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Is Your Extra Virgin Olive Oil Up to the Standards of European Artisans?

Through no fault of our own, most of us have never tasted genuine extra virgin olive oil. There’s much debate in the United States about olive-oil purity—and unless you’re getting your extra virgin olive oil from a reliable local producer, there’s a decent chance the bottle marked “extra virgin” is anything but.

Is Your Extra Virgin Olive Oil Up to the Standards of European Artisans?

Through no fault of our own, most of us have never tasted genuine extra virgin olive oil. As the highest quality standard for olive oil, extra virgin differs from lower olive oil grades in both flavor, chemical composition, and health benefits. As we wander through the grocery store aisles, dutifully selecting bottles marked “extra virgin” over vegetable oils and butter with trans fats, the label on the bottle leads us to believe it’s the real thing—and we often spend big bucks to get the good stuff. However, unlike in the European Union where olive oil is tested and regulated by local councils, olive oil regulation in the United States is largely voluntary. Take a moment to let that sink in.

The fact is, there’s much debate in the United States about olive-oil purity—and unless you’re getting your extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) from a reliable local producer, there’s a decent chance the bottle marked “extra virgin” is anything but. Why does that matter? Because genuine extra virgin olive oil offers significant health benefits compared to other oils—including its cousin, refined olive oil. If you’re on a health kick—trying to ward off cardiovascular disease, cancer, and stroke—extra virgin olive oil is widely touted as an effective (and delicious) way to consume antioxidants, increase your “good” cholesterol, and combat the effects of aging. In the United States, olive oils marked “extra virgin” are often a blend of extra virgin olive oil, refined olive oils, and vegetable oils containing saturated fats. As a smart consumer seeking to protect your health and fitness, it pays to be wary.

To get your hands on the genuine article often requires a trip straight to the orchard. Why? Because export regulations in many countries are prohibitively expensive and complex—ensuring that many local producers just can’t get through the red tape. Instead, many olive growers sell extra virgin oils locally—and just like in the old days, word of mouth gets around, so families know where to get the real thing. Supporting a local producer is a big help to rural communities—keeping smaller operations afloat so they can continue to produce top-quality extra virgin using techniques that have been passed down through generations. Buying local extra virgin is a great way to benefit your health, your palate, and the world!

If you love the culinary arts, and also love travel, it won’t have escaped your attention that European food somehow tastes… well… better in Europe. It’s not that we’re getting it wrong, exactly, when we return home from a trip, inspired to make our own pesto from garden-fresh basil—or that the flour we use to knead dough is inadequate to craft a genuine Spanish pan de aceite. The truth is, we’re missing out on the subtle flavors of local extra virgin olive oil that convey that indelible sense of place. Without the distinct artichoke aroma of Tuscan olive oil, is it possible to experience a genuine panzanella? Where is the joy in an acquasala that lacks the peppery zing of Pugliese extra virgin? Even the simple pleasure of salade niçoise is somehow muted by the absent zing and bite of Provençal olive oil. To replicate those special dishes, it seems, requires a splash of the genuine article.

The Real Thing: It’s Not What You Think

Picture yourself in a Sicilian olive grove. A warm breeze blows in from the Tyrrhenian Sea, making the silvery leaves sparkle and dance. The grove is ancient and some of the older trees are sprawling and expansive—with several trunks emanating from a common root. As the autumn light filters through the leaves, the boughs waver under the weight of fat, green fruit—slightly unripe and still firm to the touch. A fine net is laid carefully beneath the tree, and the harvest begins. Some pickers work by hand, while others use a long mechanical arm that gently vibrates the branches, causing olives to tumble into the net. They work all day and into the night to capture the olives at this precise moment before ripening and veraison set in.

For details, we turned to our friend, Daniela Adamo—owner of Baglio Cappello, an organic olive grove in northern Sicily. “We pick the olives at the beginning of October—I want the olives when they’re green because the content of polyphenols is highest. If you don’t pick the olives when they’re green, they will ripen and turn black. At that point, the polyphenols oxidize and degrade so the oil is less healthy.” To a large degree, the health benefits of olive oil depend very much on the harvesting practices of the olive growers. As Daniela points out, there’s a financial disincentive to produce the top-quality oil: “It depends on the producer—if you want a high-quality product, pick them green,” says Daniela. “If you don’t care about quality, but want more quantity, you pick the olives black. But that’s also when the polyphenols degrade.”

