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WORLD OF OLIVE OIL- How to recognise an authentic Extra Virgin Olive Oil - PART 3
08 October 2012 @ 03:30

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


Like 1


John said:
12 October 2012 @ 17:58

Great post Ian, thanks for that! Can't wait for the next part!

Heather said:
12 October 2012 @ 18:04

Can't wait for the next article. Hurry up! Thanks for such a great read.

Steve watling said:
13 October 2012 @ 09:59

Fascinating read, Ian. What is your take on organic olive oil? I know 'organic' is no guarantee of a superior product, but by and large organic farmers are more conscious about quality and usually passionate about their crop. I have seen organic Spanish olive oils in the shops.

Lorna Hart said:
13 October 2012 @ 10:28

Absolutely love these articles about olive oil and all the mysteries surrounding it. Would love to do a similar but briefer version on my website which is still at the baby stage. Of course the olive oil industry is probably different in Portugal but I suspect that the type bought in the shops is subject to the same rules. I would be grateful if you would be agreeable to me using some of your very interesting information in a very short article on my site on how to buy good olive oil, to enhance what I discover about Portuguese olive oil. I will of course give credit for my source of info.

Steve said:
13 October 2012 @ 16:11

What a brilliant series of articles. I'm loving reading them. Thanks so much for taking the time to write them Ian.

John said:
13 October 2012 @ 18:45

Most interesting article I have read recently, will visit our local co-operative [Olvera]and study their Olive Oil more closely than I have previously.

eos_ian said:
14 October 2012 @ 11:09

Hi Steve Watling,
What's my take on organic olive oil? Well to be honest it's quite a long story. I will be writing an article on organic olive oil very shortly but in a nutshell it is only an environmental issue. As far as the olive oil is concerned it is extremely difficult to harvest good quality olive oil organically. You can get a decent oil, yes, but to get a great oil is extremely difficult and I only know of one really worth while, "Abbae de Queiles", the rest are just normal/OK olive oils. Organic olive oil is not intrinsically better than non organic olive oil. The flavour is the same but the quality of the oil would be in general terms "normal- run of the mill".If you research a bit you'll see that very few organic oils are ever recognised at competitions.It is extremely difficult and to do it properly as it is extremely laborious and costly and no-one does all that it takes because it would be too expensive. The main problem is the Olive Fly,which destroys the olives, so you either harvest in a region that does not favor this insect which is at higher altitudes and cooler temperatures, where normally the soil is not so adequate either or use natural traps and deterrents which aren't totally effective. So yes there are some good organic oils but are they better? No. But can one achieve a premium organic olive oil? Very very unlikely. So should you pay more for organic olive oil because it is supposed to be healthier? No. It isn't healthier for you it is healthier for the environment. Hope that orientates you a bit better. Thanks for reading!

eos_ian said:
14 October 2012 @ 11:20

Hi Lorna

So glad you are enjoining the articles! Or course you can use my articles, as you said, please make reference to "Eye on Spain" and my blog. Portugal has some fine olive oils and very similar to Spanish Olive Oils. The Olive Oil Industry is "Mediterranean" and the same tricks, frauds and misleading labels are in Spain, Portugal,Italy, Greece and other countries. However there are also great, honest brands and farmers in all of these countries too.

eos_ian said:
14 October 2012 @ 11:21

Thanks everyone for you comments, I will be posting my next article this evening!

Frank Barton said:
24 October 2012 @ 14:13

Thanks for Part 3 in this 13th. October issue but Part 1 was in the 6th. October issue. What happened to Part 2? A very interesting subject and enjoying the read.

eos_ian said:
24 October 2012 @ 16:01

Hi Frank you'll find it in the menu bar of latest posts on the right hand side. It was posted on the 3rd of October. Part 1 was on the 1st of October and parts 3 and 4 on the 8th and 15th respectively. Glad you are enjoying them!

Ian said:
21 May 2016 @ 18:18

Hi,could you recommend a good extra virgin oil.Can you buy a top oil for under £15 a litre?.I don,t suppose they,ll be available in Wales but the good news is we,re moving to the Costa de la Luz so hopefully they should be readily available.Keep up the great work.

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