This article originally appeared on VICE Italy.
Good olive oil is like good wine – both are made using traditional methods perfected by craftsmen, and both make every meal better. But unlike wine, nobody cares about the olive oil they pick up at the shop – most people are happy to go for a £5 bottle and call it a day.
In fairness, it can be a confusing product to shop for, so I asked an expert for tips on how to navigate the olive oil aisle at your local shop.
Giulia Vittoria Hanke is an organic olive oil producer in the medieval town of Spoleto, near Perugia in Italy. She used to work for a start-up in Milan, but decided to leave that behind to manage her family’s hotel, Hotel Gattapone, with her brother. Once there, she set about the daunting task of modernising the family’s olive groves and making them organic.
The olive groves of the Santi-Hanke family.
Hanke and the author talking underneath olive trees.
Hanke’s first tip to up your olive oil game is to only buy extra virgin. “Simply put, extra virgin olive oil has very low acidity. The lower the acidity of the oil, the better its quality," she explained. Extra virgin olive oil is a staple of the Mediterranean diet, and is regulated by its own EU law. It’s made from hand-picked ripe olives, which are turned into a paste and slowly crushed by machines which extract the oil.
The next thing you should pay attention to is on the label: “Look for the PDO and PGI denominations," Hanke said. PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) and PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) are trademarks obtained when the product is made wholly or partly in a specific territory. They often indicate a smaller-scale production, meaning the oil hasn’t been shipped around the world and treated in different factories.
Many of the bottles on supermarket shelves are labelled as “blend of olive oils of European Union origin and not of European Union origin” (or similar), although sometimes the font on the label is so small it’s hard to find that information. These blends are often used by big brands, which is why looking for the PDO and PGI rather than a brand can simplify that process.
A bottle made of a "blend of olive oils of European Union origin". Photo by the author
Another trick is to look for “cold-pressed” oil. The process takes its name from the temperature of the olive paste at the time of extraction: no more than 27 degrees for extra virgin olive oil.
“Cold extraction is a characteristic of true extra virgin olive oil,” Hanke explained. “It best preserves the organoleptic properties of the oil [taste, smell, consistency and appearance].”
The actual bottle holding the oil is another clue when it comes to quality. The oil should always be packaged in dark-coloured glass, since light accelerates the oil’s oxidation process, which eventually makes it rancid. The darker the bottle, the better. And if you’re not going to use the product right away – because you bought it in bulk, for instance – keep it in a dark storage space.
A good bottle of olive oil, conserved in a dark glass. Photo by the author
Now, the elephant in the room: price. According to Coldiretti, the largest agricultural association in Italy, you should never pay less than €7 (£6.30) a litre for olive oil. They say anything under that is suspicious, because it wouldn’t cover the costs of the production.
“In my opinion, that is still too cheap,” said Hanke. Just like with any high-quality food product, there are many hidden costs the consumer doesn’t see. “Just to give an example, the land must be tended to all year round, regardless of the harvest period,” she explained. The trees also need to be pruned and fertilised without chemical products (if you buy organic), which often results in a smaller harvest. Basically, by paying just a few more euros per litre, you can support smaller businesses and buy a better product.
If you already have a go-to oil, but never really think about how good it is, Hanke suggests giving it a good sniff and trying a bit on its own. “The oil should smell of vegetables, freshly cut grass, fresh olives,” she said. Overall, it should leave your mouth feeling dry and clean, without the greasy sensation of a cheap oil.
Unripe olives at the Santi-Hanke olive groves.
Finally, Hanke encourages you to take your time in the aisle.
“Labels are really our only tool to know what we are buying,” she said. “A few minutes can make a big difference.”