When it’s olive oil, trust only your tongue. If you like it, then that’s all that matters. But be warned, it destroys most Asian flavours.
My olive oil epiphany occurred as late as last year. I’ve been an early champion of olive oil, have cooked with it for years, and thought I knew what I was talking about.
Then, last year summer in Provence, a French olive oil producer came to the hotel where I was staying with several bottles of olive oil. He wanted to organise a tasting, he said. What followed was a revelation.
First of all, I discovered that I had been tasting olive oil all wrong. I used to apply the principles and techniques of wine tasting to it. This was a mistake. The thing about olive oil, I was told, is that the fat (and olive oil is really not much more than liquid fat) can fool the mouth. The trick is to go beyond the first tastes and wait till the oil hits the back of the mouth and the throat. Some olive oils will feel cheap and chemical-like at that stage. Some will seem hot (in the sense of teekha). Some will be thin and so on.
Most of us who taste oil respond only to the first taste as it enters the mouth. But this taste is the easiest to fake. Cheap and nasty olive oils can be like painted whores. The good ones are like the women you fall in love with – they still remain wonderful after the first date.
That epiphany has had two consequences. The first is that I now really enjoy good olive oil – one of the Provencal olive oils I bought last year has all the flavours of a spicy tapenade. The second is that I now have very little patience with second-rate olive oil – most of the stuff sold in the Indian market tastes like rancid lantern oil.
At first, I kept quiet about my epiphany thinking I had turned into an olive oil snob – the sort of person who goes on and on about estate-bottled oils. Perhaps I was just being silly. Perhaps my epiphany was the equivalent of going to a Chateau Margaux tasting and then coming back and declaring that cheaper wine simply didn’t measure up.
But something told me that there was more to it than mere snobbery. Even as olive oil invaded the Indian market – with multi-crore advertising campaigns and huge marketing efforts – I began to have my doubts about the stuff that was flying off the shelves.
Now, an important new book, Extra Virginity – The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, which is rocking the global food industry, has made me feel that perhaps there was something to my doubts.
Extra Virginity is, by no means, an expose. It is written by Tom Mueller who writes for The New Yorker, lives in Italy and loves olive oil. Much of the book is dedicated to listing the virtues of olive oil and tracing its history through the ages.
But Mueller also makes another key point – and this is the bit that has drawn attention to the book – about the global boom in olive oil. Over the last two decades, olive oil has gone from being a massage oil to being marketed as the one fat that is good for you.
The problem with this boom, says Mueller, is that much (if not most) of what is sold as extra virgin oil is not extra virgin at all. So-called Italian olive oil is actually cheap North African rubbish. And some of the olive oil on supermarket shelves is not olive oil at all.
So yes, extra virgin oil does have healthy properties. But the stuff you buy at the grocer’s may not be extra virgin oil, no matter what it says on the label. And therefore, it does not have these healthy virtues.
A few dates are important in understanding the history of olive oil. Though the oil has ancient origins, the extra virgin grade was properly created only in 1960 when the European Parliament passed a law grading oils. According to the law, extra virgin oil had to be made by mechanical (rather than industrial) methods with no chemical treatments and under one per cent acidity. There were also taste criteria: extra virgin olive oil must not demonstrate disgusting odours such as rancidity, putridity, smoke, mould, olive fly and similar.
That would have been that but in 1977, a US Senate Committee on Nutrition came out strongly against saturated fats (such as butter) blaming them for heart disease. This caused a rise in demand for unsaturated fats and olive oil became the favourite in the new health orthodoxy.
In 1991, over three decades after the extra virgin grade was created, the European Union redefined the category. Now an extra virgin oil must have zero taste flaws and perceptible fruitiness. The level of free acidity was lowered from one per cent to 0.8 per cent.
The problem with these guidelines was that there was no means of enforcing them. And so, as olive oil consumption soared, led by the “healthy fat” craze, the incentive for fraud grew. Genuine extra virgin oil – and pure olive oil itself – became rarer and rarer on the shelves of supermarkets.
Mueller quotes some figures. Italians consume six lakh tonnes of olive oil. Italy exports four lakh tonnes. But Italy’s total production of olive oil is three lakh tonnes. So seven lakh tonnes have to come from outside of Italy.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. But much of this oil (which is North African) is blended with a little Italian olive oil and sold as Italian oil. Often the oil that is imported is not even olive oil. Cheaper oil (canola, hazelnut, etc.) is chemically treated to make it smell like olive oil and then passed off as the real thing.
At the extra virgin level, the fraud is greater. According to one figure that Mueller quotes, 98 per cent of the olive oil sold in Italy is not actually top grade oil. Because the demand for extra virgin olive oil is so great, even Italian consumers are fooled into buying second and third rate oils.
The other problem is that most Europeans know that oil that is simply described as olive oil (not extra virgin) can be the lowest of the low: made by chemically extracting fat from the stones of the olives and then de-odourising it through an industrial process. So, Europeans steer clear of anything that is not called extra virgin.
Marketers and the big olive oil companies know this so they simply rebrand third rate oil as extra virgin and charge only a little bit more for it than they would for ordinary olive oil. (This is why the price difference – which should be massive – is so low.)
So if, like me, you like olive oil, what should you do in the face of the great marketing onslaught launched by the olive oil companies?
Here are some tips, gleaned from Mueller’s book and from the man who took me through the tasting in Provence.
Do not pay more for olive oil (especially when you are cooking with it) only because you think it is a healthy option.
First of all, the health argument is not as strong as it used to be – many cheaper oils are also healthy from a heart disease point-of-view.
Secondly, good extra virgin olive oil may change when heated while refined oils remain stable. This rather defeats the argument for cooking with olive oil.
Thirdly, olive oil has a pronounced taste which alters the flavour of your cooking. It can destroy most Asian flavours and I do not recommend it for Indian food.
Fourthly, much of what is sold as extra virgin oil is not what it says on the label so don’t let them scam you.
The best argument in favour of olive oil is not health (now controversial) or country of origin (because the producers lie about this) or snobbery (which is not an argument in favour of anything). It is taste.
A good olive oil should taste wonderful. Its fat content should amplify the flavours of anything you put it on. So, treat olive oil as you would any food item or as you would treat butter.
Like butter, olive oil (unlike say, sunflower oil) is meant to be taken straight into your mouth, not just used as a cooking medium. So apply the same standards. Would you cook with a butter that tasted rancid or smelt odd? It is the same with olive oil.
When you buy an olive oil, drink a little, swirl it around your mouth (for what they call mouth-feel) but remember that the crucial taste is the one at the back of your mouth. Then, wait a minute see what flavour lingers.
A good olive oil should be fruity and peppery. It should be something you would enjoy drinking (in tiny quantities, admittedly).
Only if it passes these tests should you continue to buy it.
And price matters. A good Italian extra virgin olive oil costs about 6 euro a bottle to produce! (Then, you can add transport, marketing costs, profit for middlemen etc.)
The problem with the flood of cheap, inferior, bogus, extra virgin olive oils is that producers of quality oils have been driven out of business because their stuff costs too much.
So if an olive oil is very cheap, be very suspicious. Price doesn’t always equal quality but low prices usually equal rubbish in this business.
So what all this means is that when marketers tell you to abandon the oils and fats you normally use and to switch to olive oil because it is fashionable, healthy, tasty etc. tell them to take a flying leap.
Trust only your tongue. If you like it, then that’s all that matters.The rest is just marketing.
From HT Brunch, February 26
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