Olive oil 101

Top sellers

About the quality of EVOO

This chapter is zooming in on the highest official quality denomination “EXTRA VIRGIN OLIVE OIL” (EVOO). The International Olive Oil Council has no higher quality classification than EVOO. But there are substantial differences of quality between the EVOO produced by big industry and the EVOO handcrafted by small artisanal producers like Can Solivera.

Varieties

The milling of olives in most Mediterranean countries is organized by cooperatives (80%). In the largest producing country (Spain) alone, there are thousands of cooperative mills, village by village, each having typically some 350 “socios” (member farmers). The average farmer is not big. He probably cultivates from 50 to 500 olive trees as a traditional side-crop to provide olive oil for his family, alongside his grapes, which are milled for wine at the same cooperative (different machines) a month or two before. The fact of life is that he almost certainly cultivates a different variety of olives as compared to his neighbor for traditional reasons. Farmers are proud and stubborn individuals.

If you offer less than about 1000 kilos per batch of olives, most mills decline to personalize. They simply cannot steam-clean all pipes and machines for a small batch, keeping your olives and the resulting oil totally separate. As a consequence, the average olive farmer in Spain brings his olives to the mill, but he never tastes their flavor. Instead he gets a credit receipt for his quantity of olive oil, which is basically a mix of widely diverse varieties and qualities. The mills normally store olive oil in huge tanks, filled in chronological order.

These cooperatives are also the main suppliers of big olive oil industry, such as Bertolli, Carbonell, Carapelli, La Española, Borges, Koipe, Aceites del Sur and others. As one Unilever employee once explained to me when Bertolli was still their property: “ we are not good at treating and picking olive trees, we are experts on distribution and marketing”. Effectively, big industry is combining tank truck- and shiploads of EVOO originating from many countries and regions to bring them under one common denomination (read: taste sensation) before bottling.

But the ultimate quality of EVOO precisely depends of treating olive trees and when and how you pick healthy olives. It is also important to keep a specific olive variety separate all along so that you can savour the unique, mono-varietal flavour of the oil. Artisanal producers can do that much more effectively.

There is one other difference: early harvested olives produce oil with a much stronger fruity flavour, much appreciated by top chefs. But big industry has practically no control over the moment of harvesting olives compared to private olive oil makers.

And yes, still one more difference: E.U. Organic Certification guarantees consumers that residues of offensive chemicals and heavy metals are not present in the oil. Today, that means perfect traceability of each bottle of organic EVOO all the way back to the producing tree. But big olive oil industry is poorly organized to manage that.

@ Hans de Roos
Can Solivera SL
September 2013