Barb Roman, EdM, is currently located in Split, Croatia. After retiring from a career in education in NYC, is at work on a cookbook, researching and tasting the bounty of Croatia. For comments can be reached at email@example.com or follow on Instagram @goodcookz
Welcome to my kitchen! Today, I want to talk about olive oil and that mystery label of “Extra Virgin”. Grab a coffee and come along. This is going to be an important topic and one you will want to be a part of, for certain.
I came to Croatia knowing absolutely nothing about extra virgin olive oil just six months ago. After a bit of time, hours spent deep diving into all things related to olive oil and taste testing followed by more deep diving, I was able to understand what has happened to the industry at large. Let’s begin with the fact that the United States imports 95% of all olive oil sold commercially.
In 2012, on my first trip to Croatia, I remember taking a bus from Krka National Park to Dubrovnik. Along the way, we passed miles and miles of olive trees. It was thrilling to me, as I had never seen olive trees in person. The trunks are gray and twisted and the branches were laden with fruit, too green at that time for harvesting. The leaves were remarkable in color to me; a massive collage of grayish-green. As fate would have it, the journey was too short to taste any olive oil.
Fast forward to 2021, on the ride from the airport in September, early evening, as the sun was setting, we were whizzing past olive trees laden with fruit. I was once again mesmerized by the trees. There were so many and those leaves are unmistakable. At that moment, I had no idea what I was about to learn.
Shortly after arrival, our AirBnB host gave us a bottle of his own olive oil, processed on his farm located 50 kilometers outside of Split. When I drizzled out the first spoonful, it was green/gold in color and heavy. It smelled differently from anything I had ever used. It was the real thing. No wonder he handed the bottle over with such loving care. It was priceless. And so my learning began.
With continued research focused on what was being imported and more specifically, what I had been buying and using in my kitchen back in the states. I had no idea that the vast majority of oil is adulterated, meaning it is cut with other oils, whether from seeds or nuts, and added to olive oil and packaged as extra virgin olive oil. Wherever it comes from there are agencies that regulate it throughout Europe. However, the United States does not; the trust in the product lies in the country of origin.
What I have learned is that adulteration of olive oil is not a new practice, but has been around for years and years. Large conglomerate companies increase their profit margins when they can stretch the amount of olive oil by adding less expensive oils and even go so far as deodorizing it, to remove any lingering odors. Occasionally some of the companies are caught and suffer consequences, however, the vast majority slide through the “system” and the end result is an oil lacking in body and more specifically, in taste, with none of the health benefits.
A true extra virgin olive oil has 3 specific qualities that are prized and hold the right to be labeled extra virgin. These were developed by the International Olive Oil Council (IOC), who describe the olive oil as fruity, bitter, and pungent. These characteristics are pronounced in the back of the nose, on the back of the tongue and in the throat. Incidentally, if you have tasted a truly extra virgin olive oil, you know the characteristics and their sensations.
The IOC also has a list of the negative attributes. The words used to describe the oils that are NOT extra virgin include “fusty, musty, muddy sediment, winey-vinegary, rancid, heated/burnt, hay or woody, greasy, vegetable water, briny, and earthy”. These are the characteristics making it to supermarkets, labeled as extra virgin olive oil while unfortunately, they are not and sadly, most consumers are unaware.
Bottles matter! At the supermarket, there are many bottles, some are dark, some are green, some are even clear glass, while others are plastic. True extra virgin olive oil should always be stored in dark glass to preserve its flavor. Labels matter! What do the labels indicate? In the commercialization of olive oil, there are bottles labeled as “first cold-pressed”. What does this term mean? The “cold” represents processing at or below 27℃ (80.6℉). The simple rule is high heat will increase the amount of oil, but the quality is compromised. Is there a second press? Absolutely not. What this term of second press refers to is the amount of oil left in the stone and skins, to which hexane and water are added and then heated in order to extract more oil. This product is known as “pomace oil”. Not an oil I would recommend buying.
A quick search on the Internet will provide a list of the different varieties of olives. The International Olive Oil Council (IOC) estimates there are approximately 140 varieties grown in 23 countries that produce 85% of the world’s olive production. For this writing, I will focus on Dalmatia, where four main varieties of olives grow; Oblica, Levantinka, Lastovka, Drobnica. It is important to understand that all of them produce olive oil of the highest quality. Olive trees typically grow where other trees fail to survive. Throughout Croatia and the islands along the coast, there are other varieties that require more research for me.
