True extra virgin olive oil has been prized throughout the ages as a food, medicine and beauty product as well as a vital component in religious rituals. In its purest form it has as many subtle flavors as wine, and medical researchers continuing to discover its health giving properties.
However, finding it in its genuinely pure form is becoming more and more difficult. Criminal practices abound, from adulterating it with cheaper oils to faking it entirely. Some of it isn't even made from olives. What we get in American supermarkets, for instance, is often a far cry from the sublime authentic product.
The federal government has standards for extra virgin olive oil. Tested products receive a seal but producers submit their oil on a voluntary basis. So, most of the products labeled EVOO can be made by combining oils from different harvests, using chemicals to extract their oil and rarely dating the product.
Good quality oil is best used within six months of opening. The shelf life of unopened mass produced oil is 18 to 24 months. If you are interested in pursuing this topic in depth, there is a wonderful and very well written new book by Tom Mueller, amusingly titled "Extra Virginity."
We chose to approach this subject for ourselves by visiting the two serious purveyors of olive oil in our area, Olive Oil and Beyond on Balboa Island, which features oils from around the world, and We Olive at the OC Mart Mix in the South Coast Collection in Costa Mesa, specializing in oil produced only in California.
Matthew Pour, owner of Olive Oil and Beyond, had a well of information about the problems in the industry and the difficulties involved in trying to regulate it. The International Olive Oil Council has begun a program of testing oils with gas chromatography to detect fraudulent practices that mask the smells of inferior oils.
His store features stainless steel-spouted containers filled with boutique oils from small producers. There is also a large selection of other products: vinegars, pastas, honeys, etc.
Pour is particularly focused on the many health benefits of his products, which can be salutary for diabetes, some cancers, high blood pressure, obesity and aging, to name a few very important ones. Good oil will cost more, but inexpensive oils will not give you these health benefits.
It takes 30 to 35 pounds of olives to make a half liter of extra virgin olive oil. Each of Pour's oils has been chemically analyzed and the results are posted above every container. The healthful, anti-oxidant, polyphenol count is higher in the more robust oils.
Whichever of these extra virgin olive oils you choose will be bottled for you at the time of purchase to guarantee its freshness. Prices range from $19 to $24 for 12.75 ounces.
At We Olive in the OC Mart Mix, we met the very welcoming Phil and Deb Brooks at their oil and wine tasting bar. They are purveyors of exclusive boutique California products and have a small tapas menu as well.
The California Olive Oil Council is the only regulatory agency in America that exceeds the strict international standards for EVOO, and every bottle at We Olive bears this seal.
California is one of the fastest growing olive-producing regions in the world and will exceed France by 2014. California is unique in that it has a large number of varietals, originating from Tuscany, Greece and Spain.
Tasting these oils is a revelatory experience. In a way it's very similar to tasting wine and requires developing a palate. For one thing, the aftertaste seems bitter and leaves a peppery taste in the back of your throat.
However, when Deb added salt to the oil and gave us bread for dipping, the bitterness disappeared. Phil told us the same thing happens when the oil is combined with food. Flavors can be described as mild, buttery and fruity, to grassy and robust.
We Olive's prices average $19 to $23 for a 12.75-ounce bottle but $13 to $16 if you return the bottle for a refill.
ELLE HARROW and TERRY MARKOWITZ were in the gourmet food and catering business for 20 years. They can be reached for comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If You Go
Olive Oil and Beyond, 210 Marine Ave., Balboa Island; (949) 566-9380 or OliveOilandBeyond.com
We Olive, at the OC Mart Mix, 3313 Hyland Ave., Costa Mesa; (949) 284-0609 or ocmix.weolive.com