Complete List of Recipes & Reflections

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Why I Use Only Greek Olive Oil

The first cold-pressed, extra virgin juice of the olive

When it comes to olive oil, I have never used anything but Greek extra virgin olive oil in my cooking. From a very young age, my father had impressed upon me the notion that all other olive oils were inferior. Indeed, he would often go as far as stating outright that most other commercially available so-called “olive oils” were counterfeits. Our food shopping excursions were always illuminating in this regard. Wheeling me along in the shopping cart, he would nod at the neat stacks of canned Italian olive oils in the supermarket and mutter “vegetable oil” under his breath, just loud enough for me to hear and understand. It is almost four decades later and my father's words are reverberating in my mind as I write this posting.

Now, I am not a stranger to olive oil. Indeed, I have tickled olive tree roots, trimmed olive branches, and harvested our family’s olives to press our oil. As a result, I do have a producer’s firsthand knowledge of the subject, as well as the inquisitiveness of a dilettante with a penchant for research on the topic. Add to this the fact that my family has never purchased a single drop of olive oil from a supermarket, and I guess I can claim to be something of a private expert on the matter.

Armed with this knowledge and related experience, I feel obliged to pass along any important news pertaining to olive oil that may come to my attention. Thus, I am compelled to share that just over a week ago, on April 22nd 2008, as reported by the BBC and other news sources, a large ring of Italian "olive oil" producers -some forty individuals or so- were rounded up and arrested for creating and selling (largely for export to North America and Europe) a significant quantity of fake “olive oil”. According to the story, these enterprising folk were in the business of taking vegetable oils imported from the United States to Italy, and transforming them into “olive oil” then packing and selling it back to North Americans and Europeans as “Italian olive oil”. How nice.

I guess I was not entirely surprised when this news item broke. After all, I am my father’s son and this latest news was not the first time Italian olive oil production practices had been called into question in the mainstream media. In its August 2007 issue, New Yorker magazine published an illuminating piece on the scale of such olive oil adulteration operations in Italy. The article is quite an eye-opener and well worth reading.

Being curious by nature, I launched a small investigative mission of my own with respect to what sorts of “olive oils” are being sold in the macro-marketplace here in Toronto, and what I found was not encouraging. On a recent shopping visit to a Costco wholesale outlet I found a good example of the type of olive oil product imported from Italy that is widely available here in Toronto. The details are pretty clearly indicated in the photo of Costco’s signature “Kirkland” brand of “Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil” as seen below. [Click on the picture to view the larger version as the white arrow in the photo points to the relevant backside label information on the bottle.]

A picture worth a thousand words...?

Though I must commend them on the honesty of their label, unfortunately Costco’s clear indication of the source(s) of their signature “Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil” does not inspire confidence in my estimation of the ultimate origin and quality of said product. But then again, that is my own personal take on the matter and after all, who am I to call into question the stated certification of the ‘Consorzio per il Controllo Prodotti Biologicianyway?

Now, to be clear, I am not knocking the many legitimate producers and sources of Italian olive oil. Nonetheless, the fact that Italian olive oil marketing efforts have captured the lion’s share of the world’s olive oil consumer market, and yet, Italy remains as the single largest importer of Greek olive oil, sends an interesting message to anybody paying attention to the details. As already stated, my purpose is not to impugn the numerous legitimate producers and distributors of Italian olive oil, but based on the facts at hand, I cannot help but entertain numerous questions as to the source and authenticity of purportedly Italian “olive oils”. In point of fact, I am saddened by the entire affair as this is just another indication of how far out of whack our 21st Century global food distribution, marketing and consumption industries have become.

So, to wrap this up, this morning I happened to be going through the sheaf of advertising flyers that are delivered to our door along with one of our locally distributed weekly community newspapers, and I noticed something interesting indeed. It seems that suddenly there is a glut of cheap Italian “olive oils” appearing in the advertisements of the large and small supermarkets here in Toronto… Hmmm.

And so, my fellow eaters, all I can counsel when it comes to buying olive oil is “caveat emptor” (“Buyer Beware”) as the Romans would say.

If you have any doubts, consider reaching for the Greek Extra Virgin Olive Oil instead.

Simply Scandalized,

Sam Sotiropoulos
Greek Gourmand
Greek Food Recipes and Reflections
Copyright © 2008, Sam Sotiropoulos. All Rights Reserved.


Peter M said...

Well written Sam and an eye opener to us who love and use olive oil daily in our cooking.

The scourge of counterfeiting products is now in our groceries and common sense must be exercised.

A bottle of olive oil for $4.99 is dubious and you indeed will get what you pay for...coloured vegetable oil.

Anonymous said...

Great post Sam.

Now I only buy my olive oil in bulk direct from suppliers, but Italian, Greek, Spanish etc.

Jessie said...