If you haven’t heard of them, polyphenols are a thing. Like antioxidants (another beneficial component of extra virgin olive oil) polyphenols combat cancer-causing free radicals and promote cardiovascular health. For maximum polyphenol content, olives must be picked green, then cold-pressed to extract their valuable oil. Trouble is—when the olives are green, there isn’t as much oil to press. Riper fruit produces a larger quantity of oil to sell—meaning more profits for producers and fewer benefits for unwary consumers.

Of course, many producers do genuinely care about the quality and health benefits of their oil—like Daniela Adamo does. But for American consumers, finding the real thing is a twofold challenge: first, find the good olive oil producers—the ones that value quality over profits; second, acquire some liquid gold of your own. The second step is harder than it sounds; quality producers are often small operations without the means (or inclination) to jump through the mountains of red tape involved in exporting their product to the United States—so you can’t just order it online. Many of the top-quality extra virgin olive oils are only available in local markets near the grove—meaning you need both insider knowledge and local access to get the good stuff.

Have You Ever Had the Real Thing?

Finding genuine extra virgin olive oil in the United States isn’t as easy as you might think. The federal Food and Drug Administration has remained largely silent on the subject of olive-oil labeling—beyond allowing manufacturers to add a qualified health claim regarding monounsaturated fats and cardiovascular health. When it comes to olive oil grades, the United States Department of Agriculture provides a set of voluntary standards, but no mechanism for enforcement. As to which producers follow these voluntary standards (and which ones just claim to) well, that’s anybody’s guess.

So how can you tell if the EVOO in your pantry is the real thing? Take a moment and grab a bottle of extra virgin olive oil from your kitchen. Take your time, we’ll wait. Got it? Now, pour yourself a good tablespoon. Give it a sniff. Do you smell fresh cut grass, tomato leaves, or maybe green apples? Not sure? OK, pop the tablespoon of oil into your mouth and give it a swirl, noting the texture and flavor. Then, swallow. Is it bitter? Does it sting the back of your throat and make your eyes water? No? Unless you feel that burn in the back of your throat, your olive oil is unlikely to meet the European Union’s extra virgin standard.

In the EU, a genuine extra virgin olive oil must exhibit three fundamental flavors: it must be peppery, fruity, and bitter. It might seem counter-intuitive for a bitter flavor to signify quality—after all, we’re conditioned to associate bitter flavors with something bad or spoiled. Not so with EVOO. When you think about the polyphenols and antioxidants in extra virgin olive oil, it makes sense that an oil with powerful medicinal properties should have a little bit of sting to it. For those of us raised on animal fat and vegetable shortening, the spicy, bitter flavors of genuine extra virgin olive oil may be a bit of an acquired taste—but the multitude of health benefits make it well-worth the acquisition.

From a culinary perspective, the flavors of extra virgin olive oil lend themselves so wonderfully to traditional European dishes—delivering a level of authenticity that mass-produced oil from large corporate distributors seems to lack. Nothing adds a ray of sunshine to a simple insalata caprese like a splash of golden Terra di Bari extra virgin. Absent the cut-grass aroma of fresh Umbrian extra virgin, the gnocchi al tartufo nero simply falls flat. And without the peppery bite of genuine Andalusian extra virgin, is paella really much more than a plate of fish and rice? For the discerning gourmand, nothing less than the real thing will do.

Is Your Supermarket Brand of Extra Virgin Actually the Real Thing?

Outside California and Texas, there aren’t many olive-producing regions in the United States. This puts local producers out of reach for most of us—forcing us to rely on olive oil brands from large international distributors. However, decades of investigative reporting have uncovered significant instances of olive oil fraud among major international labels. As Tom Mueller wrote in his ground-breaking 2007 New Yorker article “Slippery Business: The Trade in Adulterated Olive Oil”:

“On August 10, 1991, a rusty tanker called the Mazal II docked at the industrial port of Ordu, in Turkey, and pumped twenty-two hundred tons of hazelnut oil into its hold. The ship then embarked on a meandering voyage through the Mediterranean and the North Sea. By September 21st, when the Mazal II reached Barletta, a port in Puglia, in southern Italy, its cargo had become, on the ship’s official documents, Greek olive oil. It slipped through customs, possibly with the connivance of an official, was piped into tanker trucks, and was delivered to the refinery of Riolio, an Italian olive-oil producer based in Barletta. There it was sold—in some instances blended with real olive oil—to Riolio customers.”

