The biggest challenge for the small artisan producer is the large scale fraud in the olive oil business in the US. Up until recently the US did not have any labeling laws in regard to extra virgin olive oil. Even now there are only two states with laws pending that are barely enforceable. Most of the olive oil sold in the US is similar to white bread in which all the nutrients are removed and the product is chemically treated to allow longevity during mass production and large scale transportation. This is not extra virgin olive oil. Real extra virgin olive oil is necessarily a fresh product loaded with anti-oxidants. It is a product that does not lend itself to mass production. Therefore real extra virgin olive oil is expensive when compared to ‘white bread’ olive oil.
Italy exports 4 times more oil then it actually produces and yet this oil makes it into the US with the ‘From Italy’ moniker. Italy imports massive quantities of olive oil from all over the Middle East and the Mediterranean and bottles it and then ships it to the US. This is nothing new and has been going on for over 50 years. It only became an issue in the US when in the early 1990′s California started making real extra virgin olive oil and noticed it could not compete with the $10/gallon ‘extra virgin olive oil’ from Italy. Gradually the truth began to emerge. One of the best articles on this topic is the New Yorker article ‘Slippery Business.’ I recommend it highly.
Quite by accident the other night I caught a show on the Smithsonian channel about Folkways founder Moses Asch. This is the fascinating story of a man who made it his life mission to record all the non-commercial sounds of our world from 1948 to the year of his death in 1986. Over this period of time he made 2,200 albums. That is over one every week. The content includes the folk music of Africa, the Near East, the Far East, Appalachia , Cajun Louisiana, Chicago Blues, Texas Blues, bird songs, animal sounds, junkyard sounds, children songs and much more. He is responsible for the first surviving recordings of Mississippi John Hurt, Leadbelly, and many others thus allowing the rest of the world to hear unusual artists that would have been lost forever. He also produced the historic and legendary Anthology of American Folk Music edited by Harry Smith. His son has recently put together 26 one hour segments, called Sounds to Grow On, highlighting the vast collection that can be heard for free at the Folkways Smithsonian site. During his 38 year span at Folkways Moses Asch never allowed any of his recordings to go out of print. When the Smithsonian took over the collection the main agreement was that no title can ever go out of print. The Smithsonian continues to add eclectic recordings to the collection to this day. I take my hat off to such a wonderful non-commercial effort enriching us all. Oddly, one of the best selling recordings in the collection is an album of frog sounds with scholarly commentary. Enjoy!
Extra Virgin olive oils contain the flavors of the olive fruit. (Tasting a raw olive is one of those experiences you would hope never to repeat.) Bitterness, along with pungency and vegetal/fruit flavors are considered positive attributes in EVO olive oils, particularly when they are well balanced. Depending on many factors, such as the olive variety and ripeness, milling technique, and the age of the oil, the bitterness and pungency can be quite intense. Sometimes professional tasters jokingly classify EVO oils as ‘one-cough, two-cough or three-cough’ oils. Fortunately, these strong olive oils make wonderful condiments. Once you get used to them, you’ll find them more and more attractive. In addition, the bitterness and pungency are evidence of a fresh olive oil that has polyphenols (anti-oxidants). It is this flavor in large part that actually makes extra virgin olive oil good for you.