Sunday, June 27, 2010

Perspectives in Olive Oil

 Photo courtesy of California Olive Oil Council

WASHINGTON, DC -  United States Department of Agriculture officials published new standards for olive oil in the April 28, 2010 edition of the Federal Register. The standards will go into effect on October 25, 2010. This is being touted as an historic achievement because up to now there have been no standards. All those extra-virgin, virgin, light, and other labels? Sheer marketing!  The new standards are meant to better inform consumers and also to weed out producers that mislabel their products and make misleading claims. The new regulations are a the result of the efforts of the California Olive Oil Council, which first filed a petition in 2005 requesting that standards be issued. Follow this link for the actual language from USDA

This is big news and I'm sure you'll be hearing more about it in the coming months. Gone are the romanticized notions of extra-virgin coming from the first pressing and and virgin coming from the second pressing.  The USDA has scientifically quantified the standards.  For example, the oil labeled U.S. Extra Virgin Olive Oil will contain not more than .8 grams per 100 grams of oleic acid. And that's just the beginning.

I have suspected for some time that since olive oil became a culinary darling, with the myriad products available on the shelf, we consumers are being duped. I've paid a lot of money for disappointing olive oil on many occasions, and have eventually settled for a couple of brands I can count on. I hate settling. I'd rather be adventurous and try new things. But once (or twice) burnt, twice shy. The best olive oil I've ever had came from a small estate in Tuscany. They only produce enough to sell locally. I bought a few bottles to bring home but once they were gone, well, they were gone for good.

We take olive oil for granted, but it's important stuff. As usual, when I read the news, I got to  wondering. It comes from the Mediterranean area, but where did it originate? Are there still wild olive trees? What other interesting historic tidbits are there about  "liquid gold?" -- as Pliny the Elder was reputed to have called it.

It turns out that olives are native to the Near East, especially in the area of present-day Syria and Israel. The wild form is actually a shrub and it still grows wild in its native range. The olive was one of the first trees ever domesticated, and has been cultivated for at least 6,000 years.  the oil was probably first used for lamps. Later on, its value as an unguent, especially when perfumed, came into vogue. It was later still that olive oil was cultivated for its culinary usage. By the time of ancient Greece, it was a valuable food, and an important product of Crete, as evidenced by large numbers of presses and jars that have been found by archeologists. Cretan oil was shipped to Egypt and elsewhere.

Pliny wrote "There are two liquids that are especially agreeable to the human body: wine inside and olive oil outside." In the 2nd Century, B.C., the Roman author, Cato wrote in his treatise on farming, about ripe olives being harvested by picking up from the ground after a "windfall" and the importance of washing off the leaves and manure before pressing for oil.

The Spaniards probably brought the first olive oil to North America, although English colonists were known to import it, as well, stimulating the Spanish olive oil industry. Franciscan monks planted the trees near their missions, and they soon realized that the trees did better in California than elsewhere in New Spain. Visitors to abandoned monasteries in California as late as the 1800's noted that the buildings were in ruins, but the olive trees were thriving.

These days, most US olives come from Northern California. Southern California is actually the prime climate, but land values from San Diego to north of Los Angeles have soared to the point that farmers were driven out of business.  In Northern California, olive tree farmers make much less than grape farmers, so the business is still endangered.

Personally, I think we should thank the California Olive Oil Council for their efforts to maintain high standards for such an important product. And I even think we should "Buy American" in this case, to help keep the California olive oil industry alive. We buy California wine - why not olive oil, too?


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Alisa- Foodista said...

Hello Deb, this is a wonderful post. I saw something like this written here and I was also bothered about the quality of the olive oil in the market.Its a good thing that the standards will finally go into effect this October but I kinda wish it was sooner.