What Makes a Good Olive Oil Good?

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Stocking Pelia olive oil has taken the team at BakeryBits on a bit of a journey to understand the differences between olive oils especially the complexities of the flavours – and how to characterise them. Philip at Pelia has given us the benefit of his extensive knowledge, some of which is related here. Philip describes the key aspects of olive oil flavours and what to look for when you taste them. The way that olives are grown and transformed into the delicious oil is a very important contributor to the final quality of the oil. We have a video showing how this is performed at Pelia along with a description of all of the stages in making the oil. We found it interesting enough to warrant a blog article and hope that you agree.

Scroll down for a video showing how Pelia Olive Oil is made

Olive oil being pouredThe Flavours of Olive Oil

Olive oil is a fruit juice and like any other, tastes best when fresh and made from the best fruit. Like other fruits, take apples for example, individual varieties vary in flavour and also like apple juice (or wine, for that matter), mass producers tend to mix and blend many varieties together to achieve their finished product. It may be perfectly acceptable but will lose the flavours unique to any one specific variety grown in a particular region or grove. Like bread, cheese or wine, the individuality and the variability from season-to-season is what makes it much more interesting to taste. A cheddar from a specific small-scale farm will generally have much more individuality and character than a supermarket block, and so it is with olive oil. Italy consumes more olive oil than it produces and exports a lot more than it produces. The vast majority of Greek olive oil is actually sold in bulk and sent to Italy, where it is blended with lesser oils, usually from Spain, but also from Turkey and Tunisia, and brought to a level that is just within the parameters of extra virgin.

Philip describes the basic flavour components of olive oil in three parts: the aroma, initial taste and after-taste. Closely related, the aroma and initial taste can range from a bland “oily” sensation, hardly distinguishable from a general cooking oil to a powerful olive scent and for the freshest oils, grassy, green notes that tell you that you are tasting a good oil. The after-taste, Philip says, is typically peppery, ranging from subtle to downright, well, peppery. The level of pepperiness is an indicator of quality the pepperiness should be at a pleasant level rather than harsh and bitter which poorer olives oils commonly are. In general, though, a balance of aroma, taste and aftertaste to suit you is what to look for – but Philip suggests that just reading the label is not reliable – and certainly when we compared olive oils across the price range from our local supermarket, we found little relation in price and label description to our individual perception of flavour and quality.

Olives being processedSome believe that the colour of olive oil is a good indicator of quality. Philip is clear that this is not the case: indeed, some manufacturers (in the US in particular) colour their oils to match the customer perception of this: nothing beats your own senses. In reality, the colour of the olive oil comes from the variety of the olive pressed (Kalamata olives make a dark green olive oil while the Manaki olives used by Pelia make a light golden colour oil).

 

Olive Oil Grades

I had a vague understanding the extra-virgin olive oil is the best to go for but did not really appreciate what this means. Again, Philip has provided a short guide to the grades of oil.

Olive oil is categorised by the level of acidty, the lower the number, the higher the grade of olive oil. The lower the acidity the better the oil. Pelia Olive Oil has an acidity of between 0.3-0.4%, which is very low and fits the extra-virgin group below – the highest grade).

  • Extra-virgin olive oil comes from virgin oil production only, contains no more than 0.8% acidity, and is judged to have a superior flavour. Extra Virgin olive oil accounts for less than 10% of oil in many producing countries; the percentage is far higher in the Mediterranean countries (Greece: 80%, Italy: 45%, Spain 30%).
  • Virgin olive oil comes from virgin oil production only, has an acidity less than 1.5%, and is judged to have a good flavour.
  • Pure olive oil are usually a blend of refined and virgin production oil.
  • Olive oil is a blend of virgin and refined production oil, of no more than 2% acidity. It generally lacks a distinct flavor.
  • Pomice oil is refined pomace olive oil often blended with some virgin oil. It is fit for consumption, but may not be described simply as olive oil. It has a more neutral flavour than pure or virgin olive oil, making it unfashionable among connoisseurs; however, it has the same fat composition as regular olive oil, giving it the same health benefits. It also has a high smoke point, and thus is widely used in restaurants as well as home cooking in some countries.
  • Lampante oil is olive oil not suitable as food; lampante comes from olive oil’s long- standing use in oil-burning lamps. Lampante oil is mostly used in the industrial market.

olive treesEnvironmental and Processing Factors

Olive oil is akin to wine making – both are made from fruit and the production methods as well as the environment (or Terroir) have a significant impact on the finished product. As you might expect, happier trees and better handling yields better olive oil:

