Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Now you're cooking with... ?

Just when you think you know what you need to know to make a decision...

You buy olive oil, you know to look for "Extra Virgin," right? The ubiquitous Rachel Ray even goes so far as to call it EVOO (because, evidently, those extra four syllables are four too many). Well, "extra virgin," which refers to the acidic level of the oil - less than or equal to .8% (you know, if you were wondering) - is only part of the story. Turns out, you also want to look for "first cold pressing" - "cold," because if they have to heat the olives to expel the oil, it, as you can only imagine, changes the flavor, and "first," because, really, who wants seconds from tired, already pressed olives?

Actually, heat (and other far more obscure sounding technologies) are only used on the sad and mangled remains of the olives after they've been pressed - sad and mangled remains technically called "pomace," in case, you know, you were wondering. What is produced from these second, third and subsequent pressings (hot or otherwise) is generally not edible and should be used for things like soap and candles.

But, and this is where it starts to get scary, it turns out that olive oil is to the E.U. what cocaine is to South America. No, really. Except sort of backwards. Instead of pushing the real thing (I'm talking about the white stuff - not the secret formula soft drink, which supposedly once had the white stuff in it, but that's a story for another blog), oil producers pushed anything but. There you are, in the kitchen, happily pouring what you think is extra virgin olive oil from the hills of Puglia, but instead you're pouring hazelnut oil from Turkey. Nice.

The New Yorker published an article (which I read, even though it wasn't written by Malcolm Gladwell) last summer about the olive oil trafficking in Europe, most of which filters through Italy, though I suppose it's technically "anti-trafficking?"

You've got Greek and Spanish olive oil being shipped to Italy for packaging and being sold - this is legal, mind you - as Italian olive oil. You have other oils entirely (soy, canola, hazelnut) being treated and colored and then flamboyantly packaged and sold as EVOO, at EVOO prices - and, in the best scam of all, low grade Italian olive oil being doctored, altered and sold as the highest quality oil - the hardest ruse to uncover even with chemical analysis of the "oil." These last two are not considered legal, even by the friendly consortium that, well, regulates would be a stretch, the olive oil trade in the E.U.

So, what are you cooking with? Well, if it tastes peppery, bitter and fruity, it's probably good quality olive oil (though whether it's Italian, Greek, Spanish, Moroccan, or... that's anybody's guess). When it comes to EVOO, being label conscious just won't do you a lot of good. Oh, and the big brands? Colavita, Bertolli, Nestle? They've all been peripherally touched by scandal - in fact, Unilever just unloaded the olive oil and vinegar portion of the Bertolli brand to Grupo SOS. Hmmm. Fancy that.

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