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Green Gold

Long Savored Along the Mediterranean, Olive Oil is Adding Zest to America's Diet
Sam Gugino
From the Print Edition:
Orlando Hernandez, Mar/Apr 99

(continued from page 1)

While most wines are made in wineries owned by the grape growers themselves, olives are typically processed at communal mills. Hence, a producer takes some risk that his olive oil may be tainted by the remnants of inferior olives from the producer who used the mill before him. The cleanliness of the mill and its equipment is essential in creating an oil without flaws.

Once the olives have been crushed into a paste, one of several methods is used to extract the oil. The most common way is to spread the paste on round mats, made of hemp or nylon. The mats are stacked and interspersed with steel plates for support. The stack is then pressed hydraulically to release a liquid that contains oil, water and fine particles of fruit. Another method extracts the liquid by a horizontal decanter, which is essentially a crude centrifuge. A third process, called the sinolea method, removes the liquid via sharp metal blades onto which the liquid from the olive clings.

Because no heat or chemicals are used in these methods, the oil extracted is said to be cold pressed, also referred to as the first pressing. Inferior oils are extracted after these first cold pressings. Regardless of which extraction procedure is used, oil and water must then be separated by centrifuge.

A harvest date on the bottle is important so that the oil can be consumed while still fresh. This is particularly important for the high-end oils such as artisanal oils, which generally command up to $50 a liter. As important as locating fresh oil is finding a reputable dealer, one who knows enough to keep oil away from its three enemies: heat, light and air.

All Mediterranean olive-oil-producing countries are members of the International Olive Oil Council and must abide by the standards set by this intergovernmental agency, based in Madrid. The IOOC classifies olive oil into several categories: extra virgin, virgin, olive oil and pomace oil. According to the council, extra virgin olive oil is oil that has been judged to have perfect flavor, color and aroma and no more than 1 percent oleic acid, a monounsaturated fatty acid. While the acidity can be measured scientifically, the more subjective qualities of taste, aroma and color--collectively called organoleptic properties--must be determined by a panel of expert IOOC tasters.

There are several levels of virgin olive oil, which have acidities of 1 to 3 percent. These oils are rarely seen in the United States, except as a component of oil simply labeled "olive oil." This oil was formerly called pure olive oil, though the words "pure" or "100% pure" may still be shown on the label. "Olive oil" is virgin oil that has been refined to remove especially high acidity and faults in flavor. To bring this oil's acidity down to its required level of 1 to 1.5 percent, it is combined with varying amounts of virgin oil. Pomace oil is made by using solvents to extract oil from olive residue that remains after pressing or centrifuge operations. It is used primarily in commercial cooking such as frying.

An olive oil known as extra light oil has no international standing as a category. The term refers to taste, not caloric content--all olive oil, regardless of the type, has about 120 calories and 14 grams of fat per tablespoon. "We did focus groups and found out that consumers knew olive oil was healthy, but they didn't like the taste. It was too heavy for them," says Monroe, who invented the extra light category at Bertolli in 1987, much to the chagrin of the international council.

Bertolli and other so-called supermarket brands such as Filippo Berio and Colavita have also been faulted by connoisseurs because bottles of their extra virgin oil contain no harvest date, making it impossible to know the age of the oil. But, Monroe counters, "We sell 10 times more oil than any other company. So the chances of our oil being fresh are greater than almost any other extra virgin oil. And filtering the oil also increases shelf life because unfiltered oil will spoil more quickly."

The third criticism leveled at supermarket oils is that they do not accurately reflect the country of origin. Some companies buy olive oil on the open market from a variety of sources, often getting their oil from Spain, the world's largest producer. If these olive oils are bottled in Italy, they can legally be labeled "Imported from Italy."

Monroe won't reveal Bertolli's proprietary blend formula, but he acknowledges that there is increased pressure to identify the origins of olive oils. However, he says, "it's almost impossible to get the oil from just one source. If you don't blend, you won't get an oil that will have broad appeal."

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