Much has been made of the recent study from UC Davis about so-called “extra-virgin” olive oil sold in California. Chemical analysis of a number of brands, both local and imported, showed that the labels often lied. And lied a lot. Liberties were taken in the extra-virgin distinction–meaning olive oil with zero defects and, per the study “greater than zero fruitiness”–sometimes by cutting extra virgin oil with refined olive oil. The gist of the report was that the oil we're buying is often lousy swill. My standard, everyday olive oil, the California Estate Olive Oil from Trader Joe's, surely tastes like the real deal, although I haven't measured the free fatty acids, the peroxide value or other components examined in the study. But after an inadvertent Dueling Dishes showdown between my it and a smaller, more expensive bottle of “Extra Light” olive oil from Vons (I ran out and didn't want to drive far!), I'm fairly certain I've experienced both sides of the coin–the real extra virgin stuff and the bottles full of lies.
The extra light label on the Vons oil should have given me pause, for
in small text below, it read “in flavor only.” There's so much wrong
with that label: the idea that olive oil should ever be light in
flavor, not the mention its attempt to tap into America's light,
low-fat, low-everything food mentality to sell something not relatively
light in fat. And if the label was slightly insulting, the taste of
what was inside the bottle was down right offensive. There was none of
the fruity, grassy flavors of a good olive oil; the taste was
reminiscent of castor oil. And nothing, not even too much mustard and
vinegar in a altered salad dressing, could cover it up. Thankfully, it
was only purchased out of necessity for one dinner's cooking. To call
it canola would be a compliment to great for something so bad.
The Trader Joe's oil, made from arbrequina olives grown in California, was a revelation in comparison. Flavorful, affordable (under $10) and, if my palate is any kind of judge, certainly above zero on the fruitiness scale; it's a perfect everyday oil. It's certainly not the best olive oil I've ever had, but it's an oil you can swirl and drizzle with reckless abandon, employing it without any of the frugal economy an exorbitantly expensive bottle can inspire.
For anyone who has ever tasted a truly great oil–a grassy, green-tinged oil with a peppery bite, for example–its not hard to believe that the largely tasteless bottles of grease being pushed at supermarkets are engaging in some false advertising. Perhaps we should add olive oil to Dave's list of things not to buy at supermarkets?