Connoisseurs consider some gourmet olive oils liquid gold — Homer’s metaphor for the precious fluid — but many consumers are still scratching their heads over the definition of “extra virgin.”
Pop into Roma Market in Pasadena any day of the week and you are likely to encounter a swarm of people gathered around the small deli counter.
That’s where 72-year-old Rosario Mazzeo slices cold cuts to order for some of the most delicious sandwiches available in the foothills, simple combinations of mortadella, capicola and soprisada topped with provolone cheese on a fresh-baked roll. What these sumptuous subs lack in greens they more than make up for in flavor, thanks in large part to the sole condiment Mazzeo uses on his celebrated creations — fruity and fragrant Partanna extra virgin olive oil imported from Sicily. “My customers come from all over for this oil, from Santa Barbara to Long Beach,” Mazzeo says as he drizzles the aromatic oil over another sliced roll. He has been importing this particular brand for more than 30 years, along with a whopping 500 pounds of Partanna olives each month. Three-liter cans of Partanna olive oil fly off the shelves at Roma Market, but watch the olive oil connoisseurs long enough and you will see that Mazzeo keeps a secret stash of another brand, Maestro Oleari, behind the deli counter just for them. Although Maestro Oleari comes from the same region of Sicily as Partanna, Mazzeo is only able to import a very limited number of cases each year, which keeps the olive oil lovers coming back.
This level of devotion to gourmet olive oils is a trend that has recently gained momentum in the U.S., along with the popularity of the Mediterranean Diet, which preaches high olive oil consumption along with a regimen of grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, legumes and nuts, dairy products and fish. “These extra virgin olive oils are made with 100 percent olives — no chemicals or anything else. What they squeeze is what you get,” Mazzeo says. “With other olive oil makers there is a lot of monkey business. They mix in other ingredients.”
The “monkey business” Mazzeo refers to has been a hot topic on the domestic culinary scene ever since the Olive Center at the University of California, Davis, released a report in 2010 indicating that an alarming number of imported olive oils labeled “extra virgin” fell short of international and U.S. Department of Agriculture standards. Extra virgin is the gold standard of olive oil, according to the International Olive Council (I.O.C.), an intergovernmental organization established in Madrid in 1959. In the simplest terms, the I.O.C. defines extra virgin as olive oil from the fruit of the olive tree, produced by mechanical or other physical means, that has not undergone any treatment beyond washing, centrifuging, decanting and filtration. The U.C. Davis study, conducted in collaboration with the Australian Oils Research Laboratory, found that 69 percent of imported olive oils and 10 percent of California olive oils labeled extra virgin failed to meet such standards.
The U.S. is not a member of the I.O.C., but the U.S.D.A. has adopted similar standards in recent years — although some olive oil aficionados feel that the U.S.D.A. standards still do not go far enough. “Consumers should look at where the olives in their olive oil come from,” says Crystal Reibel, owner of Beyond The Olive in Pasadena. “If the olives come from six different countries, it might not be so good. Also look at when it was harvested or a ‘best by’ date.”
Reibel and her husband, Chip, opened their specialty food store last year to educate consumers about the benefits of cooking with extra virgin olive oils and vinegars produced and bottled in California. When it comes to olive oil, Reibel says, Spain produces the most, Greece consumes the most and Italy exports the most. She also notes that Tunisia is another region that grows a lot of olives, but that the oil produced there has historically been shipped to Italy to package and sell.
“California is much more strict on what is produced here than the laws on imported oil, so I would suggest a California oil until the U.S.D.A. can catch up with the fraudulent imported oil market,” Reibel says. One factor in the state’s higher standards is the California Olive Oil Council (C.O.O.C.), a nonprofit trade and marketing association founded in 1992, which offers a seal certifying what it describes as “true extra virgin olive oil.” To be able to label their olive oil “California certified extra virgin,” producers must submit their wares for chemical analysis and sensory evaluation by the C.O.O.C. Panel of Tasters. “Consumers are educated and are keen to have a healthy lifestyle,” says Patricia Darragh, the C.O.O.C.’s executive director. “They read labels and want to know the source of their food.”
Educating knowledge-hungry consumers about California’s higher standards, highlighting the differences between extra virgin olive oils produced in California and many imported brands, is the Reibels’ mission. The counter at Beyond The Olive is lined with bottles of olive oil available for tasting, and customers can be heard to utter terms like “fruity,” “bitter,” “pungent” and “peppered” after taking a shot of straight olive oil from a plastic tasting cup. The staff regularly hosts classes and tastings aimed at informing customers about the differences among varieties, harvest times and producers.
Beyond The Olive also sells a variety of extra virgin olive oils in bulk so that regulars can reuse their bottles and enjoy discounts on some of their favorite varieties, including Ascolano and Manzanillo, which can range from $15 to $31 per bottle off the shelf. Of course, gourmet olive-oil lovers — much like many wine connoisseurs — are willing to pay a premium for the specialty labels they love. “The price is a little higher, but the quality is high too,” Mazzeo says. “If you want the good stuff, you have to pay the price.”
Originally published in Arroyo Monthly Magazine in 2011