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Culinary Waves: The many faces of olive oil

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Culinary Waves: by Chef Mary Beth Lawton Johnson

I recently returned from visiting my family in Italy. I scoured the shelves of tiny trattorias, stores and boutiques in search of new olives and olive products, one of which I constantly source for the yacht is olive oils.

There are Italian olive oils and then there are Italian extra virgin olive oils. Which one do you have onboard or use more frequently? Is it a spray or is it an actual oil? Would we as chefs know which one is the better one? When we think of olive oils, we think of Italy, but Greece and California have some major players in the game. For the sake of time and space in this column, my concentration will be on Italian olive oils.

For a while, there appeared to be a scam with olive oils, using sunflower or safflower oil in place of it. Actually, it was probably a blend of olive oil and a lesser quality oil. Producers legally can do that.

The question that we as chefs might want to ask ourselves is what should we look for when buying olive oils? One of the best indicators of the kind of quality product for extra virgin is the label. A label will tell you everything if it comes from the EU. It’s similar to a passport as it states where the raw olives are grown, the harvested year, the name of the producer, the nutritional label, how the oil has been stored, etc. Have you seen that on lesser oils in the market? Probably not. 

The flavors of a top oil are a result of many factors: oelic content, soil, climate coming together to produce the perfect product. When France came out with the appellations for their wines and cheeses with laws that stipulated where it was grown (ie) basically a products provenance, Italy followed suit adopting the DOP label (Denomination of Protected Origin) and the IGP (Indication of Protected Geography), which insures it is of provenance. This is a great indication that the oil you buy is legit. So look for those. While it may cost you more, you are assured of a true product, not cut with lesser oils and lacking in flavor.

To add more complications, the EU adopted a law for organic labels, as that is where the market is heading — to organic oils. Growers must strictly abide by it because it is enforced, which includes no use of chemicals in growing. However, just because it has all these labels doesn’t make it taste good. That is up to the buyer and consumer to discern.

Choosing an oil must be based on human consumption and what happens in the body besides taste. Extra virgin oil is a product rich in monounsaturated fatty acids, which together with polyunsaturated fatty acids found in seed oil helps maintain normal levels of cholesterol. In other words, it lowers the bad cholesterol (LDL) and keeps the HDL balanced. Through the consumption of unsaturated fats, it may be possible to keep cholesterol at lower levels. A win-win for heart health.

There are estimated to be about 600-plus varietals of olive oil. When you think of extra virgin olive oil, close to 300 are available. If the olives are known to be defective, by EU law, they can’t be processed as extra virgin, only as regular olive oil. Refining the oil is by several methods: 1) caustic soda, which reduces the level of acidity; 2) bleaching to give it its light appearance; or 3) using “power washing” with jets to eliminate odor.

The time between harvest and processing should never be more than 12 days but olive oil stored under the right conditions can last 24 months. Just remember a high end oil doesn’t guarantee a better tasting product. That is up to you to decipher. It is up to the producer to produce a better product.

Look for the labels, read them. While it may seem daunting in the beginning, you are assured of a real product from Italy.

Mary Beth Lawton Johnson is a certified executive pastry chef and Chef de Cuisine, and has worked on yachts for more than 25 years. Comments are welcome below.

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About Chef Mary Beth LawtonJohnson

Mary Beth Lawton Johnson is a certified executive pastry chef and Chef de Cuisine and has worked on yachts for more than 25 years.

View all posts by Chef Mary Beth LawtonJohnson →

One thought on “Culinary Waves: The many faces of olive oil

  1. Jay Kimmal

    What does the clarity of EVOO imply? I’ve been trying different Ligurian samples here and the colors and clarity are very different, as well as the flavors of course.
    The pricier oils tend to be cloudy some times. Not filtered? Either way, they all taste great.

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