Journalist Tom Mueller has lobbed a bombshell into the world of extra virgin olive oil. His new book, Extra Virginity (W.W. Norton & Co., 2012), details the fraud that’s wreaking havoc in the olive oil business. Mueller, whose book was inspired by a 2007 New Yorker article, blames loose laws and lax enforcement for the sale of bogus extra virgin olive oil in this country.
We caught up with Mueller last week when he had some down time during a very busy book tour. He’d also just testified before a California State Senate panel looking into the olive oil business. We asked our Facebook fans to give us questions to ask Mueller. And we got some great ones, which you’ll see below in the first of our two-part Q&A.
How important is packaging to the shelf-life, quality, flavor, and stability of olive oil – dark glass versus clear, plastic or metal can, etc.?
It’s very important. Light, together with heat and oxygen, is one of the enemies of olive oil. Light causes olive oil to degrade. So dark glass that filters out light is very important. A metal container also is good. Clear plastic and glass are to be avoided. At home when you store your oil, don’t store it next to a stove or another source of heat. You also don’t want to store it next to a window where the light could hit it. Instead, store it in a cool, dark place.
Is packaging an indicator of quality in your experience?
It can be. If it’s in clear glass or plastic, the quality is likely to be low. In terms of the labeling, a few things to look for are the specific producer and place of origin – instead of some generic reference to more than one country. A harvest date is a good indicator that the producer is good.
A “best by” date, however, is essentially meaningless. It’s calculated by when the oil went into the bottle. In other words, the “best by” date clock starts ticking on the bottling date. So you don’t know whether the oil had been sitting in a storage tank for one month or one year. Another good sign is a seal – for EU oils it would be PDO (Protected Designation of Origin – “DOP” in Italian) . And for California oils there’s the COOC (California Olive Oil Council) seal.
What can a regular customer ‘Joe’ do when shopping for olive oil for his own use?
Apart from looking for oils in dark containers and carefully reading the labels, try to look for places where you can try the oil before you buy it. And visit a mill if you can – there you can see olives actually become oil. In stores, look for places that have a high turnover so that there aren’t bottles that have been sitting on the shelf for many months or even years. I’ve actually seen bottles with dust on them.
What is the No. 1 trait in any olive oil people should look for when searching for a good product?
I think the word is “freshness.” Olive oil is a fresh agricultural product. And, unlike wine, it doesn’t improve with age. Instead, it degrades with age. The younger the oil, the better.
What are the best ways to determine if olive oil is truly extra virgin, regardless of what the label says? In other words, it hasn’t been ruined by light, heat, age, etc.
You can’t really tell before you open the bottle, which is why knowing or trusting the individual producer is so important. Once you open it, a fresh flavor, as well as a certain amount of bitterness and pungency are good signs, and recognized by international regulations. By “fresh flavor,” I mean it reminds you of the fresh olive fruit.
Your friends at California Olive Ranch