What about the cost? Price can be an indicator of what you are purchasing. The plain and simple truth is that a true extra virgin olive oil will cost more. However, this higher cost is relative to the production method. To create a true extra virgin olive oil, first the olives must be processed within 24 hours of harvest. When considering how olives must first be harvested, packed, hauled off to the mill, and processed in batches, it is easy to see why large olive growers cannot meet the 24 hour deadline. All of these steps are labor intensive. Thankfully, there are dedicated growers who plan well, harvest intentionally and are able to process their olives properly. In short, this method is how olive oil is produced throughout Croatia.
When I came to Croatia, I was already at work on a cookbook about how socio-economic trends impact our resources to cook. As fortune would have it, I met Kača. Together we set about on a 3-day adventure making pašticada, a traditional Croatian dish of beef and njoki (gnocchi). I say “together” but the reality is that she did the work and I learned. One of the most important steps was to check the olive oil I was using in my kitchen. Remarkably, she could tell just by smelling it and gave her seal of approval. (This was important as I had purchased the wrong potatoes for the njoki just the day before and I quickly understood there was no room for error). I remembered thinking that maybe one day, I, too, would recognize the “good” oil just by the sense of smell. The meal was superb and our families came together to share this traditional meal with laughter and love. This adventure speaks to the generosity and kindness of the Croatian people, most of all Kača and her family.
Some argue that you shouldn’t cook with Extra Virgin Olive Oil, but It is worth mentioning, that it actually has a moderate-to-high smoke point up to 400℉. Extra virgin olive oil is the most stable cooking oil, resisting degradation better than oils with a high smoke point. This means you can use extra virgin olive oil for sautéing, stir-frying, baking, and even frying. Thanks to its abundance of heat-stable polyphenols, olive oil counteracts the oxidative stress caused by heat and slows the formation of unhealthy compounds, like free radicals. Additionally, when olive oil is used for cooking vegetables like tomato, eggplant, and pumpkin, it boosts their antioxidant content. No other cooking oil compares in terms of flavor, versatility, and head-to-toe health benefits.
My most recent experiments included olive oil focaccia bread that required dough with yeast and 2 risings, but the result was delicious. Next up, an olive oil cake. Who knew it was even a thing? Served with fresh strawberries, just coming into season, and the result was superb, and it was VEGAN! What have I learned from my travels and research, alongside my very own experiments in the kitchen? I will never again purchase an olive oil that is not Croatian in origin. I do not want to return to the days of cooking and eating something that is not loaded with the nutrients that will enrich my health. For me, bring on the Polyphenols, the component in extra virgin olive oil considered to be one of the best health enhancing benefits,protecting our bodies from free-radicals. Real olive oil can promote good cardiovascular health. Research found it to promote memory and brain function, enhance mental outlook and your mood, combat inflammation, balance your blood sugar and support your immune system and it can even help you to lose weight. The Mediterranean diet recognizes the value of extra virgin olive oil and promotes daily doses of at least 1-2 tablespoons. After learning all about the health benefits associated with Extra Virgin Olive Oil, I ask, why stop at 1-2 tablespoons?
In my opinion, Croatian Extra Virgin Olive Oil is most likely one of the best-kept secrets of the olive oil industry. While the various producers win gold awards and have earned industry top taste tests, the rest of the world is unaware. Part of me wants to keep this secret close to my heart. Part of me wants to shout it from the mountaintops. What I came to understand in this process of research, testing and experimenting is that there are two ingredients in Croatian olive oil that will not appear on any label. First is the pride the growers have that has been handed down from generation to generation. It is an underlying respect for their ancestors ensuring the process is done the right way or not at all. Secondly, the key ingredient, perhaps even more important than the olives themselves, is the love that goes into every harvest and every olive, resulting in a pure product. Without the pride of their hard work and the love of their land, the olives and the ancestors that came before, it is quite possible the end result would be quite different.
Place your order of Selo Olive Oil today. Get yourself a bottle of the finest Croatian extra virgin olive oil, sent straight to your doorstep.