OLIVE OIL CLASSIFICATIONS: WHO GOOD IS THE "EXTRA" IN VIRGIN OLIVE OILS?
Olive oil shelves whether in a fine food shop or a supermarket tend to offer a large selection of brands at very different price points. In the UK, a bottle of 0.5 litre can vary from £2.99 to over £30. Consumers have the choice between large international brands, supermarket own labels and smaller artisan producers. Most olive oils sold in the UK are labelled as extra virgin olive oils, distinguishing them from the lower quality categories which are virgin olive oils and lampante (not suitable for human consumption). Virgin olive oils being almost non-existent in the UK, they leave the extra virgin olive oil category as the only available in the retail network. A number of chemical tests as well as a sensory analysis are the key criteria for the classification of an olive oil as extra virgin. Its acidity may not exceed 0.8%,its peroxide level (which measures the level of oxidation) has to be to below 20 mmeq/kg in addition to a number of additional technical measurements. In addition, an olive oil has to be free of any sensory defects to be considered extra virgin. It is becoming clear that the classification as "extra virgin olive oil" is relatively broad and could easily be sub-divided into average, good and excellent. The fact that olive oil is a natural juice which can evolve in quality during its shelf life makes this distinction particularly relevant for the consumer. An oil may satisfy all the legal requirements at the time of bottling but could deteriorate to a virgin oil before its consumption.
SENSORY PROFILE: QUALITY IS OBVIOUS WHEN YOU SMELL AND TASTE REALLY GOOD OILS
Good and excellent olive oils tend to present a chemical profile which is significantly better than the legal requirements and a sensory profile which is well defined across three key attributes fruitiness, bitterness and pepperiness. This can also be regarded as an oil's personality. Depending on the olive varieties, nature of the terroir, weather conditions, time of harvest, extraction method extra virgin olive oil offer a similar variety as wines. In order to to find the best oils for you, we would recommend trying various oils from different regions starting with mild profiles and progressively moving into intense green oils which will have very specific culinary uses. Many fine food shops and some supermarket display sensory profile and food pairing suggestions and can be a great starting point in your search. The Flos Olei guide, which is the equivalent of the Parker guide for olive oils offers a wealth of information on over 700 olives oil from over countries with a simple scoring system, sensory profiles and food pairing suggestions. It can be purchased in hard copies on our website or alternatively downloaded on smart phones in its short version. International olive oil competition such as the Mario Solinas award, Alimentos de Espana, Evooleum, Ovibeja and BIOL are some of the events bringing together some of the world's best olive sommeliers judging the sensory profile of some of the world's best olive oils. This can be a further source of information in the search for exceptional olive oil Grand Crus.
PACKAGING : BUYING WITH YOUR EYES
The quality of an extra virgin olive oil is highly sensitive to its storage conditions. As exposure to light and heat can be highly detrimental to olive oil, we would recommend choosing olive oils bottled in either dark glass or tins. it means that the producer has chosen to make a significant investment in a more expensive packaging (which also tends to be easier to recycle) in order to protect the product for longer. Even though the price per litre may be more economical for larger formats, it is advisable to choose a format which can be consumed within 2-3 months at most. Once a bottle has been opened, the contact with open air on an increasing surface will trigger an oxydation process which will lead to a deterioration in the quality of the olive oil. A 0.5 litre tends to be a very popular for this particular reason. 3 and 5 litre formats are best suited for restaurants.
Design and packaging have evolved radically over the last 10 years with highly sophisticated professionals creating the most impactful labels. You may very well look for an exceptionally elegant bottle for your kitchen but ultimately exceptional olive oils tend to be produced in small quantities by artisan family businesses with limited marketing budgets.