  • Climate – 90% of all olive oil comes from the Mediterranean as this is the best climate for olives to grow. Around 80% of Greek olive oil is Extra Virgin, 45% of Italian, and 30% of Spanish.
  • Olive Trees – Positioning of the trees can play a role. Proper access to sunlight is important and the age of the tree helps as well, with older trees usually producing a better oil. The trees also need space to breath, so the more spread out the grove the better. The more industrial groves where many trees are packed together will not have the same breathing space and the quality of the oil will likely suffer.
  • Cutting (Picking) – the way the olives are cut plays a huge role in the quality of the oil. The best method is the traditional method where olives are hand cut using a type of comb and letting the olives fall on a net below. Some cut the olives by shaking the tree, but this will reduce the quality of the oil since, like apples, the fruit falling to the ground is susceptible to bruising – and bruised olives have a greater level of bitterness. In large industrial olive groves mainly in Spain and California the olive trees are lined up and big harvesters go through picking the olives, this method is very quick and efficient but the olive oil produced from these olives is of a low quality.
  • Collecting – It is important once the olives are cut, that only the ones cut that day are taken to be pressed. If a single olive that has fallen earlier is picked up and put amongst the fresh olives just cut this could substantially decrease the quality of the whole batch of olive oil. It will have the effect of making the olive oil more bitter and possibly have a higher acidity. There should be no delay in taking olives to press: once the olives are collected they are put into sacks and taken to the olive press for pressing. Any delay in this will have an effect in the quality and can severely increase acidity. The worst thing possible is to leave the sacks in the sun for any period of time. The best course of action is for the olives to be cut in the morning and to be pressed that same day in the afternoon.
  • Pressing – There are various methods for pressing olive oil. The old fashioned system used rotating stones to crush the olives into an olive paste which was then placed on sheets and piled up. Then the sheets were pressed with a big weight and the olive oil was squeezed out. Today the olives are crushed into a paste using a type of mixer and then the olive oil is extracted in a centrifuge. Traditionalists say that the old form produces better olive oil, but in truth the centrifuge probably does a better job. In reality both can produce excellent olive oil, what is more important is that they are used correctly and that the process before and after are also done correctly.
  • Cold Pressing – A term often used in the name of an olive oil is “Cold Pressed”. This means that the olive paste is not heated to above 27 degrees Celsius during the pressing process. The paste is often heated as at a higher temperature more olive oil comes out of the olives than does at a lower temperature. However the olive oil that comes out when the olive paste is not heated tends to be of a better quality than when it is heated. Pelia presses its olive oil at 22-23 degrees Celsius.
  • First Pressing – The term “First Pressed” is often used as well. This refers to the olive oil only being pressed once. By repressing the olive paste more olive oil can be produced, but the quality of this is much worse. For olive oil to be Extra Virgin it needs to be pressed only once.
  • Filtering – At the end of the pressing process olive oil is filtered. This is not entirely necessary, but is done more for aesthetic reasons so customers can see a clear substance in the bottle. Unfiltered oil will be cloudy and parts can pile up at the bottom of the bottle which makes it look undesirable. Of course this is completely natural and is more a good thing rather than bad. Nevertheless the norm today is to filter olive oil and so most producers including Pelia filters the oil. Pelia uses only a  light filter the oil so it is still slightly cloudy and does maintain most of the properties…olive oil does not have to be clear.
  • Storage – Once the olive oil has been pressed it will be stored for some time. Once it comes out of the press it has a very strong taste, which many like, but for commercial reasons it is left to sit about 3 months for the taste to stabilise. During this period, and any other during which it is stored both the conditions as well as the storage tank need to be appropriate. The best is to use stainless steel tanks designed for olive oil. Some farmers can’t afford these and use plastic tanks which create reactions with the olive oil and severely reduce the quality of the oil, so the storage tank is very important. The olive oil must also be stored away from sunlight and not in too much heat.
  • Packaging – Olive oil is usually packaged in either Glass or PET bottles, Bag-in-box, or metal tins. Glass bottles are usually darker to protect against sunlight and it is recommended that olive oil is stored is a dry cool place away from sunlight. If it is stored in the sun then the quality can deteriorate.
  • Life – Legally in Greece we have to put 18 months on the label once it is packaged. But in truth olive oil will not go bad and stored properly will last many years.

So, olive oil is a subjective matter, but there are things to look for in order that you are more likely to taste an oil that is of excellent quality and will have flavours that are complex and will compliment its use, be it drizzled onto bread, in a salad, for frying or baking.

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2 Comments

  1. Olives are susceptible to damage and rapid degradation which in turn leads to a higher acidity in the resultant oil, or a poorer quality. The best olives are picked carefully and quickly, a labour-intensive job where an experienced picker may only get through half a dozen mature trees in a day, and they must be milled and pressed the same day too. Mechanically picked olives will, in general, be bruised in the process and typically, they are picked this way from olive groves tightly planted in rows, rather than more haphazardly spaced as groves of antiquity, where the trees have more room, better air circulation and generally better olives as a result.

  2. Can you explain why olives picked using tractors equipped with umbrellas (described in your article as harvesters) are responsible for producing low-quality oil? The olives don’t hit the ground and are taken for processing extremely quickly, thereby ensuring they retain the maximum freshness and flavour. This is the first I have heard that this harvesting method produces poorer oil.

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