We travelled to the olive-growing Andalucian region in Spain to find out what goes into a good bottle of extra virgin.
What types of olive oils are there?
When you’re shopping for olive oil, you’ll be greeted by an array of variants that could leave you standing confused at the supermarket aisle. Instead of trying to make sense of grades and definitions, all you need to understand is how the olive oil was obtained from the olive.
Virgin Olive Oil – This is extracted, using mechanical or physical methods under certain conditions including temperature and chemical standards, from the olive only, and is not altered in any way.
Refined or Pure Olive Oil – Although the term “pure” may make it sound like you’re getting a high quality product, it means quite the opposite when it comes to olive oil. This lower-grade oil is derived by treating lower quality or defective virgin olive oil with charcoal and other chemical filters.
Olive Oil – If you see this term on a bottle, it often is a blend of virgin olive oil and refined olive oil.
Pomace Oil – This is usually extracted from the ground olive pulp (pomace), with the use of chemicals, after the first few presses. As it’s of a lower grade, it’s much cheaper.
And then there’s extra virgin olive oil…
This is the highest grade of olive oil. Juan Gonzalez, Sales & Marketing Director at Hacienda Guzman, a facility in the town of La Rinconada, about 15 km from Seville, with an olive-growing history which dates back to the 16th Century, explains, “Extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) is the first extraction from the olives. Basically, it’s a fruit juice, and what’s special about olives is that they can be extracted without chemicals. They’re also rich in antioxidants and fatty acids, which have many health benefits.” Like wine, EVOO can be described as delicate, mellow, fruity and floral to bitter, grassy, peppery and pungent. And different oils contain different levels of antioxidants. Even among EVOO, there are grades. Juan says, “Virgin olive oil (pure) has some tiny defects in smell or flavour, or the acidity is too high.” And don’t think EVOO Light means it is low fat. Juan adds, “It just means it contains a smaller amount of EVOO, about 5%.”
What to look for when shopping for EVOO
Ideally, it’s to taste it, but that’s more likely at a farmers’ market. And colour is not an indicator of quality either. When EVOO experts taste test, they use a dark blue glass, for the very reason of not letting the colour of the oil affect their perception of its quality. However, there are hints on the bottle which can give you an idea of the quality of oil you are buying. Look for “extra virgin” on the label, as the pure and general olive oil labels are usually made with lower-quality oils that have less taste and flavour. You want your extra virgin oil to have minimal processing, so that the aroma molecules are intact, along with the antioxidants and polyphenols.
At Acesur’s ISO-9002 certified La Roda Mill in Seville, where Lam Soon’s Naturel olive oils are produced, olives are crushed less than 24 hours from the time they’re harvested. The advantage of La Roda being in olive country is that freshly-picked-off-the-vine olives can make it to the mill on the day they are harvested. Production chief Alberto Roldan Gil, who has been working at La Roda for 16 years, says, “Tractors bring in olives from the farms, less than 24 hours from harvest. It’s important for us to crush them as soon as possible because, after 24 hours, the process of oxidation starts.
Look for the harvest or best-by date. Unlike wine, good EVOO does not get better with age. It’s good for about two years if you’re storing it in optimum conditions (a dark, room temperature cupboard). As a rule of thumb, work backwards two years from the printed date to get an estimate of when it was bottled.
Where is the oil from? Packed in Italy does not mean the oil is Italian – it could be that olives had to travel a distance from say Spain, Greece or Turkey to be processed in Italy. There’s nothing wrong with these olives but keep in mind that the longer the time between harvest and processing, the higher the chance the oil has of degrading. That’s why it’s important to know the source of where your oil comes from; and that’s why Lam Soon has relied on the high quality standards of Acesur for the supply of their olive oils.
How should EVOO taste?
Seek out oils that are fresh and you can tell by their smell and taste. When you open your bottle of olive oil, you should not be smelling any “off” odours. If you’re getting hints of smelly socks, wax, grease, metal or old peanut butter, the oil has probably turned rancid. You should be getting scents that are vibrant and lively. Tasting is also key. Alberto says, “Bitterness and spiciness are characters to look for in good EVOO, although some markets prefer a ‘softer’ olive oil from olives like the arbequina varietal.” Bitterness and spicinesss are positive attributes, as well as fruitiness and sometimes even that peppery sensation you feel at the back of your throat after you’ve downed EVOO neat. These are actually indicators of the presence of antioxidants and polyphenols. It should also yield a clean, crisp mouthfeel.
But there’s really no right or wrong – a good bottle of EVOO is the one that most appeals to your taste buds. Acesur export manager Miguel Colmenero explains, “The Anglo-Saxons prefer a flatter olive oil, so they use refined olive oil. In Singapore, where there is a lot of high-quality modern cuisine and a more discerning palate, extra virgin olive oil is accepted. South Americans like theirs very strong. They are less keen on fruity flavours, so they prefer EVOO from less ripe olives.”
Which oils are for what?
Olive oil is a cornerstone of the healthy Mediterranean diet and research has shown that more and more Singaporeans are beginning to make this a pantry staple. Based on AC Nielsen Retail Index Advisor (Singapore) 2012, the olive oil segment was the fastest growing segment with an increase of 9.2% from 2011 to 2012. And Lam Soon saw its sales for Naturel olive oil increase by 31% from 2012 to 2013.
To make sense of which olive oil to use for what, decide your purpose. Good EVOO is savoured for its complex flavours and taste, and these are affected with heat. So they are best enjoyed straight from the bottle in dressings or only lightly heated. Add a splash of balsamic vinegar to your EVOO, and you’ve got a robust dip for breads. Just remember, you are adding it because you want to taste those extra flavours. It’s a waste to use EVOO for heavy roasting or deep frying as it has a low smoke point. The high heat will evaporate the alcohols and esters that make up the oil’s delicate taste and fragrance.
For browning or sauteing, go with a less expensive virgin olive oil. And for deep-frying, opt for a flavourless oil with a higher smoke point like Naturel’s 100% Canola Oil. Then add the more flavourful EVOO to the dish at the table.
Keeping Your EVOO Fresh
To keep your extra virgin olive oil fresh, you want to prevent it from being oxidised and turning rancid. So it’s important to store it properly. Keep the bottle closed when not using, and store it in a cool pantry cupboard. Exposure to light and heat also causes oxidation, so make sure to keep away from stove tops and ovens.
Full Of Flavour – Whether you want a flavour-rich, aromatic oil for dips or dressings, or a milder one for frying, you’ll find one to suit your taste buds from this brand. Naturel olive oils are produced from a blend of popular varietals including the hojiblanca and picual olives from Andalucia in Spain – the world’s largest olive oil-producing country.
The Naturel Extra Virgin Olive Oil, infused with a touch of fig leaves for a sweet, smooth taste with subtle hints of spice, is great as a dip or salad dressing, while the Naturel Pure Olive Oil boasts a mild fruity flavour that’s great for roasting and grilling. Those who prefer an extra-mild flavour will like the delicate taste of the Extra Light Olive Oil. Naturel olive oils are available at leading supermarkets.
By Barbara Koh, Singapore Women’s Weekly, May 2015