Since ancient times oils have been regarded as a precious commodity, the ultimate gift. Today the range of olive oils available to us is greater than ever before. To help us understand some differences in these olive oils I asked Tom McArthur, owner of The Bountiful Basket, an olive oil store, for some tips on how to select from the many choices.
Allen: What's the difference between virgin and extra virgin olive oil? Can I taste the difference?
Tom McArthur, Owner, The Bountiful Basket, Carmel, CA: Allen there are four grades of olive oil. The very top, the very finest is called extra virgin. It is totally free from defects and most of the defects come from olives. These little characters turn rancid on you and start fermenting without too much trouble. And once you get a defect in the oil it can not be accepted as an extra virgin olive oil. Extra virgin olive oil is under 1 percent acidity, absolutely free of defects and has a very positive taste to it - buttery, herbaceous, and fruity.
The next level is virgin oil. And virgin oil is allowed to have trace elements of defect in it. It does not score as high on a fruity level and can have a higher acidity. We very rarely see virgin olive oil in the US, because by the time it gets here it is past its prime and so nobody wants to buy it or import it.
The third level is called ordinary and that's what most people buy. It has a higher level of impurity in it and frequently doesn't taste like anything, but it's one of the common oils people buy and it's inexpensive because it's produced from oils other than first class quality olives.
And then the last quality of oil is called lampante. And when lampante oil is pressed it almost looks like pitch, like black top. It comes from badly fermented olives. It has to be refined three times before it can put it into your mouth. Once for color, once for taste, and once for acidity.
Now that I've said a few words about the quality of extra virgin oil, I would want to say, who says it's an extra virgin olive oil? Is it really? And what is that date on the bottle?
You see, olive oil has a shelf life of roughly 18 months to two years. And after that whether the bottle has been opened or not, the oil begins to go rancid. And when you buy an olive oil and you want to give it as a gift, you don't want to give someone a bottle of rancidity. And you want to know, how old is this oil, has it been stored properly, was it in the shop window where the sun was shining on it? So, is it really an extra virgin olive oil, how old is it - is it fresh oil? The second, thing has to do with style, variety.
Olive oil has three primary styles; buttery, creamy oil generally golden in color, which is generally produced from fully ripe olives.
The second style is what we call fruity, from mid-ripe olives. The fruity taste has got a little bit of leaf to it, faint green. You can taste the leccino olive, pendolino olive.
And the third style is the more bold, herbaceous, peppery oil; the green oil; green gold if you like. Just a wonderful oil for people who have never tasted herbaceous oil.
Allen: Tom, if someone wanted to give it as a gift, how would you direct them?
Tom: If I were buying oil for somebody I would probably head toward the green gold. And let them try something they've not frequently tasted before.
One of the questions we're often asked is how is California olive oil doing? California olive oil is doing superbly. It doesn't have a California taste. Olive oils don't understand national boundaries and the quality of olive oil we're producing in California is great. The only problem with California olive oil is the scarcity of olives, and that's being taken care of as more and more farmers see this as an alternative for their farming future.