Extra Virgin: International Mistress Of Disguise
By Gordon WeissJune 12, 2012
World’s purest olive oil: Italy? Nup. Spanish? Wrong again. Better testing shows it’s often Australians making the extra virginest.
Australians have been guzzling mislabelled extra virgin olive oil for years, paying premium prices for foreign oil that is sometimes little better than fancy lighter fluid. Like good French grog, Italian olive oil once had an unequalled culinary reputation to match its price. That evocative origin — harvesters singing bel canto on sun-splashed slopes — gave Italy a market lead now eroded by corruption scandals. At the same time, newcomer producers, including Australia, are making great oils unequalled in quality assurance.
There is some fine imported extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) sold by reliable suppliers in Australia. But the Australian Olive Association says that in December 2011 more than half of supermarket EVOO failed international standards, and that 92 per cent of those were imported. Conservatively, Australians are paying $200 million every year for oil that is labelled as the highest, freshest quality — EVOO — that is often just basic, or even treated oil known in the industry as 'deodorised'.
Yet Australians will pay for great product. According to Tim Smith of Boundary Bend, the nation's largest producer, Australians consume about 43 million litres of olive oil annually; 33 million of those litres are imported. About 60 per cent of what we consume is labelled as the precious EVOO, usually chosen for dressing salads, drizzling over meats and fish, dipping bread into, or even drinking in shot-sized mouthfuls. Our appreciation of a good drop has become an extension of our fine taste in all things comestible.
So just how good are Aussie taste buds? In 2010, Australia's Choice consumer organisation decided to put our growing love affair with EVOO to the test. It blind-tested leading Australian and imported brands, using internationally recognised olive-oil-tasting standards.
Almost without exception, the Italian, Greek, and Spanish oils were described as tired, degraded, old, unbalanced, and astringent. Colavita, one of the best-known Italian brands and third most expensive of those tested, was described as "tending fermentation to acetone, stale, oily, dirty on palate". The judges thought BioNature — which is Italian and organic — "flat, fatty in the mouth".
In stark contrast, the Australian brands were almost invariably picked as world class, with lip-smacking descriptors like citrusy, light, aromatic and complex, with a tendency to fruitiness and even "fresh green apple". The qualities of Cobram, one of the most common brands, were engagingly described as "tomato leaf and stem, herbaceous… balanced with a nice, lingering, peppery finish". In short, nine of the 10 best EVOO's were Australian. So with such gustatory greatness at our tongue-tips, why are we so frequently eating junk EVOO?
Olive-oil fraud is not quite the world's oldest rort, but perhaps it comes close. Unearthed near the Syrian city of Aleppo, 24th century BC clay tablets describe bureaucrats from the ancient city-state of Ebla keeping a wary eye on the olive oil business. Similarly, in Imperial Rome, a huge bureaucracy protected the virtue of oil on its journey from the groves and mills of the province of Hispania (modern Spain), where a vast quantity was produced, to the Roman table.
Once sealed in Hispania, amphorae were stamped, weighed, inscribed, recorded, receipted, and embarked. After crossing the Mediterranean to the port of Ostia (which explains the frequent finds of sea-bed amphorae), the oil was hand-hauled up the final 35-kilometre stretch of the Tiber River. The 90kg amphorae were emptied, then broken up and discarded like pizza boxes behind the Tiber warehouses. As Rome was fed, medicated, massaged, and largely lit by the tiny fruit, the hill grew.
Archaeologists now trawl through the giant rubbish dump known as Monte Testaccio (Mount Potsherd), searching the 25 million smashed amphorae for the stamps and scrawls denoting origin, transport route and dates, all evidence of the reverential care taken to keep Roman oil pure.
Recent scandals, however, have brought Italian oil into grubby disrepute. In a series of The New Yorker articles and a book about olive oil — Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil — Tom Mueller, an American journalist and olive oil blogger, has compared the profits from fraudulent olive oil trafficking to those of the narcotics trade. Driven by a growing global olive-oil market, Italian and Spanish producers have engaged in dodgy practices designed to meet the demand for high-quality olive oil, while in effect undercutting smaller producers of the real stuff. Oh, and ripping off the unwitting consumer in the process.
The olive oil industry has its own little United Nations talkshop that is meant to police this sort of thing. The International Olive Council was founded in Madrid in 1959. Currently made up of 17 producer nations, the IOC sets the international standards for oil production and marketing, and the chemical tests used to grade oil and uncover adulteration. There are 17 recognised IOC taste flaws, which include punitive descriptions like musty, fusty, grubby, and those equally unappetising descriptors used in the Choice tests. But with Australians being sold huge quantities of fake EVOO, what is going wrong?
