Increasingly, as consumers, we are beginning to realize that the industrial production of food has a series of consequences, not only for our health, but also for our planet. Agribusiness is big money and, therefore, it is no surprise that millions are spent converting natural ecosystems to pander to the tastes of the developed world.
When agribusiness meets the nefarious influence of corrupt practices, the situation becomes even more complex. Consumers purchase a product in good faith and may find, in some cases, that the item they have bought is not quite the unadulterated gem they had envisaged. Sadly, olive oil has not been exempt from this temptation to tamper with what nature intended.
Recent reports from CBS’s 60 Minutes and the New York Times in the US, in addition to further reporting from the Financial Times in the UK, have highlighted the issues involved.
Extra Virgin oil is the primary target as the product commands a premium price and there is money to be made by cutting the first pressed liquid with more inferior oil. Worst still, carabinieri officers have even reported the use of odorless vegetable oils laced with chlorophyll and beta-carotene.
Of course, not every oil is affected by such unscrupulous practices, but consumer choice is more of a lottery than it should be. One way to ensure a quality product is to purchase directly from a producer who has intimate knowledge of the oil they are pressing. It is not only the multinationals who have been able to take advantage of the internet; so has the local producer keen to sell directly to a public increasingly invested in the provenance of the food it consumes.
The best advice is to seek out an artisan producer online, where a face and a name can be put to the oil being sold. If that artisan is also happy to field questions about the oil they produce, so much the better. Extra Virgin olive oil is a product that needs time and love – a good oil sees the fruit picked by hand and the liquid extracted by non-mechanical means. It can take up to 20 kilograms of olives to yield one liter of oil. Someone committed to such a procedure is usually happy to share thoughts and information with the buying public. In a previous article for Times of Sicily, Marian Watson gave us her take on the production process: https://timesofsicily.com/loro-delle-madonie-liquid-gold-from-the-madonie/
Like a good wine, Extra Virgin oil has characteristics that can be attributed to the variety of olives and the area in which they are grown, something the wine trade knows as terroir. The Sicilian varieties such as Biancolilla, Cerasuola, Moresca, Nocellara del Belice and Tonda Iblea give distinct flavors and aromas. A good producer will also know how to blend these to give a harmonious result, a world away from the supermarket labels that grudgingly admit the blend comes from more than one country.
Price can be a consideration for many consumers, but this has to be tempered with the obvious fact that a complex and traditional product like Extra Virgin will inevitably incur costs in production and shipping that make it rise above a ‘run-of-the-mill’ price. In this instance, it really is true to say that you do pay for what you get. With a traditionally crafted artisan Sicilian oil you have a relatively expensive yet quality product that oozes with the flavors of the island – a true reflection of its climate and landscape.
The entire process could be described as getting back to one’s roots, to the origins of food production. It was the industrial revolution that kick-started the mass-market food industry and in our post-industrial age, where consumer choice is paramount, we might ask ourselves why we continue to opt for an inferior olive oil when other options exist that avoid the pitfalls we have mentioned.
Throughout the Mediterranean, a simple snack of bread with gently drizzled oil (pane con l’olio), is a favorite. It cannot be bettered if you slice up a rustic Sicilian loaf and pour a drop of local peppery Extra Virgin (with salt and oregano) – rich in antioxidant polyphenols and authentically redolent of the island.