- Greece is primarily what economists call a domestic demand-oriented economy, meaning most products are geared to the domestic market. It has the lowest ratio of exports to gross domestic products, or GDP, in the European Union, just 27% (compared to the EU-wide average of 45%)....
Greece is primarily what economists call a domestic demand-oriented economy, meaning most products are geared to the domestic market. It has the lowest ratio of exports to gross domestic products, or GDP, in the European Union, just 27% (compared to the EU-wide average of 45%). Most experts think Greece should be selling more abroad — much more.
And olive oil, given the high quality of Greek production, should have a big role to play. Keep in mind that about three-quarters of all the oil produced in Greece is extra virgin — unlike Italy, for instance, where extra virgin accounts for a little less than half, or Spain where it is barely a third of total oil production.
Most of this extra virgin comes from modest family farms, the backbone of the country’s agricultural economy. But such small enterprises find it difficult to compete on the international scale, lacking both investment capital and marketing skills necessary to play the game.
The statistics surrounding Greek olive oil production are amazing. First off, Greeks consume more olive oil per capita, by far, than any other people in the world — 18 kilos or nearly 40 pounds per person annually, according to the European Commission. (By comparison, Italians consume a little less than 11 kilos — about 24 pounds — each, while the U.S. is still less than a measly kilo).
A third of all Greek oil is exported to other countries, mostly extra virgin, mostly to the European Union. But 90% of that is sold in bulk to Italian and Spanish packagers who either bottle and rebrand the oil or blend it with more expensive home-produced oil to make the kind of cheap, indifferent oils found in supermarkets all over the world. Only 10% of this remarkable product is exported in branded bottles.
For consumers aware of the price commanded by a bottle of premium quality Italian, French or Spanish oil, or for anyone who has experienced the quality of top Greek olive oils, there is something inherently odd about such high-quality extra virgin oil being sold off as a cheap bulk commodity. True, no one is forcing Greek producers to sell in bulk, but the olive oil market, like most agricultural niche markets around the world, is deeply conservative. The Italian market for Greek oil has always been there, going back probably several millennia, so why change things now? In short, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
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- Have you ever wondered what exactly you’re getting when you purchase a bottle of olive oil? Extra virgin? Pure? “Pure,” explains Dan Flynn of the University of California Davis Olive Center, “which is such a great word from a marketing standpoint, indicates to a lot of...
Have you ever wondered what exactly you’re getting when you purchase a bottle of olive oil? Extra virgin? Pure?
“Pure,” explains Dan Flynn of the University of California Davis Olive Center, “which is such a great word from a marketing standpoint, indicates to a lot of consumers that they’re buying the very best olive oil. But in fact, it’s a lower grade.”
Extra virgin is the highest grade for olive oil.
Flynn, the olive center’s executive director, and his associate Selina Wang, its research director, recently released a study called “Consumer Attitudes on Olive Oil.” It revealed problems with consumers’ notions of this product that would make lovers of great olive oil, or those knowledgeable about it, cringe.
Only one in four of us understands olive oil grades, the report found. Eighty percent cited flavor as an important factor in buying olive oil, yet earlier studies have shown that a majority of imported oils have off flavors or are already rancid. Rancidity negatively affects the human body by forming free radicals and depleting certain B vitamins. If you’re using olive oil for your health, ingesting a rancid one will not bear the valuable antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids and viable polyphenols.
Consumers also did not think that the terminology olive oil professionals used to convey positive attributes, such as “grassy,” “peppery” and “fruity,” made the product sound tasty. They were also confused by the term “refined.”
“It doesn’t mean elegant or high class,” Flynn said. Typical of labeling that intends to mislead, refined means just the opposite. Refined olive oil has been processed with solvents to mask off odors and flavors. This do-over is done because the oil might have started out with olives of questionable quality, or it’s a blend of low-grade oils gushing around the Mediterranean from Turkey, Greece or Spain, or it’s been cut with other oils, such as hazelnut or safflower. In these cases, that’s all got to be covered up.
Wang designed the consumer study. She is originally from Taiwan, where olive oil is not so familiar. “It probably took me several months to figure out all the terminology and nomenclature,” she said. “It’s very confusing.”
Olive oil label.
The conclusion is there is much work to be done to better communicate what’s in the bottle instead of focusing on devising language that masks unscrupulous practices.
So how do you read an olive oil label to make sure it’s the best extra virgin you can afford?
There are six things to do. With advice from Orietta Gianjorio, a UC Davis Olive Oil Taste Panel member who grew up in Rome and is familiar with these terms we’ve inherited from Europe, here are some clues about how to read a label. In general, look for the term extra virgin. But don’t take it for granted.
Turn the bottle over. Where is the oil from? Just because it was packed or produced in Italy doesn’t mean the oil’s Italian. Oils come from all over the Mediterranean — Tunisia, Spain, Greece and Turkey — to Italy just to be packaged. That’s a lot of traveling. To impress you, the label may even brag that the oil has come from many countries. But now that you’re becoming an expert, you’ll know that the longer the time between harvest and processing, the better the chance the oil has of degrading.
Look for the harvest date. Remember that olive oil is the opposite of wine. It is not meant to age. Think of it as fresh fruit juice. Olive oil is good for about two years if stored in optimum conditions, which means in a dark, room-temperature cupboard. “If the back of the label doesn’t have the harvest date, you may consider putting that bottle back on the shelf,” Gianjorio advised.
