Whatever its label or classification, a bottle of olive oil is only as good as its contents. This is why the surest and easiest way to obtain good olive oil is go to a reliable supplier.
Classifications such as ‘Extra Virgin’ for high quality oil have a place, but the tests they rely on are a long way from the oil that people buy. One of the few certainties about test-based classifications is that the tests were not performed on the oil in your bottle. It is almost inevitable that more attention to classifications will be followed by more mass-produced olive oil obtaining the highest classification. It would be naïve to imagine that commercial interests do not form part of these equations.
In the spirit of down-to-earth common sense in classifying olive oil, we are attracted to the idea on www.olio2go.com, an excellent Californian website, that
“One great way to test an oil is to grill a slice of bread, rub it with a bit of garlic, and drizzle on some oil. Good bread makes a big difference, and of course, some chopped tomato and basil wouldn’t hurt.”
The International Olive Council (IOC), headquartered in Spain, is the lead player in the development of classificatory systems for olive oil, including criteria for each classification. The IOC’s classifications can be seen onwww.internationaloliveoil.org: follow the prompts to ‘The Olive World’, then ‘Olive Oil’, then ‘Designations and Definitions of Olive Oil. “Extra Virgin Olive Oil” is of course the top IOC classification.
The IOC’s criteria are highly technical, but as we understand them, Extra Virgin Olive Oil as defined by the IOC means:
(i) olive oil with a ‘Free Fatty Acid’ content below 0.8%;
(ii) olive oil that is fault-free and is therefore not winey, not sour, not rough, not rancid, not musty, not muddy, not metallic, and not fusty;
(iii) olive oil that has the positive characteristics of fruitiness, bitterness and pungency.
A number of bodies, including some in Australia, have developed alternatives to the IOC’s classification. These alternatives continue to use “Extra Virgin Olive Oil” as the top classification, while at the same time developing different criteria or testing methods, Confusion is likely if the same term – “extra virgin” – is used to mean different things, which is partly why consumers are wise to find a reliable supplier for their olive oil.
Historical classifications provide an interesting sidelight on old-fashioned quality. As documented in the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “virgin” was used in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries with reference not only to olive oil, but also to wine and honey. In 1707, a Mr Mortimer said “The honey which first flows of it self from the Combs is called Virgin Honey”; in 1799 a Mr Smith said to “Take the first, or virgin wine, which runs of itself from the grapes”; and in 1853, a Mr Ure said “In the district Montpellier, they apply the term virgin oil to that which spontaneously separates from the paste of crushed olives”. These quotes come from the Oxford English Dictionary.
The superior quality of the olive oil that rises to the top during malaxing – known as ‘afiorata’ – is still recognised, although it is not easy to get hold of this truly virgin product. In the workaday world of making and selling olive oil, it is likely that the word ‘extra’ was added to ‘virgin’ to gain a marketing edge.