Olive Oil: The Bad and the Good

First, the Bad

I recently read the book, Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil by Tom Mueller. It opened my eyes to the shocking process by which most of the world’s olive oil is produced and sold. While we know much about the health benefits of olive oil, these benefits convey only via fresh, pure, unadulterated olive oil. Unfortunately, there is little chance the mass produced olive oil you buy at your local grocery store actually contains “100% Extra Virgin Olive Oil” as the label claims. Because of lax standards in regulating the industry abroad, and due to lack of truth-in-labeling requirements for imports to the United States, most commercially available olive oil is mixed with other cheaper and less healthy seed oils (e.g., cottonseed, sunflower, canola oil).

Furthermore, due to lengthy shipping times and dubious storage conditions, these inferior quality oils are often rancid by the time they make it to grocery store shelves. Consumption of rancid oils can be deleterious to health. But because the American palate has become accustomed to the taste of these inferior oils, we hardly notice the “off” taste or the adulterated flavor of the olive oils we typically consume.

Mueller educates the reader about how small olive farms can hardly survive in the cut-throat world of international olive oil production. The average consumer tends to base purchasing decisions on the lowest available price and does not realize that the product they are paying for is inferior. As long as consumers are unaware of the poor quality of olive oils they purchase and are unwilling to pay the true cost of quality olive oil, the industry is unlikely to change. And unlike the wine industry in Italy, which became highly regulated after a number of deaths occurred from adulterated wine produced in the 1980s, the olive oil industry has had no such calamity that has forced governments to pass laws and enforce regulations which would implement higher standards.

Now, The Good

In spite of all this bad news, there is hope! As consumers become better educated about the issues surrounding olive oil, small specialty shops have opened throughout the United States that specialize in the real thing. And if you are lucky enough to live in or travel to California, where 99% of the olive oil in the US is produced, you might even be able to visit an olive oil ranch and purchase it directly from the grower.

I recently had the pleasure of visiting the 140 acre Pasolivo Ranch in Paso Robles, CA. Not only did I see the olive orchard where the olives are grown, I also received a tour of the milling facility. Afterwards, I was able to taste fresh oil from these very trees and purchase some high quality olive oil to bring home.

Pasolivo harvests their olives by hand in the fall. (It should be noted that most large industrial growers use machines that voilently shake the trees, damaging the trees and bruising the olives in the process.) After harvesting, the olives immediately go through a sorting and cleaning process before they are pressed. The olives and pits are pressed together in one ton batches, creating a thick paste. This pomace undergoes treatment in a centrifuge to separate the oil and remove any naturally occurring water. The oil is then transferred to stainless steel vats. Over the next several months the remaining sediments settle to the bottoms of the tanks and are drained off. Finally, the unfiltered oil is bottled.

The entire milling operation takes place here. Freshly harvested olives are weighed, twigs and debris removed, and then pressed. The pomace is centrifuged to separate the oil from the paste and remove any water. The oil is then routed to large stainless steel tanks where any remaining sediments are allowed to sink to the bottom of the tanks before being drained off. The unfiltered oil is then bottled.

“Olio Nuovo”

The early oil produced in the first two weeks of pressing is called “olio nuovo” or “new oil.”  It is highly prized by Italians for its robust grassy flavor but is extremely difficult to come by because of its short-lived and fragile nature. I was lucky enough to get to taste three of Pasolivo’s olio nuovo blends from the 2017 harvest. Comprised of different olive varietals, these very special oils were among the most delicious olive oils I’ve ever tasted. They were all dark green in color, with a fresh, grassy flavor.

The rare and elusive olio nuovo, or “new oil” from this year’s harvest.
This olio nuovo is a blend of three varietals of olives: Mission, Frantoio, and Lucca.

The Tasting Room

Pasolivo also produces flavored olive oils, all made with fresh, local ingredients. For example, the lemon flavored oil uses lemon peels that have been pressed to extract the essential oil which is then incorporated into the olive oil. The basil flavored oil is macerated with fresh locally grown basil leaves for a short period of time to impart the wonderful flavor of basil to the oil.

Tasters are encouraged to dip bread in various combinations of flavored oils and vinegars. Spice mixtures are offered to enhance the tasting experience.

In Pasolivo’s tasting room, visitors are given a complimentary tasting of all eleven types of oil they produce. In addition, they mix up their tasting repertoire with various flavored vinegars and herb/spice/salt mixtures from local producers to give visitors a unique tasting experience and to display the range of uses for their products.

This olive oil was fresh, fruity and pungent, far superior to any mass-produced supermarket olive oil. While its spicy, robust flavors might require a palate adjustment for some people, I loved the intense flavor and the kick in the back of my throat that this oil produced. In fact, knowing that this “kick” is exactly what honest olive oil is supposed to provide, I relished it.

As one might expect, this is not an inexpensive product. The labor intensive process involved in producing these small artisanal batches of liquid gold demands that consumers pay a fair price. Pasolivo offers a membership program where a 15% discount is provided to those agreeing to receive three shipments per year. Knowing that I am getting pure unadulterated olive oil makes this membership well worth the splurge. For more information on their Press Club, click here.

Upon joining Pasolivo’s Press Club, I was given this lovely burlap tote bag and a recipe book containing recipes using their olive oils and other products. With each shipment, I will receive new recipes to add to the notebook.

Since reading Extra Virginity  I have not looked at olive oil in the same way. And now that I’ve found a great resource for truly excellent olive oil, I will gladly support this industry. I encourage you to seek out local sources for high quality olive oil near you. Let us help create demand for the real thing so that oils of a dubious nature are not allowed to continue to flourish.

Pasolivo’s beautiful tasting room offers a variety of olive oil related products including bath and body products, handcrafted wood and ceramic items, and flavored salts, spices, and vinegars.

For more information on this topic, see the 60 Minutes expose, “AgroMafia” here. Also, Tom Mueller has compiled a list of the best supermarket olive oils at reasonable prices. To see his list, click here.

Note: I have not received any compensation of any kind from Pasolivo for this blog. All opinions are my own. I do wish to express my appreciation to Pasolivo for the tour and special tasting of the olio nuovo I received.

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