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WORLD OF OLIVE OIL - True Virginity - PART 5
26 October 2012

If you have been reading my other articles you will have become familiar with the olive oil scene and what to be looking out for especially in terms of packaging, labels and tasting. You may be asking the question, where do I start with tasting if I don’t have any references? That is the starting point with olive oils; one needs to really know what an extra virgin olive oil tastes like. You might be saying to yourself, well I already know what an extra virgin olive oil tastes like! Which is the same as saying I know what good sex is like, when you’ve been doing it with the same person all your life! Well it might be true, you may have been lucky enough to have found your Christian Grey or unleashed your basic instinct first time round but the chances are most people need to experiment even if it is only a little bit!


Would you be surprised if I told you that the vast majority of the Spanish, Italians and Greeks have no idea what an extra virgin olive oil tastes like. Quite obviously three very monogamous societies! They all know what they like, but that is different to knowing what it tastes like. The problem is that they like what they have been consuming over the past decades, basically what they have been given and got used to, this is their reference point. However the problem is that they have become used to olive oil with organoleptic defects. So to continue one must loose their virginity to an authentic Extra Virgin!


It is important to remember that the rules that define an extra virgin olive oil were only established officially in 1985 by the International Olive Council and even then they weren’t really taken in serious until 2002, so we could say that Extra Virgin Olive Oil as we know it today is really only 10 years old! Where as olive oil as most know it is thousands of years old. Originally there was just olive oil (what we would now refer to as Virgin) and “lampante” olive oil (not suitable for direct consumption, what the romans used as lamp oil and is greatly consumed all over the country). The truth is that the general public couldn’t recognise an extra virgin, and really it is the only one, when educated on the subject, that you would want to consume. Why would you want to consume an olive oil that was made from fermented olives? Because for most, that is olive oil. This happens all over the Mediterranean, as it was common practise since the beginning of time. There wasn’t that rush to get the olives to the press, and in many cases it was the actual press that damaged the quality of the oils even further . There are areas in the south of France that deliberately make olive oil with fermented olives as it is what the locals demand, there taste buds have acquired that “fusty” taste. It also happens in Spain and Italy. Spain can have some extreme weather changes throughout the year and it is very common in certain areas for the olives to freeze with a sudden drop in temperature, naturally this ruins the fruit and gives the oil a taste like “earthy mushrooms” as the skin and the pulp has deteriorated, a tell tale sign is an olive with wrinkled skin. In the northern part of Spain near Lerida they deliberately make an olive oil called “Iced Oil” where they stack the olives in snow before taking them to the press, “to keep them fresh”, they say. They have got used to frozen olives and that is what they believe olive oil should taste like. What they are really doing is killing the olive and forcing the skin of the olive to set free all of it’s negative attributes such as wax and methanol which later mixes with the oil. 


Just last week I was at a seminar on Extra Virgin olive oil in Segorbe, Valencia organised by my good friend Miguel Abad, agronomic specialist and master blender. It was lead by Juan Ramon Izquierdo; Biochemist, Director of the Olive Oil Laboratory and Olive Oil tasting panel for the Ministry of Agriculture in Spain. This man is the country’s leading expert on Olive Oil, Extra Virgin’s number one “protector”. He is to extra virgin olive oil as Mother Teresa was to the poor! He was the man that trained the Californian Tasting Panel and taught the Californians how to grow olives.  At the seminar I was fortunate enough to taste a variety of exceptional olive oils and chat with various producers. These brands were absolutely fantastic “life changing” olive oils. When I say life changing, I mean once you have tried them it is impossible to dip your bread into the average rubbish you pick up at your local supermarket. So I thought I would share the best three with you. I call these types of brands “benchmark brands” as their quality is so easily identifiable they are ideal for learning what certain aromas should be like. Later you will detect it to a greater or lesser degree in other brands, but at least you will know what to smell and taste for.        



Miguel Abad - Me - Juan Ramon Izquierdo - Rafael Arraiz




My favourite from the entire seminar and one I have tried a couple of times this year was “VENTA DEL BARON” by Mueloliva. This olive oil was just bursting with fruity aromas, even after a year, as all the samples were from last years harvest of course, so it was a very good test to evaluate the shelf life of it’s organoleptic qualities. Not surprisingly this olive oil won the 1st prize in the Ministry of Agriculture’s Competition last year. You could smell the green unripe fruity smell from the other side of the table, quite amazing. If you were ever wandering how olive oil can smell like cut grass or dew on a spring morning, just smell this oil. It also has a distinct note of green tomato and green apple. It is mildly bitter with a distinct fruity flavour and a perfectly balanced peppery note at the end, absolutely incredible. You really can smell all of this and you do not need to have a trained nose, it just hits you in the face like an explosion of olives, I’m not pulling your leg or trying to be fancy, you instantly think, wow! That is from an olive tree! (The varieties used in this blend are Picudo and Hojiblanca, I'll be writing an article on Spanish varieties shortly)




The next choice was “MELGAREJO” another fantastic Olive Oil, which has won numerous, prizes as well. A family run estate, which has been producing fine oils in Sierra Mágina in Jaen since 1780. We tasted the “Gourmet” version, which is made from the Picual variety. Once again a very rounded olive oil, with distinct notes of green unripe olives and freshly cut grass. It is slightly more bitter than Venta del Baron and has a well-balanced peppery finish due to the variety used, Picual, which can be very high in polyphenols. It is a limited production olive oil, which also boasts a slight aroma of banana and apple. The oil once pressed is stored in stainless steel deposits filled with nitrogen to avoid any aerobic oxidation.



