Why local olive oil is really lekker
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South Africans generally don’t need any convincing that our local wines are up there with the best in the world.
But it’s a different story when it comes to olive oil.
The “Mediterranean diet”, celebrated for its health benefits, probably has a lot to do with the fact that many South Africans believe that the world’s best olive oils hail from Italy and Spain.
That, and slick marketing.
Which explains why local olive oils count for only about 30 percent of total olive oil sales. And it doesn’t help that the imported oils are mostly substantially cheaper than the South African ones.
That’s a shame, because South Africa happens to produce some of the finest olive oils in the world, according to international olive oil expert Tom Mueller.
An American investigative journalist living in a village in north-western Italy, Mueller first got his teeth into the olive oil industry for an article he wrote for The New Yorker magazine back in 2007.
Out of that Slippery Business article grew Mueller’s book, Extra Virginity, in which he reveals that much of the oil that gets passed off as extra virgin olive oil in supermarkets across the world is actually adulterated olive oil with low-grade vegetable oils and added artificial colouring.
Some of the oil starts off being half decent, but by the time it’s sold, it is so old that it has lost its taste and its health properties along with it.
Governments have been loathe to do anything about this mass deception because bad olive oil isn’t fatal, says Mueller, who spoke to Consumer Talk last week during a visit to SA to promote his book.
He has nothing but praise for South African olive oil producers, saying our olive oil is among the best he’s ever tasted, and far better than most of the imported olive oils on sale locally.
That’s because, as Mueller says, cheap olive oil and extra virgin olive oil are two completely different things.
“Extra virgin olive oil is a squeezed fruit juice, and in many cases, cheap imports are just dumbed down liquid fat.”
Aside from its superior quality, he says, another reason local olive oil costs quite a bit more than the imports is that the EU subsidises olive oil farming and production to the tune of about e2 (R22.70) a bottle, which puts the European producers at a massive advantage in the global marketplace.
Consumer assumptions that the Mediterraneans make the world’s best olive oil simply aren’t true, because the ancient, traditional ways of olive farming and olive oil production are no longer the best, Mueller says.
“The New World countries – South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and the US (California) are not blinded by the past or committed to doing things the way their forefathers did, so using new farming and production methods they’re making some really world-class olive oils.”
Unlike wine, olive oil does not improve with age. In fact, olive oil deteriorates with age, so the fresher the better – nothing older than two years.
“You wouldn’t save your orange juice for Christmas, so don’t save your olive oil,” Mueller says.
To preserve its freshness, it should be kept away from air, light and excessive heat. But not in the fridge.
“Clear glass bottles may look nice,” Mueller says, “but they let in the light, which is the enemy of olive oil, along with heat.”
So, what should you look for on an olive oil bottle?
As far as Mueller’s concerned, go straight to the local olive oils and choose one with an SA Olive seal, which tells you the SA Olive Association has tested it chemically and for taste.
Imported oils aren’t subjected to such testing, he says, but he’s heard that the government intends to introduce legislation to level the playing field.
Next, check for the age of the oil, given that fresh is best.
SA Olive seals indicate the year of the harvest.
The South African olive harvest takes place between March and June/July every year, and by August or September the fresh oils are available.
Most imported oils do not indicate the year of harvest, which, given that freshness is key, is a significant omission.
“The only indication that you are likely to find on imported oils is bottling date, which tells you nothing,” Mueller says.
“That oil could have been sitting in a tank for two to three years before it was bottled.”
And what about taste?
“Really fresh extra virgin olive oil is fruity and aromatic, often with a marked bitterness and pungency, whereas the inferior stuff is either completely characterless, or worse – so old it’s rancid.”
And if it’s rancid, it’s anything but good for you.
Meanwhile, on our supermarket shelves and at the markets there’s liquid gold to be found. Clearly, when it comes to olive oil, local really is the most lekker.
* SA Olive recently commissioned a test by the International Olive Council of a random sample of seven South African and 23 imported extra virgin olive oils in terms of its chemical and taste properties, as well as freshness.
Whereas none of the local oils showed any sign of being tampered with, 26 percent of the imported oils were fraudulently bottled as extra virgin.
In fact, only a third of the 30 tested oils claiming to be extra virgin were in fact extra virgin in terms of the international classification.
So, if price is your sole guide when shopping for olive oil, know that you’re getting what you paid for.