Christine Cushing is worried about turning into one of “those” crazy Greek women, the cheeky kind that would bring olive oil to a restaurant.
She kind of is.
“I have these little 100 ml samples I used for the tenth anniversary and I actually did it yesterday, it’s really bad but I don’t care,” says the Greek-Canadian celebrity chef, referring to her line of extra virgin olive oil. “I said to my mum ‘there’s no way I’m eating this salad dressing.”
Sure, it can be misconstrued as pretentiousness, but after a decade of producing her own, she’s an olive oil insider, intimate with last year’s poor harvest. 2014 was a black year for olive oil, a 15-year low in global production that saw key producers like Spain, Italy and Morocco’s output falling 40 to 50 per cent below average.
An abnormally hot spring threw the weather-sensitive growing process out of whack, coupled with olive fly infestations and diseases affecting the fruit trees prompted a bad year for producers. The result, according to the International Olive Council, is prices 121 per cent higher than last year.
Higher production costs and lower profit margins, means fraudulent olive oils – bottles wearing extra virgin tags that are actually mixtures of extra virgin olive oil and other, cheaper oils like grapeseed or nuts. But it doesn’t take a black year for opportunists to dupe consumers – producers have been doing it for years, says Cushing.
“There’s billions of dollars to be made and anywhere that happens – like saffron or truffles – you have a high probability of fraud,” says Cushing.
There’s more than one way for producers to get extra mileage out of their olive oil.
“Italy is the biggest exporter of olive oil but they’re also the biggest importer,” says Cushing. “(Some Italian producers) go to places – not just Greece – but other spots in North Africa where olives are and they don’t have control over the quality of it and they just bring it back to Italy and bottle it as if it’s there’s.”
Kimm Brickman-Pineau, who runs All of Oils – an olive oil and balsamic vinegar tasting room in Surrey and Langley, B.C. – says that while it’s bad practice, specialty shops and supermarket shelves are rife with olive oils touting their extra virgin status but closer related to lampante – the lowest grade of olive oil better suited for lamps and fuel.
“Our supplier found that something like 70 per cent failed to qualify as extra virgin olive oil, they were blended,” she says. “And this is the stuff you buy on your grocery store shelves.”
The problem with blending grapeseed or peanut oil with virgin olive oil is the lesser oils tend to go rancid faster, spoiling the rest of the olive oil.
Makes Cushing seem quite sane for bringing her own, right?
Out-foxing the frauds
So how do you avoid buying dicey olive oil? Train yourself through samplings, says Cushing.
“Some grocery stores – high end places like Pusateri’s or McEwan or wherever you want to go – will allow you to sample many different oils,” she says.
Good olive oil will have a rich mouth feel and not leave a greasy taste on your pallet.
“One of the things you should always get is a peppery burn in the back of your throat,” adds Brickman-Pineau. “That’s your polyphenols working, that’s the anti-inflammatory, antioxidant portion of your olive oil –when there’s no pepper, your oil is dead, it’s expired.”
Aroma is key
“Really good olive oil smells like grass or fruit as it’s a fruit tree,” adds Brickman-Pineau.
If you’re at a grocery store and are pensive about being tackled by security for popping the seal on several bottles of oil, there are other indicators.
“A dark bottle is really important as light breaks down and oxidizes the oil faster,” she says. “So glass or tin but never plastic.”
She also recommends buying olive oils that have “crush dates” in addition to the expiry date.
“Olive oil has a life span of about 18 months from the crush date,” says Brickman-Pineau. “There’s laws regarding best before dates being two years from bottling but there’s no laws against how old it was before it was bottled.”
And finally, if you want good quality extra virgin olive oil, look for something in the $13 to $40 range for a 500ML bottle.
“If it’s $3.99 a litre, I don’t care who says it’s extra virgin – it can’t be,” says Cushing. “Once you’ve seen how this product is made, you’ll see how gut wrenching the labour of love is and how specific things need to be to make a great olive oil.”