I definitely agree that alot of crap is sold under the guise of "pure" olive oil (and other misnomers), can't comment on the comparitive quality of Italian or Greek olive oils (I've had good versions of both), however have been told by a small producer here in Victoria (Australia, not Canada) that you should never buy oil that doesn't have a batch date on it. Apparently alot of oil imported from Europe to Aus has been stored for long periods of time and could be degraded in quality by the time you buy it (even from good retailers). Not to mention the variety of sources it could be composed of as indicated in your post. As a consequence, I only ever buy locally produced extra virgin olive oil now, from producers who list production dates on the label. Luckily we have really great producers here. Does Canada produce its own olive oil at all? If it does, what is the quality/flavour like compared to Greek olive oils that you use?

Lulu said...

Very interesting! I've pretty much converted over to local olive oils here in California. They are very good!

PS Sam I just joined your Facebook group. Wow, you have a lot of members! Good for you! I'm "Lulu Barbarian." :-)

Sam Sotiropoulos said...

Peter - Exactly! It is a shame, truly.

culinarytravelsofakitchengoddess - It really is about making informed choices. If you can establish a relationship with a producer that is always the best way to go. Of course, not everyone can do this.

jessie - Thanks for your comment! The highest quality extra virgin olive oils can be put up for as long as 3-4 years if properly stored in airtight, unopened containers, away from heat sources and out of the sun. That said, there is a limit to how long olive oils can be stored before they start going rancid and a trip for GR to AUS with storage time may take quite some time indeed, so I cannot speak for the quality of imported olive oils in AUS. As for Canadian olive oil, I'm afraid Canada's climate does not permit olive-growing operations. I have only ever used Greek extra virgin olive oil, either from our own family harvest, or from familiar producers with whom my family has had long-standing ties and relations.

Lulu - I have never tried California olive oil so I really don't know what I am missing. :-) As for the facebook Greek Food group, we're glad to have you aboard! Invite your friends to the banquet as well!

jessie said...

Lulu- that's funny, we produce similar wines, so doesn't surprise me that we both produce good olive oil too!

Sam- you're very lucky to have grown up around such quality. I love this blog- I am of mixed greek and irish ancestry and find that real greek food is surprisingly thin on the ground in Melbourne (even with a big population of Greeks). Looking forward to trying out both Baklava and Moussaka recipes!

Sam Sotiropoulos said...

jessie - I have been quite fortunate indeed! I am glad you appreciate the blog, I will endeavour to keep things interesting... and tasty! As for there being a dearth of real Greek food in AUS, I am mortified to hear it! If I'm not mistaken, nearly 1/10 of the population in AUS is of Greek origin? One would think there would be a plethora of good Greek eateries... Well, this just means you will have to cook it yourself! I will help where and how I can. :-)

Anonymous said...

Sam asked me to add the following information I'd sent him via email:

There's a report produced by RAI (Italian television) about the lack of clarity regardinig the provenance of Italian olive oil.

"Scusi, lei e vergine?"
Reported by Bernardo Iovene, and presented by Maria Gabanelli.(2002),7246,243%255E90093,00.html
Click on 'Video' or read the excerpt.

The only English translation of the RAI report I could find is this one, but it's an automated translation, which ends up being funnier than informative.;jsessionid=F73231E531FF3A10E3B03E0CDF50F9F9;dom03?mid=23502016

Here's my synopsis:

In Italy it is legal to bottle, market locally, and export blended olive oil. In fact, this is done to ensure a uniform taste, which is what customers seem to prefer. It is hard to find 'pure' (whatever that means) Italian olive oil, unless one is purchasing a top-of-the-line estate label that labels and markets itself in the manner of high end wines.

In Italy many of the grocery store 'Italian' labels have no real meaning anymore, as the old family firms have been bought out by multinationals (Unilever is one mentioned in the TV report), and from that moment on the production of the olive oil becomes an industrial food chemist's product rather than the olive growers' product.

Furthermore, it is also 'legal' for blended olive oils which are of mixed origin to be labeled 'Italian' as long as a certain percentage of the blend is actual Italian olive oil. I don't recall what the exact percentage should be. Part of the investigative piece focuses on how the large industrial olive oil blending factories lie agout the percentage, and so the "Italian" content of the blended oils can sometimes be below the legal minimum.

When the Italian blended oils are sold within Italy/EU, the Italian label on the bottle does not indicate that the contents include oils originating from other countries. There is no legal requirement in Italy/EU to state the origin of the ingredients on the label. It merely states 'Italian olive oil' or 'blended olive oil' (can't remember which).
However, when the same product is exported to the US, where customs controls are stricter, the company that produces the blended oils must indicate that the bottles contain oil originating from Turkey, Greece, Syria, Jordan, Tunisia, etc.
So the US/Canadian public is MORE informed about the true contents of the bottle than Italian consumers!
This was one of the points the RAI investigation uncovered, that the Italian consumers are duped by omission into believing that the olive oil they purchase is 100% Italian in origin when it is not.