Lastly “ABBAE DE QUEILES” is a unique organic extra virgin olive oil that is produced by Hacienda Queiles. It is located in the valley of Queilles in southern Navarra that is 2500 meters above sea level. This, being coupled with a very fertile soil makes it the ideal climate for organic olive tree farming. Due to the altitude there are no olive flies, the main plague that affects olive trees. This organic olive oil won the Ministry of Agriculture’s prize for the best organic olive oil last year, and quite simply it is one of the few organic olive oils really worth consuming. To produce high quality Organic olive oil it is extremely difficult. It has a very balanced and pleasant taste. It is totally the opposite to the previous two olive oils. It is made from the Aberquina variety and is generally a “sweet” extra virgin (i.e. not bitter or peppery). A very fruity olive oil, which is more “mature” than “green” and has a strong aroma, that reminds you of tropical fruits and banana skin, really quite special. It isn’t at all bitter or peppery, characteristics of the Aberquina, however it was slightly noticeable that it was a year old. The aromas and taste were slightly more mature than it would have originally tasted at the time of harvest. Given the time, it has aged very well indeed. Abbae is really a fantastically original olive oil. If you are lucky enough to find any of them, as I am not sure where they are available in the UK (I’ll try and find out) I am convinced that you will be completely taken by them. I will be posting a selection of more readily available olive oils (in the Uk aswell) very shortly. Enjoy!




Other popular Olive Oil Articles by Ian Mackay ©

Go to article: The World of Olive Oil - Introduction-Part 1


Go to article: The World of Olive Oil- Olive Oil Categories-Part 2


Go to article: The World of Olive Oil - How to recognise an authentic extra virgin olive oil - Part 3


Go to article: The World of Olive Oil - Olive Oil Tasting - Part 4


Go to article: Can I fry with Oilve Oil?


Go to article: The perfect Crime Scene


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WORLD OF OLIVE OIL - Olive Oil Tasting - Glossary- The Bad and The Ugly!
18 October 2012


The Bad and The Ugly!

Musty mouldy, humid flavor created by wet olives that have been stored too long before pressing
Fusty anaerobic fermentation that occurs when olives are stored in piles too long before milling
Blue Cheese  aroma associated with muddy sediment defect
Sour Milk aroma associated with muddy sediment defect
Yeasty aroma of bread dough; associated with winey defect
Acetone aroma of nail polish remover, associated with winey defect
Muddy Sediment barnyard-like aroma caused by olives' prolonged contact with dirt before or after milling
Burnt/Heated caused by processing at too high a temperature
Grubby flavor imparted to oil by olive fly damage to olives
Greasy flavor of diesel or gasoline caused by equipment problems
Stale Nuts flavor of oxidized oils, rancidity
Dreggish odor of warm lubricating oil caused by the poor execution of the decanting process
Cucumber off flavor from prolonged storage, particularly in tin
Vegetable Water oils that have been stored in contact with the water content of the olive after processing
Metallic oils that have had prolonged contact with reactive metal surfaces either during processing or storage
Dirty  oils which have absorbed unpleasant odors and flavors of dirty waste water during milling
Flat/Bland oils which have no positive or negative aroma or flavor characteristic of olive oil; may indicate presence of refined olive oil
Unbalanced oils with overwhelming flavors of bitterness and pungency
Rough pasty, thick, greasy mouth feel
Fiscolo refers to coconut fibers in mats occasionally used in older mills that may create a hemp-like flavor in oil
Esparto refers to straw-like material in mats occasionally used in older mills that may create a hemp-like flavor in oil
Brine salty taste indicating that oil was made from brined olives
Bacon smoky essence that may indicate oxidation
Winey sour/vinegary flavor caused by aerobic fermentation of olives during processing. similar to vinegary
Vinegary sour/vinegary flavor caused by aerobic fermentation of olives during processing. similar to winey.
Frozen/Wet Wood sweet, dry, and untypical aroma/flavor derived from olives which have been exposed to freezing temperatures
Rancid the flavor of oxidation that occurs as the oil ages, often described as “stale nuts”

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WORLD OF OLIVE OIL - Olive Oil Tasting - Glossary- The Good!
16 October 2012

As I promised in my last article here is a glossary of positive attributes that are associated with olive oil tasting followed by  a translation into plain english so everyone can enjoy and understand olive oil reviews!! 


Harmonious balance among the oil’s characteristics with none overpowering the others
Herbaceous unripe olive fruit reminiscent of fresh green herbs
Round/Rotund a balanced, mouth-filling sensation of harmonious flavors
Spicy  aroma/flavour of seasonings such as cinnamon, allspice (but not herbs or pepper)
Sweet characteristic of mild oils
Woody indicative of olive varietals with large pits
Fruity refers to the aroma of fresh olive fruit, which is perceived through the nostrils and retro-nasally when the oil is in one’s mouth.
Bitter positive attribute because it is indicative of fresh olive fruit
Floral perfume/aroma of flowers
Forest fresh aroma reminiscent of forest floor, NOT dirty
Fresh good aroma, fruity, not oxidixed
Banana ripe banana fruit
Melon indicative of certain olive varietals
Pear indicative of certain olive varietals
Peach indicative of certain olive varietals
Ripely aroma/flavour of ripe olive fruit
Tomato/Tomato Leaf  indicative of certain olive varietals
Tropical indicative of ripe olive fruit with nuances of melon, mango, and coconut
Apple/Green Apple indicative of certain olive varietals
Artichoke  green flavour
Green Banana unripe banana fruit
Eucalyptus  aroma of specific olive varietals
Grass the aroma of fresh-cut (mowed) grass
Green/Greenly  aroma/flavour of unripe olives
Green Tea  characteristic of some unripe olive varieties
Hay/Straw dried grass flavour
Mint indicative of certain olive varietals
Wheatgrass:  strong flavour of some green olive fruit
Almond nutty (fresh not oxidized)
Walnut/Walnut Shell nutty (fresh not oxidized)
Astringent puckering sensation in mouth created by tannins; often associated with bitter, robust oils
Peppery stinging sensation in the throat which can force a cough (see pungent)
Pungent stinging sensation in the throat which can force a cough (see peppery)
Buttery creamy, smooth sensation on palate

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WORLD OF OLIVE OIL - Olive Oil Tasting - Part 4 : The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
15 October 2012

If you have read my previous articles you will be fully aware that just because it says “Extra Virgin” on the bottle, doesn’t necessarily mean it is. So once you have pre-selected your Olive Oil through choice of packaging and labeling “clues”, the next step is to taste it, to really know if what is on the outside represents what is on the inside and more often than not this is not the case. This does not mean that Olive Oil is doomed and there is no hope for anyone! It means that the consumers need to educate themselves to be able to recognise a real Extra Virgin and then happily discard the rest, yes throw it away! Don’t think “Oh no! That cost me €10 I can’t throw it away”, rather, think that what you have just learned is going to save you €10 euros or more every time you buy a bottle in the future and you are not going to be taken for a ride anymore! You can read all you want about olive oil days in and days out but unless you get down to the nitty-gritty of tasting several different olive oils and different varieties you won’t start to build your palate knowledge. You don’t need to taste dozens and dozens of olive oils to get a basic understanding of “taste”, the chances are you are already familiar with a few and probably just don’t know how to classify them and the chances are you are more accustomed to bad olive oil than good olive oil, so you will have to reset your taste buds and re-educate your brain.


