CHOSING THE RIGHT OIL WHEN THEY ALL TASTE THE SAME
Flavor is largely overlooked by consumers, primarily because of the limited number of olive oil choices usually available.
Olives are a seasonal crop. Olives for making oil are harvested slightly later than table olives for reasons relating to yield and flavor. The olive oil season begins in early November and extends in some areas to late February. Over ninety-five percent of the production takes place in the very broad geographic region known as the Mediterranean basin, a large area that extends from Syria in the east to Spain and Morocco in the far west. Spain is by far the world's largest producer of olives and olive oil. Each producing country has different producing regions, varieties, and preferences as to harvest time and style. No two seasons in any area are identical. Many varieties are alternating in productivity; a year of high productivity is followed by a year of scarcity.
Technically, there are as many different olive oil flavor profiles as there are olive groves. The what, when, where, and how of olive oil making is composed of layers of variables superimposed on layers of sub-variables and can be incredibly complex. Any one of these variables can have a profound effect on the flavor and overall characteristics of the oil. Add to this the fact that olive oil is highly perishable and begins to soften the day it is produced, heading steadily downward in intensity and brightness, and one gets a sense of how difficult it is to produce a uniform, consistent, readily available, high-quality olive oil.
Large multinational corporations like Unilever (Bertolli), Hormel (Carapelli), Borgess (Star), Nestle (Sasso), and Monini have such huge markets to supply that there is no single variety, country, or style capable of supplying the virtual river of olive oil that is required. The desire to provide a uniform and consistent product year in and year out has changed the purpose of the, "Produced in Italy", statement found on many brands from a tired marketing ploy to absolute necessity. Companies requiring such enormous quantities of a single flavor profile have no choice but to mix many different styles and varieties to achieve this end. The battle of quantity versus quality is very much a factor. The inevitable sacrifice of the unique and individual to the modern twin gods of volume and continuity is unavoidable if the goal is to market olive oil on this massive scale.
Each producing country has a dominant variety or cultivar. That variety tends to be representative of the general "style" of the country. These "styles" are often closely contested from region to region inside a country. A reasonably experienced taster can pick out the dominant style or cultivar of each of the large producing countries. The dominant cultivars in Spain are the Picual, Hojiblanca, and Arbequina; for Italy it is the Coratina, for Tunisia the Chemlali, for Greece the Koroneiki, and for Turkey the Ayvalik.
Look for oils by variety as well as region and country. The number of high-quality oils available from small regional mills is increasing daily as more consumers and producers wake up to the fantastic possibilities that exist. Where the olive oil is produced is far less important than when, what, and how it is produced. There is no substitute for individual experience. Try as many olive oils as you can. There are dozens of unique high-quality oils being produced every year in many different places in the world. When purchased from bulk stocks they represent extraordinary examples of unique quality and value impossible to duplicate in the traditional supermarket or gourmet store.
This article has been republished with permission from Delizia.