Another segment of the investigation dealt with the lack of regulation regarding the importation of bulk oils from non-EU countries into Italy. Oil produced in Turkey or Syria is imported into Greece, for example, before being transferred to Italy. When it arrives at the point of entry in the EU, supposedly it is 'inspected' (in Greece, to continue with the example) for being what it says it is, that is, olive oil. When it is transferred to Italy, the Italain customs take it at face value that the oil is indeed what the accompanying papers say it is. The papers can say it's either Greek (since it 'touched' Greek soil), or more accurately, that it's Turkish or Syrian. It's hard to distinguish the actual provenance, and a lot of shady stuff goes on to 'Greekify' or 'Spanishfy' it before it arrives into Italy.
Furthermore, the 'transit' countries don't necessarily analyze the oil for its actual content. It could be 100% olive oil, or it could be something else (adulterated with other vegetable oils). When it arrives in Italy, the authorities may assume it has been analyzed already at the EU point of entry.

vonsachsen said...

OK, I have listened :) I was just out of olive oil and today I chose a Greek one:)

Janulka said...

Hi Sam, it is my first time visiting your blog (thanks to Peter M and your visit to him)... I am really glad about your words concerning the "Extra Virgin Olive Oil"... My father-in-law makes his own oil (same way you did it in Greece) and his "oxytita" - sorry, do not know the word in english is usually by 0,03%... the extra virgin olive oil in the greek supermarket (does not matter which one, all of them are more or less the same) have it from 0,5 (0,6%) and higher... IMAGINE! So I absolutly agree with you - I use only my father's-in-law oil and everywhere (even when baking a cake, just less quantity as in my recipes, not to have too bitter taste)... Great JOB! I wish, especially people in Germany (they are acting like crazy to buy Italian Olive oil -- but I think, this is just very succesfull marketing policy from Italian side)... Anyway I wish Greeks would pay much more attention to all the perfect greek made ingredients - as feta, olive oil, Kalamata olives, kappari (how you call it in english?) and even greek truffa (found in north Greece - close to Xanthi - 25 spieces of 39 world wide known!)... thank you once more for your article.

Anonymous said...

As a 30+ year resident of Thessaloniki Greece, I am only worried that some Greeks will get eksipnos/clever and try the same idea. What's to prevent it??

Sam Sotiropoulos said...

Dear "anonymous",

What is to prevent some anonymous individual on the internet from claiming to be from Greece and trying to cast doubt upon, or to question the purity of Greek olive oil? In a world of infinite possibilities, I suppose anything is possible so if you are looking for guarantees in life, there are none (except death and taxes). So thanks for your question, here is my response:

Let me put it to you this way, when was the last time you heard, in the mainstream media, credible reports of large-scale arrests of Greek olive oil producers for selling phony oil? I would definitely be interested in such news. Unlike Italy, in Greece the agricultural laws are stricter than in all other EU countries, check it out for yourself, try Google. Secondly, olive production in Greece is still (largely) in the hands of the people and not the Industry. So, although you raise a valid concern, and while there may be incidences of oil adulteration in Greece, you can be sure it is an exception and not the rule and that is in definite contradistinction to Italy's track record. Frankly, I do not feel sorry for the Italian olive oil industry as many fortunes have been made from peddling fake olive oil for a long time, and now the chickens are simply coming home to roost.

Now, if you would like me to recommend a trustworthy and reliable source for your olive oil purchases that would be easy, I would be happy to arrange to supply you with top quality Greek extra virgin olive oil. Let me know. :-)

[eatingclub] vancouver || js said...

Definitely an eye-opener of a post for me.

Thanks for sharing this and I'll be more wary and careful when buying olive oil.

MJ said...

Amen! I spent an entire hour discussing with my one teacher how greek olive oil is the only way to go!

Cookin' Canuck said...

Very interesting! I will be much more discerning in the future.

Robert B said...

I'm a personal chef and I work for a large Italian Olive oil company.(Academia Barilla) If you find an olive oil that has any of the following on it is NOT an Italian product from Italian soil: Made in Italy, Packed in Italy, Produced in Italy, Imported from Italy. Only oils that say PRODUCT OF ITALY can do so by law if they can prove to the Italian Government that what is in the bottle is from Italian soil. If it says anything else it is a blend from Italy Spain Greece and Tunisia. I don't know if the Greek oils have the same standards as this.

Anastasia Caratzas said...

Great post!

Anastasia Caratzas said...

Great post!

Pamela said...

After reading your pastitsio recipe, I mentioned buying the #2 pasta. I also bought a bottle of Cretan olive oil imported from the Hania region by Aptera Imports, Inc., a company in Salt Lake City.

My parents don't make the same fuss over food and cooking that I do. And they don't use much olive oil. My mom seems to think that whatever Costco carries is fairly good.

I'll get my olive oil on trips to Salt Lake or Vegas or order it online if necessary.


Apart from well documented large scale fraud in the massive Spanish and Italian olive oil market there is another simpler reason why Greek Olive Oil is better.

Greek suppliers are generally much smaller and the oil is more often single source not the multi sourced blended methods of the massive corporations in Italy and Spain.

Local oil here in Victoria Australia is absolutely superb and a revelation however it's price makes it hard to compete against the very high quality but low priced Greek oil.

Two easy guides, ALWAYS check the batch date and NEVER buy in glass (light degrades the oil).