It is important to understand that for Extra Virgin Olive Oil to be classified as Extra Virgin it must pass two tests. Firstly a chemical test that measures the characteristics that must meet the International Olive Oil Council standards (I discussed this in part 2) and secondly it must pass an organoleptic test by a board of olive oil tasters of no less than eight members. This is where the “taste” is classified and it is determined whether the olive oil is in fact in line with the Extra Virgin flavour standards and shows absolutely no signs of defects. You may ask if all olive oil has to go through this process to be considered Extra Virgin how is it that when it gets to your table on many occasions it isn’t. Well it’s not just the farmers and the brands that cheat the system at times, but also the tasters! Once it has been classified it may well be blended and packaged poorly before it reaches you as well. So who will be the best judge in the end? You will.


                                    Tasting room for flavour control


I have been tasting olive oils for at least fifteen years and have been fortunate enough to learn from one of the country’s finest agronomic specialists in this field and master blender, Miguel Abad, an incredible man who’s family has been in the olive oil world for generations, a man, with just one sip, is able to detect all the different varieties of olives used in a blended olive oil, on one occasion I saw him detect 7 different varieties, quite incredible. Most people would have difficulty naming 7 varieties let alone tasting them all mixed together! Anyway let’s not get carried away one doesn’t need to reach this level to enjoy olive oil. 


Recently Olive Oil tasting has been turned into something similar to wine tasting where you see pro olive oil tasters talking about all sorts of traits, positive and negative that can be detected in the aromas and flavours such as “ freshly cut grass, banana, cucumber, brine, mint, sour milk and green tea” and it always made me think, how on earth is an olive going to smell like freshly cut grass or sour milk or even green tea, what a load of rubbish! These people are going round the bend trying to make something that is quite simple more complicated than it is. Come on, green tea? It doesn’t even grow in Spain! Sour milk? You’ll never see a cow anywhere near an olive tree. However these are all terminologies that people have been using as “reference names” for main traits that olive oils carry. When they say “freshly cut grass” or “Green tea” they mean fruity or unripe olives and when they say “sour milk” they mean an aroma associated with muddy sediment. So why can’t they just say so? It would be a lot easier wouldn’t it? What does sour milk have to do with muddy sediment? God knows. Nonetheless I will be posting a glossary of tasting terminology just in case you read a report on any olive oil you will be able to “translate” it into plain English!


Let’s get back to basics, forget about the freshly cut grass and the sour milk and let’s focus on what determines an extra virgin olive oil, all these different reference points will come with time. There are only three positive attributes with an extra virgin olive oil and over thirty ways of describing them but what we want at this stage is just to recognise them, because if one of the three is not present it quite simply is not an extra virgin. They are; Fruitiness (green or mature), Bitterness and Pungency. This is the order of importance and also the order in which you should notice them as you smell and taste your olive oil. The first step is to smell your olive oil, and the smell we are looking for is a fruity smell, notes of green unripe olive fruit or ripe olive fruit, basically dominant vegetable and herbaceous notes. Which is why many make reference to grass, artichokes or herbs and green tea. If it doesn’t smell fruity it is not extra virgin and is more likely a virgin olive oil or a simple olive oil. It must resemble freshly crushed olives. 



                Source : Flavour wheel Richard Gawel 



How is the best way to smell this? Take a wine glass (if you happen to have blue tasting glass fantastic! But who has one of those right?), one that has a narrower mouth to the glass than the cup at the base. This is important as we want the opening of the glass it to fit comfortably into the palm of your hand and the base of the cup to fit into your other palm, placing the leg of the glass between your fingers, to cover as much surface area of the glass as possible with your palm. Pour in about 20ml of olive oil and then we need to slightly warm the olive oil to around 28º C which is an ideal temperature for all the volatile aromas to leave the oil and get trapped at the mouth of the glass. So, covering the top of the glass with the palm of your hand and holding the cup of the glass in our other hand, we tilt the glass about 30º and start to turn it through our hands without removing the hand from the top, for about a minute or so. You will notice that if you are doing it properly the oil will be swirling around the glass slowly and you will be creating friction on the glass with both of your hands helping to warm up the glass as well as transferring body heat to it. Then remove your hand from the top of the glass, put your nose in the glass and take a good whiff of the aroma. Remember we want to detect a fruity smell. If you don’t notice a fruity smell, unripe or mature, mild or strong, it doesn’t matter; kiss good-bye to your extra virgin. 


The human nose is capable of detecting an unlimited quantity of aromas but the human tongue has very defined areas for each flavour; Sweet, Salty, Sour, Bitter and Umami (protein – savoury). Umami is not a flavour that we associate ever with olive oil. At this stage the most important flavour is Bitterness. Many would say “sweet” too, well yes, we do associate the word “sweet” with olive oils quite a bit but only when we want to make reference to the fact that it is an oil with little or no bitterness and pungency. It is not actually a “sweet” olive oil. Bitterness is detected at the back of the tongue as you can see from the diagram below. If you have ever tasted an olive from the tree, you will know what bitter is! It is quite different to standard table olives, which sometimes go through a de-bittering process.