When it comes to olive oil production on a massive scale, it’s common practice to blend different oils from regions all over the world prior to bottling and distribution. If you pick up your household brand of extra virgin olive oil, chances are you’ll find a note on the label that says something like: “Product contains select quality olives from the following countries: Argentina, Chile, Greece, Italy, Morocco, Peru, Portugal, Spain, Tunisia, and Turkey.” That’s a lot of international fingers in the pie—and many producers and customs officials who have to be on the up-and-up to ensure only top-quality extra virgin makes it into the bottle on your grocery store shelf. According to The Olive Oil Scam: If 80% is Fake, Why Do You Keep Buying It? by Cecilia Roderiguez, published by Forbes in 2016:

“It’s reliably reported that 80% of the Italian olive oil on the market is fraudulent. Some experts think that percentage is an exaggeration. Others believe that the bigger problem is poor quality olive oil, deliberately mislabeled as virgin or extra virgin… So unless you bought it directly from a producer or a certified distributor, the olive oil in your kitchen marked “Italian extra virgin” is very probably a fake. Either it’s low quality falsely marked as virgin or extra-virgin – and not even from Italy – or it’s been mixed with other oils of dubious provenance. At worst, it’s not olive oil at all but a vegetable oil disguised with coloring and aroma.”

To see if we could spot the difference between an American brand of extra virgin and top Italian EVOO, our team decided to put our collective palate to the test. To do this, we called up Marco Michelini, Field Operations Manager and Tuscany native, and asked him to send us a few bottles of genuine extra virgin olive oil from local producers—and Marco graciously complied. A couple weeks later, armed with four bottles of high-quality Italian extra virgin, we organized a blind taste test in our Vermont office. We also included one extra virgin olive oil from a major American distributor.

During our blind taste test, six volunteer taste-testers were presented with five generic glass jars of golden liquid—each with a colored sticker and no other identification. The first oil was a thick, slightly cloudy oil with a purple label (later, revealed to be from Puglia, a region which produces nearly 70% of Italy’s EVOO.) First the tasters sniffed—appreciating the oil’s delicate fragrance, describing notes of fresh cut grass and pepper. Then a spoon for tasting—followed by coughing, squinting, watering eyes. And the taste? “Bitter,” said one taster.  “It just tasted bitter—all the way.”

The real comparison came with the American brand of EVOO. Here, there was no coughing or gasping—the smooth, mild oil flowed lightly over the tongue.

“There’s no peppery aftertaste,” one taster observed.

“It’s lighter than the other oils,” another pointed out.

“It’s very mild,” said a third participant.

Marco helped us understand the reasons for these differences. “Without the bitter aftertaste—without the bite in the back of the throat, it’s not extra virgin,” he explained. “When VBT travelers come to Italy and taste Italian extra virgin for the first time, the pepperiness of the oil, and the bite in the back of the throat, it can feel uncomfortable at first. But that’s exactly what indicates the presence of the polyphenols that give the extra virgin its health benefits. With a good extra virgin, you can even taste the terroir where the olives were grown—just like with fine wines. For example, in Sicily, where they grow many oranges, the oranges fall and fertilize the ground. That’s why Sicilian olive oil often has a citrusy aftertaste—because it absorbs the essence of the terroir. People have different preferences—for example, I enjoy the artichoke aftertaste of Tuscan olive oil, while my wife prefers the tomato flavor of Puglia oil.”

In my kitchen that evening, I dug out my bottle of grocery store EVOO and poured a small sample onto a spoon, tasting it. The oil was mild and tasted faintly pleasant—without any strong aromas. I swallowed and waited for the bite. When it came it was mild, almost undetectable. I put the bottle back and made a mental note to replace it with some good quality extra virgin during my next trip to Europe.

How Do You Get the Real Thing?

So how do consumers know if they’re getting the top quality EVOO—and all its accompanying health benefits? If you’re lucky enough to visit an olive-producing region, the solution is a simple one. “In my opinion the best thing is knowing the producer,” advises Daniela. “Because if you know the person, you know their values—and you know if that person is advocating for the best oil.”

Fortunately, sister companies Country Walkers and VBT have long-standing relationships with some of the best boutique olive-oil producers around the world. Many of the highest quality oils come from small local farms in remote villages—the sort of operation where exporting licenses and e-commerce solutions just aren’t practical, so the oils are only available locally. To get these top-quality oils, requires a visit straight to the source. Here are a few examples of Country Walkers and VBT tours where you’ll find top quality extra virgin olive oils you can purchase on site and bring home with you—supporting small local farmers and making connections that will last for years to come:

Spain: Andalusia with VBT

Visit the home and olive oil mill of Balbino and Paulina when you travel on VBT’s Spain: Andalusia, Córdoba & Granada Guided Tour, and taste the wonderful oils produced from their organic olive groves. “This is a small, typical Andalusian-style farmhouse on top of a hill—very picturesque with the Subbética mountains in the background,” says veteran VBT trip leader Nicolás Alcala Szokoloczi. “Balbino and Paulina grow organic olives on their small farm, and they’re members of the Almazara de la Subbética—a local, organic olive co-op. The co-op presses some of the world´s finest extra virgin organic olive oils—certified by the Comité Andaluz de Agricultura Ecológica (CAAE) as well as the Denominación de Origen Protegido (DOP) of Priego de Córdoba. During our visit, we’ll taste several top-notch oils—with bottles available to purchase on site. Anyone who would like more extra virgin olive oil can ask for a case to be shipped directly to their home.”