OLIVE IS A VOLATILE FRUIT, rich in monounsaturated fats that promote good cholesterol levels. To the aficionado, olive oil, drawn from 700 kinds of trees in dozens of countries, can be every bit as complex and worthy of loving verbiage as wine. "It is alive," says Claudia Guillaume, a 38-year-old Argentine Lipid Chemist and EVOO enthusiast working out of the Modern Olives lab in Lara, Victoria. "Like any fruit juice, it has its perfect consumption moment."
At harvest, as the olive fades from green to black, the flesh softens. If squeezed at this "sweet moment" it bursts like its cousin the cherry, releasing a bitter wine-coloured juice. Once shaken from the tree, the best olive oil is pressed cold within hours, before the delicate flesh is bruised or begins to ferment. For connoisseurs, dispensing with filtration leaves microscopic morsels of olive flesh and flavours that characterise the olive variety, a blend or a particular estate; they enhance the oil's discernible complexities, yet make the liquid prone to earlier corruption.
At its peak, a cup of EVOO is that first cold extract of freshly harvested fruit, kept fresh from mill to mouth; for EVOO begins to die almost as soon as it is born. Like wine, it reacts adversely to light, heat and oxygen. Left in the light, a glass of summery, pungent chartreuse-green EVOO will age to an autumnal yellow. Unlike most wine, the older the oil, the less pleasantly full the taste. Two years is the maximum shelf life of any EVOO — and that's when it's sealed and kept in the dark — which means that EVOO is best consumed close to its origin and newly extracted. Imported oil suffers an inherent disadvantage.
After the virgin oil has been pressed, the production process is increasingly unkind to the remaining olive mash. There are second and third pressings, and the application of excessive heat and chemical-extraction methods results in ever less pure versions of olive oil. This oil has fewer antioxidants and vitamins, and progressively less taste, until oil from the final extractions is nothing but lampante, the ancient Roman version of lighter fluid. Such oils certainly don't meet the booming demand for pure EVOO.
The solution for unscrupulous producers is to cut 'tired' olive oil, such as EVOO that has expired or oil of a lesser grade, with hazelnut, sunflower or other oils, boil it to clean it of rancidity, top it up with a small quantity of fresh EVOO, re-colour it with industrial chlorophyll to restore that summery green hue, and add a dash of healthy vitamin-E. Thus renewed, it is labelled misleadingly as "pure" or "lite" olive oil, if not actually as EVOO, and adorned with evocative etchings of buxom Italian maidens, before making its way to the shelves.
The deodorisation of olive oil has increased as producers attempt to keep pace with global demand. Fraudulent methods of disguising rotten oil have also improved in the past five years, rendering some of the IOC chemical standards obsolete. Howard Meltzer, the elder of a father-and-son team from one of Victoria's smaller producers of olive oil, Yellingbo Gold, says that lampante oil is even sold in some Melbourne stores as a quality foodstuff. Confusing labelling — calling oil 'pure' when it is not — works in favour of dodgy dealers, yet somehow slips past current IOC surveillance.
Australians probably should know better by now, for olives are almost as old as the nation. In 1836, when Adelaide was founded, South Australians were looking for crops to sustain the new colony, and olives seemed like an obvious choice. No matter the conditions — clinging to rocks in searing summer heat, or on seaside slopes salted by the spray of freezing winter storms — the hardy olive tree yields, on average, some seven to 10 litres of oil.
By 1870, the Park Lands of Adelaide fielded roughly 30,000 olive trees. That year Australia extracted its first commercial quantity of 1,300 litres of olive oil, courtesy of the inmates of Adelaide Gaol, who were tasked with shaking, crushing, pressing and bottling the oil that the poet Homer called "Nature's liquid gold". Adelaide's olive groves seemed set to support an industry to rival other Australian primary produce, such as wool and wheat.
Australians, however, didn't immediately take to olive oil in a way that would make it commercially viable. The pungent qualities of olive oil tasted foreign to the population's meat-and-veg palate, and was barely mentioned in Australian cookbooks of the 19th and most of the 20th century. Furthermore, according to one researcher, a litre of good olive oil retailed for the equivalent of around $50 in 1920s Australia — so cost also put a stopper in its popularity.
Lard and butter remained the preferred alternatives for the home cook; consumption of the latter was 65 times the rate of olive oil, per capita, between 1890 and 1960. Nor could the industrial applications of olive oil match those of cheaper carbon fuels. By the 1950s, lacking a domestic fan base, the Australian olive oil industry, which had once boasted possibly the largest commercial grove in the world (the Stonyfell Olive Oil Company in South Australia), was approaching its last drops.
