Clar­ity on olive oil

Some oils are di­luted; here’s a guide to find­ing au­then­tic prod­ucts

The Denver Post - - LIFE & CULTURE - By Colleen O’Con­nor

When Kathy Seidel watched the re­cent “60 Min­utes” ex­posé of Mafia in­fil­tra­tion into the food in­dus­try — es­pe­cially olive oil — she was star­tled to hear that about 75 per­cent of the ex­tra vir­gin olive oil sold in Amer­i­can su­per­mar­kets is of­ten di­luted with the low­est-qual­ity olive oil, which ex­perts say lacks the health ben­e­fits of the gen­uine prod­uct.

She went straight to her kitchen, tasted her ex­tra vir­gin olive oil, and sus­pected that it was di­luted with cheaper olive oils.

“I don’t want adul­ter­ated oil,” she said on a re­cent af­ter­noon, shop­ping at the EVOO Mar­ket­place in Den­ver, which spe­cial­izes in ex­tra vir­gin olive oil and bal­samic vine­gar.

Carolyn Ma­jor, who coowns the spe­cialty shop with her hus­band, Mick, guided Seidel through a tast­ing tour, sam­pling fla­vors.

And in the wake of the news re­port, Seidel wasn’t the only con­sumer try­ing to find au­then­tic ex­tra vir­gin

olive oil.

“The phone is ring­ing off the hook, and we’ve had 2,800 hits on our web­site,” said Steve Lewis, owner of Gi­u­liana Di­rect Olive Oil in the RiNo neigh­bor­hood, which sells ex­tra vir­gin olive oil from renowned small-fam­ily pro­duc­ers. “We’ve got­ten e-mails from Hawaii, Mon­treal and Fin­land.”

This is just the lat­est de­vel­op­ment in the story of fake ex­tra vir­gin olive oil, where scan­dals have popped up in the past two decades be­cause many ex­tra vir­gin olive oils sold in Amer­i­can su­per­mar­kets have been adul­ter­ated with cheap olive oils or oils made from nuts and seeds.

A 2010 study from the Olive Cen­ter at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia-Davis, based on test­ing of sam­ples in Cal­i­for­nia retail stores, found that 69 per­cent of im­ported oils failed to meet in­ter­na­tional stan­dards for ex­tra vir­gin olive oil.

And in re­cent years, class ac­tion law­suits have been filed in the United States against pro­duc­ers and dis­trib­u­tors of ex­tra vir­gin olive oil pop­u­lar in su­per­mar­kets, al­leg­ing mis­la­bel­ing or fraud­u­lent ad­ver­tis­ing.

In­creas­ingly, con­sumers are fo­cused on learn­ing about the com­plex world of ex­tra vir­gin olive oil. Some read the 2013 best seller “Ex­tra Vir­gin­ity: The Sub­lime and Scan­dalous World of Olive Oil” by Tom Mueller, and one Den­ver book group gath­ered at EVOO Mar­ket­place after­ward for a tast­ing and ex­pert ad­vice.

Oth­ers seek out winer­ies that also of­fer olive oil tast­ings, or read the lat­est news and re­search on­line at UC-Davis’ Olive Cen­ter (olive­cen­ter.uc­, where the top tip for buy­ing is to value fresh­ness.

That’s be­cause fresh oil is rich with polyphe­nols, which are loaded with an­tiox­i­dants and give a pep­pery, slightly bit­ter kick at the back of the throat. Polyphe­nol counts range as high as 900, which can be too bit­ter for some palates.

“The trend is that peo­ple want oil that is in­tense, pun­gent, fla­vor­ful and with a high phenol count,” said Lewis. “But when they taste it straight, it’s al­most too much.”

He says the light fruity oils, with fewer polyphe­nols, are good for daily use, while those of medium in­ten­sity — with more “green” fla­vors like ar­ti­choke, basil and tomato leaf — can make a warm dish like pasta or soup de­li­ciously aro­matic.

The most ro­bustly in­tense oils are of­ten paired with strong foods, such as hearty bean soups, braised pork and grilled steaks, or soft, fresh, young cheese, such as bur­rata.

Some home cooks use the more eco­nom­i­cal ex­tra vir­gin olive oils for cook­ing and save the more ex­pen­sive and bou­tique oils for fin­ish­ing dishes.

And to meet this need, ex­tra vir­gin oil bars and bou­tiques are sprout­ing up across the coun­try, in­clud­ing Oil & Vine­gar in Broom­field. EVOO Mar­ket­place now has lo­ca­tions in Aspen and Lit­tle­ton, and their fans are ex­per­i­ment­ing with ways to in­cor­po­rate the oil into their meals — driz­zling over ice cream, oat­meal, fruit sal­ads and grilled veg­eta­bles or rub­bing it onto grilled meats.

Lewis, who whole­sales fine olive oil to such restau­rants as Frasca Food and Wine and Barolo Grill, re­cently ex­panded to retail sales and spe­cial­izes in fin­ish­ing oils.

His shop, freshly painted with a mu­ral by lo­cal pop-cul­ture artist Scot Le­fa­vor, is in the heart of the RiNo district, next to The Pop­ulist.

He fo­cuses on small fam­ily farms such as the De Carlo fam­ily of Puglia, which has made olive oil since the 1600s and pi­o­neered the lat­est re­nais­sance in ex­tra vir­gin olive oils.

He also car­ries oil from Giorgio Franci of Tus­cany, who pro­duces some of the world’s most highly awarded olive oils — in­clud­ing the Fran­toio Franci Villa Ma­gra Grand Cru, which won the gold medal in the “ro­bust” cat­e­gory at the New York In­ter­na­tional Olive Oil Com­pe­ti­tion in 2014.

Ex­perts rec­om­mend that con­sumers taste ex­tra vir­gin olive oil be­fore buy­ing. Gi­u­liana Im­ports does tast­ings, but be­cause it is still in tran­si­tion from whole­sale to retail, call first (303-717-6649).

EVOO Mar­ket­place is set up for tast­ing — a large sam­pling space fea­tur­ing more than 50 ul­tra-pre­mium ex­tra vir­gin olive oils, each stored in a pol­ished steel con­tainer, called fusti.

Peo­ple can browse, sam­ple, and ask ques­tions of the staff. The chem­istry pro­file of each oil is posted by the con­tainer, in­clud­ing the phenol count and the level of free fatty acid­ity — a lower level usu­ally means higher qual­ity and smoke point.

There are also sen­sory rat­ings — like fruity or pun­gent — and the crush date, which is crit­i­cal for de­ter­min­ing fresh­ness.

Un­like ex­pi­ra­tion dates, crush or har­vest dates tells con­sumers ex­actly when the oil was crushed — ex­perts say oils are ex­tremely fresh about 12 months from this date.

While prices for au­then­tic ex­tra vir­gin olive oils are higher in spe­cialty stores than su­per­mar­kets, that doesn’t bother con­sumers such as Seidel.

“It’s ex­pen­sive,” she said at EVOO Mar­ket­place, pay­ing about $26 for the 12.7-ounce bot­tle. “But I’d rather pay more and know what I’m putting in my body.”

Pro­vided by Think­stock

Steve Lewis in his shop, Gi­u­liana Olive Oil, at 3152 Larimer St. Lewis im­ports high-qual­ity olive oils from the Mediter­ranean, sup­plies some of the top restau­rants in Den­ver and Boul­der, and now sells di­rectly to the con­sumer. He­len H. Richard­son, The Den­ver Post

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