driven into Tuscan estates to emerge as Olio Extra Vergine Imbottigliato Nella Tenuta
(Extra Virgin Estate-Bottled Olive Oil). For that matter, the same trick is probably also used in Spain and Greece.
How to defend yourself?
In general, the better oils come in glass bottles, and their labels will say where and when they were pressed. Be careful about oils that simply say “estate bottled,” because of the problem mentioned above.
Don’t worry if the oil is opaque
, because it often is, nor should a bit of sediment upset you. Be wary, however, of overly green oil
– that green could be from the olives, or it could be from leaves that got pressed with them. Also, be wary of an oil that is either extremely light colored, or far into the yellow (towards gold). The former could be tasteless, while the latter is almost certainly old.
These guidelines apply to all extra virgin olive oils, not just those made in Italy.
If you live in the United States, I have tasted some good Californian olive oils, and some South American olive oils, for example Chilean olive oils, are also quite good.
What to do with olive oil, other than dress a salad?
The simplest thing is bruschetta: You will need day-old Italian bread (Tuscan-style would be best). Toast it, ideally over the coals, rub it with a peeled slice of garlic, then drizzle it with oil, season with salt, and serve. Four slices will serve four, and you'll have your guests asking for more.
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