Italy: Sicily with Country Walkers

Meet Daniela Adamo and visit her olive groves when you travel with Country Walkers on our Italy: Sicily Guided Tour. As you stroll among the silvery leaves, you’ll learn about Daniela’s organic zero-tillage farming techniques, and the Biancolilla, Cerasuola, and Nocellara olive cultivars she grows—and why they make a perfectly balanced oil with high polyphenols and a delicious peppery bite.

Croatia: Dalmatian Islands with VBT

Olive oil is an essential component of life in Croatia. When you travel with VBT on our Croatia Bike & Boat: Split & the Dalmatian Islands Guided Tour, you’ll have a chance to explore a local olive grove and meet the owners during a tour of the olive mill. “It’s very, very traditional,” says local Croatian trip leader Nevenka Ćuk. “In every home, you will always have at least five liters of olive oil. And if you don’t have your own olive trees, you will get some as a gift from family members—so nobody really gets left out.”

Italy: Tuscany with VBT

Travel with VBT on our Italy: Coastal Villages of Tuscany Guided Tour, and meet the Di Gaetano family at their olive oil mill, Fonte di Foiano. Here, you’ll learn some of the secrets of top-quality oil production and experience a sampling of the many fine oils produced at this historic olive oil mill.

Spain: Mallorca with VBT

The sunny terraces of Mallorca are perfect for growing olives. When you travel with VBT on our Spain: Balearic Islands, Mallorca & Deia Guided Tour, you’ll have an opportunity to discover a very special olive grove—and make an excellent local connection.  “We’ll stop at the oldest olive oil press in Mallorca for a home-hosted lunch and guided tour with the owner,” says VBT Travel Designer Andrea Chlebova. “His whole family lives there. He’ll tell us about the mill and his family history, then we’ll have a delicious olive oil tasting—accompanied by fresh-squeezed orange juice with fruit from his own trees.”

Italy: Puglia with Country Walkers and VBT

In Italy’s historic olive-growing region of Puglia, a journey with VBT on our Italy: Puglia’s Undiscovered Coast Guided Tour brings you to the home of olive growers Armando and Rosalba at Masseria Il Frantoio. Here, you’ll have the opportunity to sample different oils that are produced on the farm—and learn about the best culinary applications for each variety.

If walking is more your style, a journey with Country Walkers on our Italy: Matera, Otranto & the Puglia Coast Guided Tour introduces you to an ancient, underground oil mill where you’ll learn the history of olive oil production in this historic region. Your local Pugliese guides will give you the inside scoop on the best spots to pick up some top-quality Puglia EVOO.

Portugal: the Algarve with VBT

Like grapes, every olive cultivar has different characteristics—some stronger, others more delicate. When you travel with VBT on our Portugal: Lisbon, Évora & the Algarve Guided Tour, you’ll visit Viveiros Monterosa where you’ll find many single-cultivar oils to sample. As you taste the oils produced by different olive cultivars, you may discover a new favorite!

Italy: Piedmont with VBT

Travel with VBT on our Italy: Piedmont, Langhe & the Italian Riviera Guided Tour and discover the fruity, golden oil of the Taggiasca olive cultivar with local culinary expert, Roberta Giovannina—and learn why Taggiasca is called the “queen of the olives.”

North America: California with VBT

Explore California’s wine country when you join VBT on our California: Wine Country & the Pacific Coast Guided Tour, and meet local olive grower Frank Figone. During a tasting at Figone’s Olive Oil, you’ll learn about Frank’s passion for producing top quality American EVOO. If a local source of American extra virgin olive oil is high on your list of must-haves, this is a connection you won’t want to miss!

When you travel on Country Walkers and VBT guided tours, our local guides and trip leaders have the inside scoop on the best local artisans—from vineyards and olive oil producers to artists and craftspeople of all varieties. Whatever your interests, our local guides and leaders can help you make that inside connection to deepen your knowledge and make authentic local discoveries.

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