Now slowly take a decent sip, here “tactile attributes” comes into play with the texture of the oil, which should be velvety, thick and buttery in the sensation that it gives on entering the mouth, if it thin and liquid like…. Bye-Bye. Move the oil around your mouth and close your teeth together. Place your tongue up against your upper teeth and breath in slowly through the sides of your mouth, not through the front making the oil slurp and bubble as if it was a wine. What we are trying to do is coax more aromas out of it but concentrating them on the areas of the tongue where we are going to detect them better, i.e. the sides and the back, then breath out through your nose. This retro-nasal perception will help amplify the aromas between the mouth and the nose and help you detect other positive or negative aromas. Mainly here we should be confirming that our nasal perception of fruitiness is also present in the taste and secondly that we notice bitterness. Bitterness, although an acquired taste, is a positive attribute of Extra Virgin and should be present to a greater or lesser degree. The earlier an olive is harvested the more bitter it will be. This bitterness is actually caused by polyphenols, the olive’s antioxidant so it is very positive. The higher the level of polyphenols the more bitter it is and the longer the oil will last as it’s the polyphenols that slow down the oxidation of the olive oil over time. So Bitter is “Good”.  If an oil is very bitter and has a high level of antioxidants it will also be referred to as an “astringent” extra virgin, which leaves a puckering sensation in the mouth and makes it difficult to slide your tongue around the roof of your mouth, similar to when you eat an artichoke or a caqui. 


Now we swallow the oil to carry out what we call the “passive touch” (tactile atributes). This is when we will determine the pungency of the olive oil. It is not a taste but a chemical reaction in the throat which is similar that caused by pepper.  Pungency is a positive attribute and its intensity will depend on the variety but all Extra Virgins should have some degree of pungency. Very pungent oil will be referred to as robust olive oil and a less pungent olive oil is referred to as smooth olive oil. Pungency is a peppery sensation that is detected in the throat. It is an irritation and an acquired sensation as with chillies. A smooth olive oil can leave just a tingle while a robust olive oil can make you cough, several times. I have known cases where people have been even scared by it thinking that they had swallowed some deadly chemical! However once you get used to that peppery kick it’s hard to go back to anything less. Few people actually know why this sensation is actually a positive attribute. Taste is easy to understand, but this chemical irritation? Why would it be an attribute? Well it’s quite simple and was really only scientifically explained about six years ago. Extra Virgin Olive oil contains a chemical compound called Oleocanthal which provokes coughing and this chemical characteristic is unique and only found in cold pressed olive oil. If the olive oil has been refined this compound disappears completely. 


If we want to continue on and taste another olive oil to compare it, we will need to reset our palate to neutralise the flavour of the previous oil. Ideally we will use bread sticks and a slice of a granny smith apple followed by water.  The bread sticks will help absorb the oil left in our mouth, the granny smiths acidity will neutralise the flavour of the oil, and water will leave our mouths clean for the next test.



So let’s summarise. We’ve smelt the oils and discovered clear notes of fruitiness from the olives, we’ve tasted it and noticed it’s velvety thick texture and confirmed the fruity flavour we noticed while smelling it. Then we’ve detected a certain degree of bitterness and pungency when we swallowed it. If nothing else is detected to distort these flavour or aromas we have an extra virgin before us. However a cold pressed olive oil could have all of these attributes but also carry a few or even just one negative attribute through aroma or taste which would be sufficient to discard it as an Extra Virgin. So now we know what “Good “attributes we need to detect, we now need to go on to learn what “Bad and Ugly” attributes an Extra Virgin should not have, but are all too common on the supermarket shelf.


Olive oil is a live product, some call it an ingredient but I consider it a food as it has vitamins, antioxidants and healthy fats, far more than a mere ingredient. Being a perishable product olive oil tastes better fresh. What is fresh? Well basically up to 8-12 months after the harvest date, the closer to the harvest the better, obviously. At the other end of the scale is rancidity and along the scale a whole lot more. Let’s concentrate on the most common. 


Firstly “fermentation”, there a various types of fermentation that affect the olives once taken from the tree. When olives are harvested they are normally far too many olives to be able to press them all on the same day so mills will create piles or bags of olives while waiting to press them.  In these piles different problems start to occur degrading the quality of the oil, so the result ends up being the same as picking up olives from the ground, which should never be done for Extra Virgin. The outer sides of the piles go through an aerobic fermentation by being in contact with the air, at the same time all the olives are going through a natural fermentation due to lack of oxygen inside the olive and as on many occasions they may have been washed or if it has rained the olive will be wet and generating damp. These problems boost the peroxides in the olives and speed up the oxidisation of the olive and leave very distinct aromas to the oil that can easily be combined with the positive attributes we mentioned earlier. This won’t eliminate fruitiness or bitterness but will partially or completely mask it with what we call a “Fusty” aroma and taste which is what unfortunately most olive oils today taste like! So you will need to identify this and remove it from your “positive palate”. So what does “fusty” smell like? Well it mainly smells like damp in a basement or swampy vegetation or that drawer in the fridge that has a mouldy tomato in it! Umm, lovely.  If the sensation is very strong we can even call it “Musty” which is caused by mouldy olives getting into the press. After pressing there are also possible defects in the handling of the oil, if the oil has not been decanted properly to remove the particles of pulp left in the oil, these particles will remain in the oil and will start to degrade and oxidise the oil boosting peroxides and giving the oil an odour similar to warm lubricating oil. This is referred to as “Dreggish” ó Borras in Spanish. There are more, but at this stage it is worth just concentrating on these notes.


Finally we have Rancid, this is the end of the road. The olive oil is now completely dead and ready to be buried or used to light a lamp on your next camping holiday! We’ve all tried a rancid nut before and the taste it leaves in the mouth is quite awful, don’t confuse it with the bitterness of olive oil.  This is a fat gone bad, something we are all familiar with and it is also sometimes compared to the smell of crayons.  All of these bad and ugly attributes should not be present at all in an extra virgin olive oil, if they are, take it back or throw it away. Everyone can detect a very rancid olive oil, the trick is to detect a slightly rancid olive oil. Practice. One tell tale sign is that it starts to smell of mature strawberries before going rancid.


All this may sound like a complicated process but I assure you if you go out and buy just three or four different extra virgin olive oils in different price ranges, sweet, robust and a standard supermarket brand extra virgin you will soon see the difference and it will all start to click into place. The more you taste the more you will define your palate and your likes and dislikes. However one thing will be certain, you won’t be taken for any more rides!  You will find extra virgins that you like and others that you don’t like so much, some that are too bitter and others that are too peppery or not fruity enough. Tastes are like colours everyone has their own favourite, but it will certainly become a new adventure, with over 750 varieties in the world this could take some time but along the way you will educate your palate and will be able to select oils with specific flavour characteristics that you enjoy and match to certain meals. In my next post I will be writing about different types of Spanish olive oils, varieties, styles and blends to help you all orientate your tastes and find what you are looking for! 