Around the same time, the European olive industry was consolidating. In the 1960s, findings had begun to emerge suggesting that a diet low in meat and high in vegetables, legumes and olive oil — the Mediterranean diet — was a possible key to longevity. Olive oil became known as an elixir of good health at a time when Australian tastes were beginning to change.
As demand grew, Australian production rose from 350 tonnes in 2000 to 16,200 tonnes in 2011.The renaissance of the local industry provided opportunities to begin afresh, with both modern equipment and a new approach to production. After a decade of growth, and recognising the loopholes that allowed sub-standard foreign produce to undercut the local industry, an Australian olive industry and government consultative group (which included Claudia Guillaume) established Standard 5264 in July 2011.
This sets a voluntary code for producers, importers and retailers, and provides a clear framework for the production, treatment and labelling of olive oil. In time, as producers and retailers sign up to the standard, each bottle of EVOO sold in Australia will live up to its label: from mill to mouth, it will be extra virgin.
Standard 5264 also allows for subtle variations peculiar to Australian oils, which are currently excluded under IOC standards and have been used as trade barriers against virginal Aussie oil. Mueller says the Australian code is, "without question the best national quality standard on olive oil in the world". Better than the standards set by the IOC.
Moreover, Standard 5264 is backed by the world's most rigorous testing techniques. Developed in Germany and acquired by the two leading Australian industry laboratories, the tests detect even the most sophisticated recent advances in the 'deodorising' of olive oil. According to Guillaume, who graduated from Seville's Fats and Oils Institute with a specialisation in olive oil analysis, Australia's testing facilities are so good that Americans send samples to her lab. "Australia has the space, the climate, and now the testing and certification processes to make it a world leader [in production of high-quality EVOO]," she says.
Currently, of the big supermarket chains where most Australians buy their oil, only Aldi has signed up to the voluntary code. Australian customs and consumer authorities have so far also failed to support the rigorous enforcement Australia's fledgling industry favours.
But along with its higher standards, Australia has other advantages that should position it well as a reliable source of EVOO for the international market. Seasonally six months apart from Europe, China and North America, reliable Australian produce fills a gap in the supply of fresh oils. And, almost 10 per cent of Australian groves are certified organic, with that percentage increasing.
Two more factors may just be the most important of all. On both big and small Australian estates, now equipped with the most up-to-date production facilities, olives can be processed from harvest to storage vat in under six hours. And only one country in the world uses a dispensing package that keeps EVOO airtight and shielded from all light. Think that greatest of Australian inventions, featured in Sydney's Powerhouse Museum: the humble bladder 'n' box.
IN THE PAST 20 YEARS, Australian consumption of olive oil has tripled, while world consumption has almost doubled. Fattened by EU subsidies, Spain supplies around 45 per cent of global demand, including China where olive oil consumption has almost quadrupled since 2006/7. Already big business, olive oil is about to get a lot bigger. By 2020, the IOC anticipates that there will be 160 million potential new customers in China alone. Producers already can't meet the current demand for EVOO.
Stand on any Spanish Andalucian slope, and you're likely to see a uniform carpet of grey-green trees stretching in every direction. These latifundia, enormous feudal estates owned by Spanish families of ancient lineage, or by powerful multinationals, are the breadbasket of European olive production (the 'musty' taste which characterises most Spanish oils is a result of the two weeks that it typically takes to pick and process the olives on these enormous estates).
Of all the big global players, none wields the influence of Spain's Deoleo corporation. With control of 22 per cent of the global olive trade, the behemoth Deoleo benefits more than any other producer from current IOC standards. The booming olive oil business has become as volatile as the fruit itself: it is driven on one hand by fluctuating prices and a huge demand that's filled in part by fraudulent practices, and on the other by smaller growers struggling to produce the highest quality estate oils while remaining competitive.
In February this year, Jaime Carbo Fernandez, the head of Deoleo, flew to Adelaide in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to pressure Australia's olive industry into dropping the new standards it had set eight months earlier. According to Fernandez, "there is only one law, and that is the IOC law".
Applying too much scrutiny to current production and supply flaws could lead to big losses for the largest producers. And tiny Australia's big new regulations represent a threat to the IOC standards.
After the push-back against Deoleo, the Australian Olive Association's Paul Miller said, "Olive oil should be sold as the grade it is to informed and trusting customers."
For her part Claudia Guillaume predicts: "In 20 years, people will no longer say that the best oil comes from Italy. They'll say Australia."
During his research for this story, Gordon Weiss stayed one night on the Yellingbo Gold estate as their guest.