Look for seals of approval. Many California olive oils are sent, for a fee, to the California Olive Oil Council’s panel of trained tasters. If the oil passes, the producer is given permission to place the COOC seal on the label. Most often, this is placed on the back of the bottle. However, many fine California oils from small producers are never sent to the COOC because of costs. Usually, these bottles show a harvest date.
Smell it and taste it. Because you can’t very well take a swig at the store, Gianjorio said that as soon as you get the olive oil home, smell it and taste it. Ideally you won’t encounter the off odors, which Gianjorio described as wax, bad salami, old peanut butter, baby diaper, manure or sweaty socks.
Take it back. “This is America. You take everything back,” Gianjorio said. Tell the store manager that the oil is rancid and return it. If the manager is unable to lead you to a better product, find a shop that specializes in fine olive oil, or look for good olive oil online.
Favor domestic oil. First, this is not an us vs. them: There are high-quality producers all over the world. Olive oils made in the U.S. consistently score higher in quality than imports. California furnishes 97% of the olive oil produced in the U.S. If there’s a shorthand way of looking for quality, reach for olive oil from the Golden State.
Top photo: Olive oils line shelves at Corti Brothers in Sacramento, Calif. Credit: Elaine Corn
Zester Daily contributor Elaine Corn is a James Beard Award-winning cookbook author and food editor. A former editor at the Louisville Courier-Journal and the Sacramento Bee, Corn has written six cookbooks and contributed food stories to National Public Radio.
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- A new entrant into SA’s olive oil industry has scooped top awards in just its second season of operation and has substantially increased the country’s production. De Rustica Estates, situated near the Karoo village of De Rust at the foot of the Swartberg mountain...
A new entrant into SA’s olive oil industry has scooped top awards in just its second season of operation and has substantially increased the country’s production.
De Rustica Estates, situated near the Karoo village of De Rust at the foot of the Swartberg mountain range, produced 120000 litres of olive oil last season and expects to increase this to 200000l this year. It will constitute about 10% of South Africa’s total production, placing it at around third place among producers in terms of volume. The target is to produce 500000l/year in the next five years.
With South Africa consuming about 6m litres of olive oil every year, while producing just 2m litres, the farm’s production provides a ready substitution for imports.
De Rustica owner Rob Still says though South Africa’s olive oil industry is small, it punches above its weight in terms of quality.
“We produce high-quality olive oil in this country. South Africa wines, for example, are highly regarded internationally but they are not truly great. Our olive oil, on the other hand, can compete with the very best from anywhere in the world.”
Tom Mueller, author of Extra Virginity , which is about the global olive oil industry, gives credence to Still’s assessment, rating the best South Africa oil as “in the top 1% of 1% of the world”.
Still says the farm’s capture of three gold medals at the South Africa Olive awards, including that of top oil in the intense category, is “very encouraging”. Olive oil is categorised as delicate, medium and intense, and De Rustica won awards in all three categories.
“The farm is young and our production will increase substantially in coming seasons. But to enjoy the success we have so early into the venture is really because we are a premium producer and we are focused on quality. The more commercial farms do mechanical harvesting, which reduces quality and eliminates job opportunities.”
The farm has 125ha of plantings, but the plans are to increase this over time. De Rustica employs “30-odd” people permanently and about 150 on a seasonal basis during the harvesting season, which takes place from mid-March to early July.
“This region is the best climatic area in the country for olives, with colder winters and mild summers, and pure water off the Swartberg that contains no salt,” Still says.
Describing himself as “originally a mining man”, he says a motivation for the venture into olive oil was his desire to “do something” for the region, whose mainstay, the ostrich industry, has suffered a decline in recent years. The venture, he says, has provided an alternative for the region’s farmers, most of whom are involved in ostrich farming to at least some extent.
Marketing manager Rhys Ralph stresses that the awards were “a huge achievement”.
“No other big commercial farms – those producing more than 100000l/year – won awards. Besides our oils, all the others in the top five in each category came from small boutique farms. We have shown that volume does not have to compromise the highest quality.”
De Rustica’s managers are also proud of their labour and community initiatives, which include the refurbishment of a school and paying the fuel costs of transporting learners there and back home. A programme on foetal alcohol syndrome to educate pregnant women at local clinics has also been instituted.
In addition, Still has set up a fund to contribute R200000/year to causes in the local community that uplift the environment and promote tourism.
Nick Wilkinson, chairman of industry body South Africa Olive, welcomes De Rustica into the sector. He confirms that SA’s olive oil fits into “the top end of the quality profile” and says the industry’s main challenge at present is its battle with fraudulently labelled produce originating mainly in the EU.
In line with claims in Mueller’s book, Wilkinson says: “Most of the product from the EU is cheap, nasty, adulterated oil with no credibility that can be attached to the claims on the labels. On top of that, EU olive oil producers – the main ones are Spain, Italy and Greece – are subsidised by their governments so that they can keep the industry’s jobs for themselves.”
Wilkinson, who is also the owner of Rio Largo olive farm in the Cape, says one problem is that no import certificates are required for olive oil. Also, inspections are not as thorough as they should be.
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