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WORLD OF OLIVE OIL- How to recognise an authentic Extra Virgin Olive Oil - PART 3
08 October 2012

This is the biggest problem that is facing the olive oil consumer. When you are in a supermarket looking at 50 different brands or in a mill expecting to buy the real thing, how do you know you are not being taken for a ride? Well, there is no 100% guarantee for reasons I will explain, but having a better idea of what to look for will certainly increase your chances of buying the real Extra Virgin Olive Oil.


Firstly many readers have asked if it is better to buy directly from the mill or the “Almazara” as we would say in Spanish. The answer will always be yes, but you must know your Almazara and know when to buy. The olive oil season starts in October and ends around January depending on the type of oil that will be harvested, Extra Virgin Olive Oil tends to be harvested between October and November. This is the best period to visit your mill as the fresher it is the better it is. Let’s not forget that olive oil is essentially a fruit juice as it is the only edible oil that has no chemical manipulation (when it is authentic!). However there are mills and there are mills. Just as there are honest people and crooked people. You are more likely to get the authentic product from a small local mill than a very large one and I highly suggest that you go along and ask them for a tour, especially during the production season. If the mill is receiving the olives and checking them before being washed that is the first step. A responsible mill producing extra virgin will not accept olives picked up from the ground, you may wonder how do they know that? Well it is very obvious as they are soft and wrinkled i.e. too ripe. These should be rejected straight away. The olives should then be separated from the leaves and twigs and then washed. If this is being done correctly you have probably found a decent mill. Next the olive will be crushed within a maximum of 24 hours (the shorter the time the better but being realistic the minimum time is 12 hours) and put in a centrifuge that separates the oil from the pulp, the water and the stone paste. Your chances with a smaller mill are better because they are more than likely sell all of their harvest every year. One needs to have in mind that Spain produces an enormous quantity of olive oil, so much so that it allows large manufacturers to store stock from one year to the next in their olive oil bank. Although there is nothing really wrong with it from a health point of view its organoleptic qualities are obviously not the same. If the harvest has been smaller from one year to next this oil will be used to boost up supply, so you are not getting the fresh olive oil that you were looking for by going to a mill directly. Word of advice, get to know your mill and taste the oil before you buy it.  If they are serious they will be really happy you have shown an interest, as most mills I have seen take pride in their work.


 Olive being washed


 The crished olive paste


 The centrifuge to separate the oil.


However most people can’t get to a mill, so how do you identify a good olive oil on the supermarket shelf? The first sign is the packaging. Firstly, avoid any large international household brand or white labels in any format of packaging, the volumes they manage are so large they can not maintain the level of quality one should be looking for and they buy olives from different countries so they are open to being conned as well. Also many italian brands have been tested in the United States and only 1 out of 5 samples proved to fall into the parameters of Extra Virgin chemically and taste wise many would say none of them. Unfortunately this problem is not just in the States. 


Please remember that any brand that cares the slightest about its quality of olive oil will never use plastic bottles or transparent glass(unless it is packaged in a gift box protecting it's contents). If the oil is packaged in either one of these, walk straight pass it. Transparent packaging is olive oils worst enemy and plastics are just sinful as it affects the taste very quickly. The light speeds up the oxidation process and I don’t just mean natural sunlight, any light will affect it. The chances are if it was extra virgin when it was packaged  by the time it’s on your kitchen table it will definitely have oxidised far more than necessary due to poor storage in deposits and may even be rancid or have no organoleptic properties worth tasting as you don't know how long it has been exposed to light. This packaging is a perfect excuse for the brands to defend poor quality products  "it must have oxidised due to poor storage conditions”. So why do they use transparent packaging? Colour.


It has been proven that people are influenced by the colour of olive oil before purchasing, so the brands want you to see the colour to persuade you. I have heard many people saying the greener it is the better it is. This is the biggest load of rubbish I have ever heard and has no truth about it in the slightest. The colour of olive oil has become a science now. It has been proven that the Americans, Indians, Japanese even the Spanish prefer the colour of the greener olive oils, psychologically they think is has more flavour and is less similar to sunflower oil and looks more natural and earthy. This has brought on a tide of criminals into the industry who deliberately colour their olive oil to match these demands. It is the variety of olive and the pigments it carries that determine the colour of the oil. The greener it is the more chlorophyll it has and this does not affect the taste. The more mature the olive the less chlorophyll it has, as the olive turns reddish and then black.So the only indictation that the colour can give is the time it was harvested. The premium olive oils tend to be greener as they are the first olives to be harvested, but these are much more expensive as the earlier you harvest the less oil there is in the olive but the quality is far better. So many brands try to imitate this quality. It is surprisingly easy for any mill to make its oil greener than it should be; they simply leave some leaves in with the olives before crushing them. The chlorophyll from the leaves colours the oil however this also damages the oil eventually. So beware if the oil is too green, it is distinctively noticable. Colour is not a deciding factor when choosing olive oil, as it has no influence on the quality or flavour of the oil. I am referring to ordinary extra virgin olive oil here, not premium range olive oil, which do tend to be greener. That is why olive oil tasters use blue glasses so not to be influenced by the colour of the oil when judging it. The correct packaging should be dark coloured glass or steel cans, if transparent glass is used it should be packaged in an opaque box for safe keeping. Once you have the oil at home it should be kept in a dark cool place, however it will last for say 6-8 weeks exposed to normal light (not direct sunlight) with out too many problems if the olive oil is good quality. The problem is not so much how you treat it at home (although it is recommended to keep it away from the light), as a 500ml bottle won't last you that long, but more how it has been treated up to the time when you purchase it.



