Nicholas Coleman, Chief Olive Oil Specialist at Eataly, in New York, has spent many years participating in the olive harvest and oil production in Tuscany. So, when we wanted to learn more about olive oil, we knew just whom to turn to.
When it comes to olive oil, “quality and quantity are directly correlated,” says Coleman. As the quantity of olives harvested increases, the quality of the olive oil decreases. The best olive oils are made from handpicked olives with the greatest care. “When making olive oil, every olive counts, particularly when you have a small olive grower. If one [olive] is contaminated, then it will contaminate the rest.”
The Flavor of Olive Oil
In terms of flavor, olive oils can fall anywhere on the spectrum from mild to robust: Light and delicate; fruity and floral; rich, buttery, and mucilaginous — where the oil coats your throat; green-grassy-herbaceous; and peppery-robust. The flavor of olive oil is not necessarily influenced by where the olive is grown, but instead what kind of olive is grown, and when it is harvested. “Young olives are more flavorful — but yield little oil” and are thus more expensive, Coleman shares. “Older olives yield more oil, but it is much less flavorful.”
The color of the olives also doesn’t vary amongst varieties, but instead is an indicator of age – younger olives are green, while older olives are much darker. And, contrary to popular thought, clear or golden-hued olive oil is not an indicator of quality. Fresh olive oil, straight out of the machine, is a vividly bright, herbaceous green color, and a bit foggy in clarity.
The Art of Growing Olives
Producing the finest olive oils is not an easy thing to do. In an effort to maximize olive oil production and minimize loss, the olive trees are pruned year-round to ensure that each olive gets the same amount of air and sunlight as the next. “It’s better to have fewer very healthy olives than many olives, where half are not suitable for pressing” Coleman tells me.
Olive trees grow most happily on dry limestone soil, preferably sloped so that when it rains, water reaches the trees, moistening the roots, but does not collect. “Puddles are not good,” Coleman says, as the excess water stresses the tree. Some of the finest olive groves create channels, by hand, to ensure that the water flows off the hillsides.
Olives are harvested in the fall. In Tuscany, harvest typically begins at the end of October and runs to the beginning of November. And the process is labor intensive. Wooden ladders are used to climb into the branches of the olive trees, as metal ladders, over the hundreds of years olive trees live, scrape away at the bark, slowly jeopardizing the tree’s health.
When “picking” the olives, the pickers use wooden “forks” to lightly brush down each branch. Not much effort is needed, just one gentle stroke. The fallen olives are then artfully collected in mesh nets laid on the surrounding ground. The olives are arranged in a rectilinear fashion and inspected; branches and leaves are removed by hand, as well as any rotten or imperfect olives.
From Fruit to Oil
The olives are then washed, and either pressed traditionally, with a stone wheel, or are sent through a modern system that processes the olive without any exposure to the air (which would oxidize the oil —not a good thing).
Most quality olive oils are still stone-pressed, so as to preserve the authentic technique that has been used for years. Yet, the stone-pressing technique may not be around for much longer. Coleman explains, "these are made by one man, now quite older.” After he passes, there is no one trained to take over this meticulous art. “The stones will eventually be replaced by steel wheels that will impart more of a mineral taste.”
From the grinding wheel, the olive paste then is pressed for a couple of hours, where the oil and water is flows off and is sent to a centrifuge. The remaining olive paste is then fed to animals or used as fertilizer; nothing is wasted.
Shopping for Olive Oil: Develop a Palate
The first thing to keep in mind when shopping is that when it comes to olive oils, as long as you’re comparing properly produced olive oils, and not the cheap supermarket brands, there really is no oil that is “better” than another, Coleman tells me. “It’s really all about personal preference — let your palate dictate what you like.”
Shopping for Olive Oil: Origin of Species
When choosing a bottle of olive oil, make sure to check its origin. The origin of good, quality olive oils will be written or printed right on the bottle. Each bottle will have a lot number, a production or harvest date, list where it was produced, and possibly how great a volume was produced. Quality olive oil producers have no information to hide; it’s the bottles labeled “Product of Italy” that you should be wary of. That usually means the raw materials were grown elsewhere, probably poorly, and the oil was produced and/or exported out of Italy.
EVOO or VOO?
And the difference between extra-virgin and virgin olive oils? Extra-virgin oils are more pure, with less oleic acid, something that imparts a slightly rancid flavor.
Storing Olive Oil
Don’t store it for more than 3-4 months. Keep it in a cool, dark place — a wine cellar is ideal, but for those of us who don't have one, keep it away from the heat of the stove or the top of the fridge, and in a dark place away from direct sunlight. And, if you purchase a large vat of oil, be sure to decant it into smaller containers as it’s consumed, to minimize oxidation.
Using Olive Oil
Lastly, use your olive oil! The more filtered the oil, the better it is for cooking, as with fewer impurities — or olive must — the oil has a higher burn point. As well, don’t splurge on a flavorful olive oil for cooking. The heat diminishes the robust flavors of a more flavorful oil; save those oils for finishing or serving with un-cooked dishes.
Click here to see Host Your Own Olive Oil Tasting.