Olive oil is regarded as the must-have staple for every gourmet kitchen and every foodie’s pantry. Made popular as the primary ingredient of the Mediterranean Diet and featuring as the showpiece condiment in fine-dining restaurants throughout the world, there remain nevertheless, many misconceptions about what comprises a quality olive oil, when to use it, how to store it and what its true benefits are.
That there are myriad olive oils lining supermarket shelves, in an assortment of plain to fancy packaging, and coming in a variety of heavy, medium or light, simply adds to the dilemma of picking 'the right one'.
Here are a some key facts to help guide you when it comes to choosing the olive oil that will ultimately be the liquid gold of your gourmet cuisine.
In countries where olive oil has been a staple for millennia there are really four key factors to consider. First and foremost is it 'unadulterated' extra virgin? Second, how soon after harvest was it 'cold' pressed? What's its cultivar variety? Is it mountain-side or from flatter lands?
Let's start with the first. Extra Virgin Olive Oil, also known as EVOO, is the ONLY olive oil that Mediterranean families use. And yes, they use it for everything. It’s drizzled over bread, doused over salads, is the marinade for roasts, the frying oil for fried chips and the panacea for any type of inflammation. (Indeed, players from around the world are investing in EVOO not only for its culinary appeal but for its medicinal and antioxidant properties… but we’ll save that for another discussion.)
With the commercialisation and demand for EVOO outside the Mediterranean, quality and quantity have unfortunately paid the price. The varieties known as heavy, medium and light are frowned upon by the International Olive Oil Council, who have very strict guidelines on what can or cannot be classed as an EVOO.
Many commercial producers relied on these terms in the past to increase sales volumes by mixing EVOO with second or lower grade olive oils (those that come from subsequent pressings or non-mechanical extraction means) to create not-so-strong varieties. However, many EVOOs are still blended today to 'pass' the EVOO benchmark (0.8% free fatty acid) thereby gaining the EVOO seal. While analysis of commercial EVOOs in European supermarkets has found a free fatty acid content averaging from 0.5 - 0.6%, a good quality EVOO should have a free fatty acid of well below 0.4%. Australian food labelling requirements don't require free fatty acid to be stated on the ingredients label, however, key words such as 'robust' and 'pungent' will be an indicator of a low free fatty acid profile and a good quality EVOO.
Which brings us to the second point. A low free fatty acid content depends on how quickly after harvest and how correctly olives are pressed. The old, traditional, stone mills are no longer used, with both boutique and commercial producers now using metal crushers to grind olives into a paste and to extract the first press EVOO. Modern machinery also better protects the oil from light and air and in doing so, helps to retain its highly desirable antioxidant properties. At this stage of the pressing cycle, many producers will try to 'sneak in' extra quantity by employing heat to extract more olive oil. You can avoid these tricks by ensuring that your olive oil label is marked as being 'cold pressed' and not just as a first press EVOO.
You may have also noticed that along with cold pressed, 'early harvest' is starting to feature on labels. Early harvest is gaining in popularity both in Europe and Australia as it offers higher yields of antioxidants known as polyphenols. There is a small catch though, and that is that while higher polyphenols mean greater health benefits, a very high polyphenol content can yield a very bitter EVOO. There is a fine balance between what is essentially a 'medicinal' EVOO versus one that's going to impart the perfect flavour and health benefits to your dishes.
Polyphenol content is also strongly linked to the olive oil cultivar variety. You may have already heard of olive oil cultivar varieties such as the Frantoio or Coratina varieties of Italy, or the Picual and Hojiblanca varieties of Spain, which tend to be the more common varieties marketed in Australia. There is one variety though, unique in origin to Greece, and that is the Koroneiki variety, which is famed as the 'queen of olive oil cultivars'.
Koroneiki has the highest polyphenol content of all olive oil varieties and it's probably no surprise that this tiny, pointed olive has been growing and has been harvested in Greece for more than 3,000 years. While Spain and Italy may be the world's largest commercial producers of EVOO, Greece (ranked third in production) is actually the world's largest EVOO consumer, and a Koroneiki EVOO holds the same status as a Kalamata olive.
Koroneiki also yields a naturally high olive oil content, robust, fresh and herbaceous flavours, is very suited to early harvest and is drought-resistant. This last characteristic makes it ideal for mountain-side, sun-facing plantation, which is the preferred farming terrain for superior EVOOs.
Our signature product, RX Estates Premium EVOO, has capitalised on Koroneiki's attributes and benefits. RX Estates prefer to bottle single-estate yields, although, just like a good wine, vintage may differ slightly from year to year. Mixed-estate yields on the other hand will help to maintain a consistency in flavour from one harvest to the next.
Ultimately, however, your choice will eventually come down to what an EVOO tastes like to you. Our team, producers, suppliers, exporters and judges spend countless hours analysing, testing, comparing, debating and discussing what makes a good EVOO, but at the end of the day the final advice we all give is 'just taste it'. And when you do, don't be afraid of the peppery sensation or the cough reflex at the back of your throat (that's just a sign of its freshness). And as you take in its fragrance as you sip it, become intoxicated by its notes, and then feel like drinking it, then this is the EVOO for you!