The next step is to then identify the information on the bottle. Obviously it must say “Extra Virgin Olive Oil” and in the ingredients table only “Extra virgin olive oil” should appear or their will be no ingredients table at all as Extra Virgin Olive Oil is itself a unique ingredient. It should also state that the contents have been produced only by mechanical means. This means no refining and no chemical treatments. You may see “first press” or “first cold press” this is the same, the cold press refers to it being pressed or more commonly now centrifuged at ambient temperature, without applying heat. This may sound obvious but Alcampo/Auchan was caught to be selling “Extra Virgin Olive Oil” as the sticker advertised but also stated in a box beside the ingredients that the oil had been refined and treated. This is illegal, very misleading and blatant fraud. They claimed it to be a mistake. The problem is that 65% of the olive oil market is white label brands and this is where there tends to be more irregularities. The sticker should also state what variety of olive has been used to make the oil. If it is a blend, all varieties should be stated (Blended olive oil is new world I’ll be talking about in a future post). The harvest date should also be stated on the bottle, or at least the month of harvest, unfortunately this is still rare so if you don’t see a harvest date look at the “best by” date, which should be two years after the oil was bottled to give you an indication of when it was bottled. The best find is a brand that bottles on demand, although there aren’t many. The acidity level on the bottle is disappearing more and more, as contrary to what many people think the acidity of olive oil has nothing to do with taste, when we say acidity we are not referring to acidic taste qualities but the amount of free fatty acids. Obviously the lower it is the better, the maximum allowed for Extra Virgin is 0,8%. Brands that want to make their acidity levels stand out may well put it on the bottle, anything around 0,2% or less is a very good acidity level but will not affect the taste. Other indicators are peroxide levels, if a brand has gone to the trouble of putting these figures on the bottle it is because they generally have a quality product, however this only means that those were the levels when tested. It doesn’t mean that they are the levels you will receive. Olive oil is a “live” oil and hence deteriorates with time. However it is a guide, the maximum peroxide level allowed for olive oil is 20 milliequivalent O2, the lower it is the less oxidised it was at the time of bottling. Good figures are around 6-8 milliequivalent O2. 


Although it is not a foolproof guarantee try to look for an olive oil with a “Denominación de Origin: D.O” or in English PDO: Protected Designation of Origin. These varieties are more closely controlled by local bodies to protect quality and standards. They carry a distinctive sticker on the back of the bottle stating the designated region that is being controlled. This is one from Valencia to give you an idea, but every region has its design, similar to the wine world. It isn’t a total guarantee but it’s one step closer. Blended Oils won’t carry this sticker, which doesn’t mean they aren’t great oils.


Do not be fooled into buying expensive olive oil by silly marketing tricks. However I would avoid olive oil that costs less than 8 euros a litre. When I say silly marketing tricks I mean things like 1 thousand year old olive trees or even 200-year-old olive trees. Olive trees that old produce hardly any fruit  and it is no better than an olive tree which is 20 years old. The fruit is only as good as the soil and the weather that year. Age has nothing to do with it. Other funny things I’ve seen are harvesting under the moonlight, well you can imagine what I think of that! 


Another question I am asked frequently is: “is it better to buy Single Estate or Cooperative olive oil?” 

The answer is both can be excellent. What is the difference? Single estates tend to be smaller and have irrigation all year round meaning they maintain the ratio of oil to flesh in the olive year in, year out, making them more consistent and giving them a higher productivity of litres per 100kgs of olives and as the estates are smaller they can be more closely controlled. However this isn’t synonymous to excellent quality but is a good indication that you will get a decent olive oil. It is just another thing to take into consideration. Cooperatives also have irrigated lands, however the vast majority of olive trees in Spain are what we call “secanos”, they rely on the rain. Have in mind that just Jaen, one region in Spain makes more olive oil than all of Greece on its own and Greece is the third largest producer in the world. To irrigate this land would be extremely expensive. Fortunately, olive trees do not need much water so most years it isn’t a problem. 



Finally, everyone tends to look for olive oils that have won international prizes. This is another misleading factor. Yes, many great olive oils have won prizes but very few understand how these competitions work. The vast majority only require the producer or the brand to send a maximum of 2 litres as a sample to be judged and pay an entry fee of around €150. What does this mean? It means that you can buy up 2 litres of premium olive oil, bottle it under your brand, send it off, win a prize and then put the sticker on your bottle for a year. I am not saying that everyone does it, but from the people I know in the industry it is common practise. The oil presented in the competition isn’t necessarily the one that is later bottled, as there are no controlling bodies and it is all based on trust. Now if you read my first article you know how much you can trust this industry.  This is one reason why many great olive oil manufacturers in Spain don’t even bother with the international competitions. I am not trying to to take prestige away from any olive oil competition, of course the competitions are important and is certainly a sign of quality olive oil especially if all the other factors come into play and of course not everyone is trying to win the prize at any cost but it is not the be all and end all.The only competition that is truly controlled and requires a controlled sample from a minimum 18000 litre batch is the annual olive oil competition carried out by the Spanish Ministry of Agriculture. As competitions go in terms of quality, experienced judges, batch control and sample controls, this is the Oscars of Olive Oil. The winner can only attach the prize sticker to the batch tested and the Ministry of Agriculture controls the bottles manufactured. Only the best olive oil wins this competition so if you can find a winner of this prize or even an olive oil that has received a mention you know you are onto a winner. No other competition in the world comes close in terms of quality control and strictness.

So once you’ve taken all this into consideration, you’ve filtered out the rubbish and finally selected what you believe to be the real thing. As you can see, you can’t judge a book by its cover, but you can get clues. So what comes next? Tasting it. The chances are you will have to taste various olive oils until you find the one you like and before you really understand, whether it is finally a great oil or a mediocre oil. This will be the subject for my next post: Part 4 “how to taste a great olive oil”.


Other popular articles by Ian Mackay ©


Go to article: The World of Olive Oil - Introduction-Part 1


Go to article: The World of Olive Oil- Olive Oil Categories-Part 2


Go to article: The World of Olive Oil - Olive Oil Tasting - Part 4


Go to article: The World of Olive Oil - True Virginity - Part 5


Go to article: Can I fry with Oilve Oil?


Go to article: The perfect Crime Scene


Go to article: Spanish Cured Ham-What you need to know


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WORLD OF OLIVE OIL - Olive Oil Categories - PART 2
03 October 2012

Before we go into the really interesting stuff, in this post I want to go into a little more detail on what the difference is between the different categories of olive oil. Even the Spanish and the Italians get confused and are ignorant to the fact that there are so many categories, let alone what they mean. However when you are buying olive oil particularly for health reasons over other oils this the first thing that one should understand. What am I buying? Obviously I am assuming that the seller is being honest and not committing fraud, as has been the case with some supermarket chains, amongst them Alcampo / Auchan (tell you about that one later!).

So, when we refer to “olive oils” we are referring to oils obtained solely from the fruit of the olive tree, to the exclusion of oils using solvents or re-esterification and are not mixed with oils of other kinds, such as walnut oil (an Italian trick!). The group category includes; virgin olive oils, refined olive oils, and not the least confusing, olive oil (which is a combination of virgin and refined olive oil).


Virgin Olive Oils

All virgin olive oils are obtained only from the olive, the fruit of the olive tree, using solely mechanical or other physical means, in conditions, particularly thermal conditions, which do not alter the oil in any way usually conditions below 30ºC. They have not undergone any treatment other than washing, decanting, centrifuging, and filtering. This excludes oils obtained by the use of solvents or re-esterification methods, and those mixed with oils from other sources, hence the word “Virgin” is used.

Virgin olive oils can be qualified as a natural product, and can have a designation of origin when they meet the specific characteristics associated with a particular region. Virgin olive oils can have four different designations depending on their organoleptic (taste and aroma) and analytic characteristics (the degree of acidity refers to the proportion of free fatty acids not to the taste). Those that are fit for consumption as they are, include extra virgin, virgin, and ordinary virgin. The fourth class is the lampante olive oil, which is not fit for consumption as it is. It is called “lampante” since Roman times as they used this oil as lamp oil for burning. 

Virgin Olive Oils Fit For Consumption As They Are:


Extra Virgin Olive Oil

This is a virgin olive oil that has a free acidity, expressed as oleic acid, of no more than 0.8 grams per 100 grams (0.8%), and whose other characteristics correspond to those fixed for this category by the International Olive Oil Council (IOOC standards). Extra virgin olive oil accounts for less than 10% of oil in many producing countries, so you can imagine what most people are consuming and more than likely, think they are consuming something else. This is the highest quality of olive oil and really if we are serious about olive oil it should be the only type we use. Note that extra virgin olive oils vary widely in taste, colour, and appearance. Their taste and aroma should reflect the fact that they were made from olives and have some positive attributes (that is, they cannot be totally tasteless). They are supposed to have no taste defects. I’ll go into taste and attributes on another post. 

Virgin Olive Oil

Virgin olive oil that has a free acidity, expressed as oleic acid, of not more than 2 grams per 100 grams (2.0%), and whose other characteristics correspond to those fixed for this category in the IOOC standards. Their quality is lower than extra virgin olive oils’. So you’ve probably realised that the lower the free acidity the better.


(These are good olives and if processed quickly should give a good oil)


Ordinary Virgin Olive

Virgin olive oil that has a free acidity, expressed as oleic acid, of not more than 3.3 grams per 100 grams (3.3%), and whose other characteristics correspond to those fixed for this category in the IOOC standards. This is an inferior oil with notable defects, whose classification might soon be changed to lampante olive oil by the IOOC. The EU has already eliminated this category, but other countries are still using it.


Lampante Virgin Olive Oil (Not Fit For Consumption As It Is)

Virgin olive oil that has a free acidity, expressed as oleic acid, of more than 3.3 grams per 100 grams (3.3%) and/or organoleptic and other characteristics corresponding to those fixed for this category in the IOOC standards. It is intended for refining or for technical use. These oils come from bad fruit or careless processing.


(These are very bad olives that have been sitting around for some time waiting to be processed.

Naturally nothing goes to waste in this business!)


Refined Olive Oil

Refined olive oil is the olive oil obtained from virgin olive oils by refining methods that do not lead to alterations in the initial glyceridic structure. It has a free acidity, of no more than 0.3 grams per 100 grams (0.3%) and its other characteristics correspond to those fixed for this category in the IOOC standards. 


This oil is obtained by refining virgin olive oils (not olive-pomace oils) that have a high acidity level and/or organoleptic defects, which are eliminated after refining. Over 50% of the oil produced in the Mediterranean area is of such poor quality that it must be refined to produce an edible product. Note that no solvents have been used to extract the oil, but it has been refined with the use of charcoal and other chemical and physical filters. An obsolete equivalent is "pure olive oil”. Refined oil is generally tasteless, odourless, and colourless. Many countries deem it unfit for human consumption due to poor flavour, not due to safety concerns. However, it is not officially described as “not fit for human consumption as it is” in the IOOC definitions, but I have my doubts.


Olive Oil

Olive oil is the oil consisting of a blend of refined olive oil and virgin olive oil fit for consumption as they are. It has a free acidity, expressed as oleic acid, of not more than 1 gram per 100 grams (1.0%). The cheap refined oil is mixed with more flavourful virgin oil. Some countries require a more specific designation. Most of the olive oil sold in the world falls into this category. Different blends are made, with more or less virgin oil, to achieve different tastes at different prices. Oils described as “Light” or “Extra Light” fall in this category, and are most likely made with a large proportion of refined oil. The chances are that at it’s best it will only have 20% virgin oil. 



Pomace is the ground flesh and pits left after pressing. Olive-pomace oil is the oil obtained by treating olive pomace with solvents or other physical treatments, to the exclusion of oils obtained by re-esterification processes and of any mixture with oils of other kinds. It is considered an inferior grade and is used for soap making or industrial purposes such as skin products, frying crisps etc.


Crude Olive-Pomace Oil

Crude olive-pomace oil is olive-pomace oil whose characteristics correspond to those fixed for this category in the IOOC standards. It is intended for refining for use for human consumption, or for technical use. It is not really fit for human consumption as it is.


Refined Olive-Pomace Oil

Refined olive-pomace oil is the oil obtained from crude olive-pomace oil by refining methods that do not lead to alterations in the initial glyceridic structure. It has a free acidity, expressed as oleic acid, of not more than 0.3 grams per 100 grams and its other characteristics correspond to those fixed for this category in the IOOC standards. It is generally refined by the same methods as Refined Olive Oil, except that the raw product is crude olive-pomace oil instead of low quality virgin oil. It is not considered fit for human consumption in many countries because of flavour considerations.

Olive-Pomace Oil

Olive pomace oil is the oil comprising the blend of refined olive-pomace oil and virgin olive oil fit for consumption as they are. It has a free acidity of no more than 1 gram per 100 grams (1%) and its other characteristics correspond to those fixed for this category in the IOOC standards. In no case shall this blend be called “olive oil”.


So there you have it. I bet you are even more confused than when we started. Well, to cut a long story short, what we all want at the end of the day is Virgin or Extra virgin olive oil, but we can’t all afford it, hence the rest of the inventions. If you can choose, always go for extra virgin olive oil. You will see many articles and many posts on blogs that some of the olive oils are better for salads and some are better for frying food such as “Olive Oil” (refined and virgin mixed) as they advertise a higher smoking point. This is true in general, the lower grade olive oils do have a higher smoking point, but that’s the problem, they are lower grade and offer no real benefits to the consumer. The higher smoking point is achieved by refining the oil and people see it as a substitute for sunflower oil. However it is perfectly possible to use extra virgin olive oil for frying and cooking contrary to general opinion, as it is generally considered too precious to waste on that and is only used for salads or drizzling over meat and fish. It is not necessary to spend a fortune on extra virgin olive oil but if it is a good extra virgin you will only need to use 50% of the volume you would normally use with sunflower oil or refined olive oil, as a good extra virgin expands with the heat much more than other oils. So if you look at it from this perspective it’s just as cheap. It is also important to choose the right variety of olive as certain varieties have higher smoking points than others and are more adequate for cooking where as others are more adequate for eating raw. This is another topic I will be discussing further on, which variety is best for each occasion. So, now we have narrowed the selection down to one category, what do we look for now?  I’ll be answering that in my next post: How to recognise an authentic Extra Virgin Olive Oil.







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WORLD OF OLIVE OIL - Introduction- PART 1
01 October 2012

This will be the first in a series of posts that I will be writing about the world of olive oil. One of Spain’s major assets, it is a fascinating world of taste, skill, honesty and lies. With the olive harvest just around the corner and being my major passion and hobby since I have been in Spain, I thought it apt to share my experiences with you. No better phrase applies to olive oil than “You can’t judge a book by it’s cover”, no matter where it is from.


  Yes, Spain, is great at wine it is also great at many other things but when it comes to olive oil it is by far the best in the world. I was very surprised to read not so long ago that 50% of the public interviewed in a UK survey carried out by the Spanish Olive Oil Association, didn’t know that Spain was an olive oil producer. They only mentioned Italy and Greece. Well this is very much the case with most Spanish produce as they haven’t been able to earn their righteous place in the market. 


Spain is in fact the largest olive oil producer in the world, producing over 44% of the world’s olive oil. So it is the Spanish harvest that sets the global pricing for olive oil and every September the world looks at Spain to see how the olives are developing just before the imminent harvest season. In fact a large percentage of Italian Brands and Greek Brands actually fill their bottles with Spanish olive oil, as do the French with Spanish wine. So the chances are you have all tried Spanish olive oil even though you thought it was Italian!


Yes, every year the Italians come over to Spain to negotiate their purchases for the season, as they are unable, by a long way, to meet international demand with national production, the same goes for Greece. So why has Spain not been able to position itself properly in the market? Well really it’s quite simple, it was always easier to sell bulk to the Italians, white label brands and the food industry around the world than actually build brands. However this is changing, over the past five years or so Spain is starting to make head way into the branded Olive oil market, especially gourmet brands, as countries start to catch on to the “Mediterranean diet fever” and start to look for more specialised products.

The world of olive oil at a first glance appears to be a simple world. You grow olives, you press them and you get olive oil. Well in essence it is that simple but it is also very complicated and even more so to understand what really is olive oil and what isn’t.  How do I know what I’m getting? This isn’t sunflower oil, there are nine different classes of olive oil. 


1. Extra Virgin Olive Oil 

2. Virgin Olive Oil

3. Virgin Olive Oil “Corriente”

4. Virgin Olive Oil “Lampante” 

5. Refined Olive Oil

6. Olive Oil

7. Crude Pomace Olive Oil

8. Refined Pomace Olive Oil

9. Pomace Olive Oil


Only number 1 and 2 are apt for direct human consumption but unfortunately all can be found eventually at some point in the food chain, once refined, filtered and treated many are mixed with a percentage of Extra virgin olive oil and then sold on as that, Extra Virgin Olive Oil, which it is not. The Italians have even been found guilty of using walnut oil to dilute their Virgin Olive oil and make it go further. It adds no taste so you would never know. It is not just the Italians but the Spanish as well, when regulations and fines are not strict enough and big bucks come into play, morality tends to take a side step all over the world. 

So how do you know what you are getting, well it is quite complicated and I will go into it in more detail on another post but one simple filter is price. If it is cheap you can be certain you are not getting 100% the real thing. Ask your self the question how is it possible that 1 litre of Olive oil can cost the same as a cheap bottle of wine? It costs a minimum of 4 times as much to make 1 litre of olive oil than it does to make 1 litre of wine. That just takes into consideration the amount of olives needed, not the rest of the farming process. From 100kg of grapes you can get approximately 80 litres of wine and from 100kg of Olives you can get a maximum of 20 litres of olive oil. Simple maths! You can buy a litre of white brand Extra Virgin Olive Oil for €2,50. It is literally impossible for this to be real authentic extra virgin olive oil, no matter how much you buy in bulk. The average price for extra virgin olive oil to the cooperative farmer is around 2 euros and then the mill has to make it’s cut, packaging, distribution, advertising and so on come into play after that, so I can assure you they are not loosing money, so what are they doing? The big brands are diluting their olive oil with other lower grade oils but maintaining it within the parameters of acidity for that class of olive oil at the time of packaging. But of course as the packaging and storage of these big brand olive oils is completely inadequate, the chances are by the time it hits your table it has completely lost all of it’s organoleptic and nutritional properties. So much for the Mediterranean diet!


This isn’t a problem just for foreign countries but the vast majority of the Mediterranean population aren’t aware of this either. In general they don’t have a clue what a good nutritional olive oil  is and how to identify it. So what I intend to do with this series of posts is help inform you all how to find, identify and understand what an authentic Extra Virgin Olive Oil is, because once you have discovered it there is no going back and you can truly say you have found “liquid gold” and rest assured the purest of them all is here in Spain.


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